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June 16, 2017  RSS feed
World News

Text: T T T

Israel may ban political opinions in college classrooms

By ANDREW TOBIN JTA news service

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the architect of a new policy that could ban political opinions in classrooms, at a June 12 Knesset meeting in Jerusalem.JERUSALEM – Israel’s minister of education says he wants to protect students from political coercion in the classroom. But critics of a new code of academic conduct he is proposing say it’s a power play meant to stifle left-wing opinions in higher education.

The code of ethics for institutes of higher education, which would bar the expression of political views in classrooms, was drafted at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the prosettler Jewish Home party. It has roiled Israeli academia and spurred a fierce national debate about the role of politics in the classroom.

The chiefs of Israel’s universities have rejected the code. In a statement Sunday, June 11, the Committee of University Heads said it “severely and fundamentally violates the concept of academic freedom.”

“A careful study of the code shows that although it is defined as an ‘ethical code for appropriate behavior in the areas of overlap between academic activity and political activity,’ many of its articles deal with general activities in academic research and lectures,” the statement said. “As such, this code is a collection of state rules to dictate our conduct as faculty members.”

Academics and politicians widely criticized the code, which has yet to be made policy, with some characterizing it as part of a wave of undemocratic actions by the current right-wing government. But a number of right-wing voices on campus praised it as a solution to the politicization of academia, which is widely seen as left-leaning.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 11, Bennett said the code would help protect students’ freedom of speech.

“Today, we are working to prevent the silencing of voices in academia, to prevent a situation in which a student can be hurt because of his political opinions and a lecturer who gets wages from taxpayers can put out a call for an academic boycott,” he said.

Asa Kasher, an Israel Prize-winning philosopher at Tel Aviv University who wrote the initial version of the Israeli army’s code of ethics, drafted the new code at Bennett’s request.

The document addresses a variety of topics. But critics have been most troubled by the limitations it would impose on how lecturers talk about politics on the job – prohibiting opining on political candidates, parties or “a recognized public dispute,” a broad phrase that could be applied to many issues in Israel.

The code also would prohibit lecturers from calling for or supporting academic boycotts against Israeli educational institutions – a tactic used by pro-Palestinian activists around the world. Academic institutions are encouraged to establish a unit to “monitor political activity on campus” and field complaints about lecturers from students. Lecturers found to be speaking inappropriately about politics could be disciplined.

Bennett plans to bring the code for approval to the Council for Higher Education, the state body for making higher education policy that he heads. But Haaretz reported Monday, June 12 that the necessary majority did not plan to vote in favor.

Israel’s current government has sought to reshape various Israeli institutions in its image, leading some to accuse it of undermining democratic values.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was considering legislation that would limit the ability of left-wing advocacy groups to appeal to the High Court of Justice – a prominent right-wing bugbear. Earlier this month, Culture Minister Miri Regev threatened to defund a major arts festival for including nudity, which she said threatened Israeli values. And since May, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has held up the appointment of a new Supreme Court president in a reported bid for greater influence over other nominees to the bench.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin may have been referring to any of these developments in his speech Sunday at the Knesset.

“The freedom to express a different opinion, different thought, requires protection,” he said. “The voices of the minority are essential to scientific research, to art and the humanities and social sciences.”

In an interview June 11 with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Acharonot, Tel Aviv University President Yossi Klafter, the chair of the Committee of University Heads, called the new code of ethics “fundamentally wrong and driven by political interests.” Klafter said it would be “used by interest groups to clash with academic faculty members on a daily basis.”

Politicians from the left and center-left sought to portray the code as part of a larger anti-democratic trend. In a Facebook post on June 11, Zionist Union lawmaker Erel Margalit said it simply aimed to “silence voices and make lecturers afraid.”

“No one believes this document is aimed at improving the academy or benefiting students,” he said. “This is a struggle not just for academic freedom but for freedom in general.”

Kasher dismissed much of the criticism that his code is political. He said he was inspired in part by policies of the Association of American University Professors, or AAUP, which has long maintained that teachers “are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

However, AAUP is a professional group, not a state one. In addition, it supports political activism by faculty outside the classroom, and discussion of controversial material in the classroom, so long as it fosters “genuine debate and learning that is germane to the subject matter of a course.”

Elisha Haas, who runs the biophysics program at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, questioned whether many critics had even read the code. He said the proposed policies were reasonable steps to ensure that students felt comfortable and were treated fairly in their classes, especially given Israel’s unique circumstances.

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