Sheldon Kirshner
Sheldon Kirshner

Cracking down on free speech

Israel’s education minister, Yoav Gallant, stumbled badly when he temporarily blocked a distinguished Israeli scientist from receiving the Israel Prize — the country’s most prestigious award — over his supposedly unacceptable political views.

Gallant, a member of the ruling right-wing Likud Party, is withholding the prize due to his belief that Oded Goldreich — a professor of computer science at the Weizmann Institute — supports the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Compounding the injustice was the Supreme Court’s verdict to uphold Gallant’s unjustified unilateral move. It gave him 30 days to reach a final decision, saying that Goldreich could be awarded the prize at a later date.

Partisan politics motivated Gallant, who claims that Goldreich supports the BDS movement, which broadly calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to Israel. According to Gallant, Goldreich’s endorsement of the BDS movement “spits in the face of the state of Israel” and thereby disqualifies him from accepting the award.

Gallant’s argument is without merit.

Goldreich emphatically denies he supports that movement. In fact, Goldreich objects to the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements beyond the old Green Line. Last month, he and hundreds of other academics in Israel signed a petition urging the European Union to halt funding to Ariel University, which is located in a Jewish settlement of the same name in the West Bank.

They contend that Ariel University legitimizes Israel’s settlement project, which is widely regarded as a serious impediment to the attainment of a two-state solution. It grows dimmer by the year as the Israeli government expands the network of settlements and maze of bypass roads in the West Bank, cutting off Palestinian villages and towns from each other in a deliberate attempt to undermine the prospect of Palestinian statehood.

Five of the eight winners of this year’s Israel Prize — biochemist Eli Keshet, biblical scholar Yair Zakowitz, literary scholar Nitza Ben-Dov, poet Nurit Zarchi and filmmaker Michal Bat-Adam  — have denounced Gallant’s ill-advised decision. In a letter to Gallant, they expressed “deep sorrow” that Goldreich would be absent from this week’s award ceremony.

In light of this infringement of free speech, Israel Prize laureate David Harel, a computer scientist who won it in 2004, presented his award statue to Goldreich in an “alternative ceremony” at the Weizmann Institute last week.

And in a joint letter, the presidents of seven of Israel’s nine research universities — the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Technion, the Weizmann Institute and the Open University — criticized Gallant.

“Denying a person a prize due to their political beliefs contradicts the basic principle of the Israel Prize and severely harms free speech and free thought,” they wrote. “Your decision creates the difficult impression that only those who ‘toe the line’ will be rewarded, and anyone who dares express a political opinion outside of the consensus will be punished.”

The university presidents added that the precedent of disqualifying Goldreich from receiving the prize would seriously erode its status. They stated that while they do not endorse Goldreich’s opinions, they believe he should have a right to express them “without fear.”

Goldreich himself believes that Gallant’s misstep may have wider repercussions. “This is bigger than me and it concerns all of us,” he said most recently. “The position taken by the education minister is just another small step in an ongoing process of delegitimizing the left in Israel.”

Gallant’s boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been doing this for years now, regularly branding his opponents as “leftists” while questioning their loyalty to the state.

Gallant’s crackdown on dissent is a despicable tactic that makes a mockery of Israeli democracy, which now finds itself on a slippery slope thanks to narrow-minded right-wing politicians like Netanyahu and Gallant.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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