Math prof again denied Israel Prize over call for Ariel U boycott - Shasha-Biton

Weizmann Institute math and computer science professor Oded Goldreich again will not receive the Israel Prize this year due to his support of a boycott of Ariel University.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton attends the Knesset House Committee, December 28, 2020 (photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESPERSON/DANI SHEM TOV)
MK Yifat Shasha-Biton attends the Knesset House Committee, December 28, 2020

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton announced on Thursday that she will not be awarding the Israel Prize to math and computer science Professor Oded Goldreich of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot because of his call for a boycott of Ariel University due to its location in the West Bank.

“The prize’s main objective is to encourage Israeli creativity, excellence and research. The call for a boycott on academic institutions in Israel undermines this objective, as it wishes to limit creativity, diversity and freedom of opinion,” Shasha-Biton wrote in her decision.

“As education minister and head of the Council for Higher Education, I cannot award the Israel Prize for academic achievements, no matter how impressive, to someone who calls for a boycott on an Israeli academic institution,” she wrote.

In March, the Israel Prize Committee decided to award Goldreich the prize for his work on computational complexity. Then-education minister Yoav Gallant discovered that Goldreich had signed a petition to the German Parliament to repeal the labeling of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as antisemitic. He also signed a petition calling for a boycott of Ariel University, and appealed to the award committee to reconsider its decision.

In response to the publication, Goldreich wrote that a call for sanctions against the State of Israel due to its policy in the territories of Judea and Samaria, “is not antisemitism but legitimate criticism, and legitimate political action.” He added, “The mental anguish involved in the handshake of two jerks, the prime minister and the minister of education, is negligible compared to the mental anguish I have every day from the government’s policy.”

Professor Oded Goldreich (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Professor Oded Goldreich (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Gallant refused to approve the committee’s recommendation, and the committee petitioned the High Court. In an interim decision, the court gave Gallant 30 days in order to determine whether Goldreich’s positions broke the law aimed at preventing harm to the State of Israel via boycott. Due to the delay, on Independence Day an alternative ceremony was held on the lawns of the Weizmann Institute in which Prof. David Harel, winner of the 2004 Israel Prize in Computer Science, awarded Goldreich the award statuette. Gallant later announced that he had decided not to award Golreich the prize.

Shasha-Biton announced in July that she would not reverse her predecessor’s decision in office, but Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit wrote in his opinion to the High Court that the decision to deny the award does not stand a legal test. The High Court ordered Shasha-Biton to reconsider her decision. All three justices on the panel found that the evidence suggested that Goldreich currently rejects the BDS campaign and that any statements that could be construed differently in the past were not one-sided. Despite this, Shasha-Biton decided on Thursday not to award him the prize.

RIGHT-WING ORGANIZATIONS and politicians praised the decision. Im Tirzu, the organization that led the opposition to Goldreich, congratulated Shasha-Biton, and vowed to continue acting in order to maintain transparency in academia, and to “expose the boycotters.” The organization claimed in its statement that Goldreich had called for a boycott on all of Israel, contrary to the High Court’s findings. It did not provide new evidence to support its claim.

“The shame is changing sides,” right-wing human rights organization Betzalmo wrote in response to the decision. “Whoever boycotts Israel now knows that we will no longer turn the other cheek. Whoever boycotts will be boycotted,” the organization said. Betzalmo added that boycotts have no place in a proper democratic society, that whoever supports a boycott should be ashamed, and that the group will continue acting so that whoever boycotts Israel will be punished.

A number of MKs, mainly from Meretz, denounced the decision, arguing that political opinions should not be a factor in awarding prize given for academic excellence.

“Dear government of mine, where is the change?” Meretz MK Michal Rozin wrote on Twitter, alluding to the government’s self-definition. She added that persecuting people for their opinions does not constitute change.

MK Mossi Raz said on Twitter that he spoke to Goldreich and expressed his dismay over the decision.

“The government of change is continuing in the path of the government of persecution and corruption,” he wrote. He noted that Prof. Goldreich is a world-renowned scientist and was chosen to receive the prize by a professional committee.

The Weizmann Institute wrote in response to the decision: “We are saddened and strongly protest the decision of the Minister of Education Dr. Yifat Shasha-Biton, not to award the Israel Prize to Prof. Oded Goldreich.

“Prof. Goldreich is a leading and respected scientist in his field whose research makes a significant contribution to the advancement of science and the expansion of knowledge for the benefit of all mankind. These arguments formed the basis of the committee’s recommendation to award him the Israel Prize, which is awarded to citizens who have shown special excellence, distinguished achievements and a breakthrough in their field.

“In a democratic society, the principle of freedom of expression must be preserved as a supreme principle, and political statements should not be a consideration in the decision regarding the recipients of the Israel Prize.

“The State of Israel extols the excellence of its science and research, and thanks to the work of its scientists, it stands at the forefront of global innovation. In order to maintain the status of the Israel Prize as the highest honor the state bestows on its scientists, the only consideration for its award should have been research excellence.”