University Heads Take Prof’s Side in Prize Dispute

YERUSHALAYIM -
A dormitory building on the campus of Ariel University, in the Shomron. (Ariela)

Presidents of Israeli universities have released a joint letter criticizing the government’s decision to withhold the country’s most prestigious prize from a scholar over his political views, saying it “severely harms free speech and free thought.”

Israel’s top court on Thursday upheld the education minister’s move to temporarily block Oded Goldreich from receiving this year’s Israel Prize in mathematics and computer science over claims he supports the Palestinian-led international boycott movement (BDS), allegations he denies.

“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,” the letter said. “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 letter said the presidents do not endorse Goldreich’s political views but that he should be able to express them “without fear.”

The letter, sent on Sunday morning, was addressed to Education Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, who defended his decision to refuse to sign off on the prize — something that is usually a formality.

Gallant tweeted Friday that Goldreich’s alleged support for the boycott movement “spits in the face of the state of Israel” and may violate laws against such activity. He said authorities needed time to determine whether Goldreich’s rejection of the boycott movement is “sincere.”

Last month, Goldreich and hundreds of other academics signed a petition calling on the European Union to halt funding for Ariel University, which is located in the Shomron. The scholars said it legitimized settlement activity, which is seen by the Palestinians and much of the international community as an obstacle to peace.

Goldreich, a professor of computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, has said he does not support the boycott movement against Israel but objects to its policy of building on “occupied” lands.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court gave Gallant 30 days to reach a decision about awarding the prize to Goldreich, in effect blocking him from receiving the recognition at next week’s ceremony. The court said he could be awarded the prize at a later date.

Signatories to the letter included the rectors of Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Technion, the University of Haifa, the Weizmann Institute and the Open University.

The religious Bar-Ilan University and Ariel University did not sign the letter, according to The Times of Israel.

Over the weekend, five of the eight winners of this year’s Israel Prize also protested the decision in a letter to Gallant.

“We express our deep sorrow that Prof. Goldreich will be absent from the festive ceremony,” wrote literature scholar Nitza Ben-Dov, filmmaker Michal Bat-Adam, Bible scholar Yair Zakowitz, poet Nurit Zarchi and biochemist Eli Keshet.

With reporting by the Associated Press.