Israeli university presidents defend free speech in dispute over Israel Prize

Presidents of Israeli universities released a joint letter Friday 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 Education Minister Yoav Gallant’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 targeting Israel, 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 was addressed to Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin 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.”

“Someone for whom the State of Israel and its laws are not dear to their heart is not worthy of the Israel Prize,” Gallant said.

Oded Goldreich (CC BY-SA 3.0)/Wikipedia)

Last month, Goldreich and hundreds of other academics signed a petition calling on the European Union to halt funding for Ariel University, which was established inside a settlement of the same name in the West Bank. 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 building settlements.

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.

The international movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, known as BDS, models itself on the campaign against apartheid South Africa. Israel views BDS as an assault on its very existence, pointing to the extreme views of some supporters and the movement’s refusal to endorse a two-state solution.

According to a television report last month, Gallant asked the committee for selecting a winner to reconsider its decision to grant the prize to Goldreich over his signing of a 2019 letter calling on Germany’s parliament not to pass legislation denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic. The Channel 12 news report said it was also claimed Goldreich called Israeli soldiers “war criminals.”

The prize’s mathematics and computer science committee said Thursday it was dismayed that the award had turned into “a political playing field, and that the regulations of the prize are not being upheld by the education minister.” It called on the High Court of Justice to ensure that Goldreich receives the prize.

The High Court has previously rejected petitions against awarding the prize to certain candidates, including last year when it was awarded to Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who has made disparaging comments about LGBT people.

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