Israel Prize Will Be Withheld From Professor Over Support of West Bank Boycott

‘I cannot award the Israel Prize for academic achievements, impressive as they are, [to someone] who calls for boycotting academic institutions in Israel,’ the education minister says

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton affirmed on Thursday her predecessor’s decision to withhold the prestigious Israel Prize from a left-wing professor following his support for boycotting an Israeli academic institution in a West Bank settlement.

Shasha-Biton’s predecessor, Yoav Gallant, informed Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in June that he made a final decision to withhold the Israel Prize in mathematics and computer science from Prof. Oded Goldreich, in one of Gallant’s final acts as minister. The High Court of Justice invalidated the decision in August and gave Shasha-Biton the option of deciding whether to approve Gallant’s decision.

‘I cannot award the Israel Prize for academic achievements, impressive as they are, [to someone] who calls for boycotting Israel,’ the statement by the minister said. ‘The Israel Prize’s main goal is to encourage Israeli creativity, excellence and research,’ it added.

His call ‘to boycott academic institutions in Israel undermines this goal, as it seeks to damage creativity, diversity and freedom of opinion,’ Shasha-Biton wrote in her decision. She said that Goldreich’s support for boycotting Ariel University ‘constitutes an exceptional case justifying the choice not to give the nominee the prize, despite his prominent and impressive professional accomplishments in his field of research.’

Three specific allegations cited in support of depriving Goldreich of the prize were that he signed onto a letter condemning Bar-Ilan University’s cooperation with the University of Ariel in 2005, that in 2008, he signed a petition in opposition to companies that purportedly perpetuated the occupation, and that this year he signed another petition against the University of Ariel.

Gallant had rejected Goldreich’s position that his support for boycotting an academic institution located in the West Bank is a political act: “Ariel University is not a political entity. Its activity is not intended to achieve a political goal, but rather to promote research and science,” Gallant wrote.

Goldreich said Gallant’s position was ‘just another small step in an ongoing process of delegitimizing the left in Israel. The Education Minister wants to ‘prevent me from receiving the award just because of my opinions, because of my leftism. There is nothing else,’ he said.

The Weizmann Institute of Science, where Goldreich teaches, criticized the decision, saying ‘Prof. Goldreich is a leading and respected scientist in his field whose research contributes significantly to advancing science and expanding knowledge for the benefit of all mankind. … 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 regarding Israel Prize recipients.’ 

Goldreich’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.’

Justices Noam Sohlberg and Yael Willner delivered the majority opinion in the August High Court ruling, while the third justice on the panel, Isaac Amit, issued a dissenting opinion saying that the prize should be given to Prof. Goldreich.

All three criticized Gallant, with Amit saying the minister had taken irrelevant considerations into account.

Lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman defended Prof. Goldreich, saying ‘The boycott of Ariel University is an important and just political action against the injustices of the occupation.’

Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Joint List, responded similarly, calling the decision ’embarrassing and dark.’