Goldreich crossed a red line by calling for boycott - editorial

Yifat Shasha-Biton at Presidential Meeting

Freedom of academia and freedom of speech are two central cornerstones of any democracy. But calling for a boycott is another matter.

Professor Oded Goldreich of the Weizmann Institute of Science is without question a gifted scientist.

A leading respected expert in the field of computational complexity, his research has made “a significant contribution to the advancement of science and the expansion of knowledge for the benefit of all mankind,” according to his university.

Goldreich has in the past also called for the boycott of colleagues at Ariel University, because of its physical location, beyond the Green Line in the settlement of Ariel.

Should the latter attribute disqualify Goldreich from being awarded the Israel Prize, granted to citizens who have shown special excellence, distinguished achievements and a breakthrough in their field?

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton thinks so, having announced on Thursday that she will not be awarding the Israel Prize to math and computer science to Goldreich this coming Independence Day.

Israelis gathered in real-time for Israel's 2021 Israel Prize Ceremony, which took place on Independence Day, April 15, 2021. (credit: AMIR YAKOBY)

“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 added, concluding a process that began in March when her predecessor Yoav Gallant, had also decided to reject the Israel Prize nominating committee’s decision to honor Goldreich.

His infractions? 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, calling the move  “legitimate criticism, and legitimate political action.”

After the committee petitioned the High Court against Gallant, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit gave the opinion that the selection committee should be allowed to grant Goldreich the honor. He wrote that although calls to boycott Israel or state institutions could generally be used as a consideration in granting the Israel Prize, Goldreich’s actions were “isolated” and did not “meet the high standard necessary to disqualify a candidate from receiving an award.”

Despite that, Shasha-Biton decided to concur with Gallant, disqualifying Goldreich from receiving the honor.

The scientist’s lawyer, Michael Sfard, called the decision "a death blow on the prestige of the Israel Prize and shows that an award that should be given for professional achievements is in fact also an award for avoiding criticism of government policy."

The Weizmann Institute agreed that the ban was excessive, issuing a statement that said, “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, adding that ”the only consideration for its award should have been research excellence.”

By that criteria, Goldreich’s nomination and acceptance of the Israel Prize should be upheld.  However,  it’s not so simple when other considerations are brought into play.

Is a government obligated to grant an award to a citizen who works for a partially state-funded institution and has called for a boycott of another institution and his colleagues, with no consideration for “research excellence”?

Freedom of academia and freedom of speech are two central cornerstones of any democracy. Being able to criticize the policies of your government is also a vital element of that process. But calling for a boycott is another matter.

Although it’s in the commercial - and not academic - sphere, we’ve seen the huge reaction to the decision by Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling their ice cream in Israeli West Bank settlements. That’s just one of many examples of efforts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel over its presence in the West Bank, under the umbrella of the BDS movement.

Israelis are certainly free to support and be involved in such an effort. But awarding an Israel Prize and giving a soapbox to someone who bears those beliefs is another matter. Believing that Israel should give up the West Bank should obviously not preclude being awarded the highest honor by the state. Calling for the boycott of professional colleagues, however, is a red line that shouldn’t be crossed

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