Leading figures in Israel’s academic community have sharply rejected plans for an ethical code that would limit lecturers from expressing a political opinion to students during lessons.

A committee of university heads said in a statement Saturday that Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s intention to apply the code was “violating academic freedom.”

Last December, Bennett asked Asa Kasher, who wrote the IDF’s ethics code, to draw up a document laying down the lines for acceptable behavior by academic lecturers regarding political activism during teaching sessions. Kasher recently presented the code to Bennett and the latter now plans to submit it for approval by the Council for Higher Education in Israel, the national governing body for academic institutes, according to a Friday report in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

Although the code is not directed at any particular political orientation, Israeli academia is often seen as left-leaning. Bennett, head of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, has been seen as attempting to limit left-wing voices in educational institutions while bringing in more views from the right.

Under the proposed code of ethics lecturers would be prohibited from promoting their political opinions during teaching sessions and from participating in, or calling for, support of academic boycotts against Israeli institutes, a measure that has been pushed by pro-Palestinian campaigners around the world.

Professor Asa Kasher (Photo credit: Oren Nahshon/FLASH90)

Professor Asa Kasher (Oren Nahshon/FLASH90)

The code also calls for academic institutes to establish a unit to monitor political activity on campus. Lecturers who have complaints filed against them could face a disciplinary citation from the institution and, if the activity continues, then possible additional disciplinary action, according to the code.

“The proposed ethical code formulated by Professor Asa Kasher removes from the academic institutes the freedom to lay down the rules for behavior and conduct by members of the academic staff,” the university heads said in the statement.

They added that the code “seriously and fundamentally violates academic freedom.”

The university chiefs demanded that they be given an opportunity to express their objections during a debate on the code by the Council for Higher Education.

In a statement last week Bennett defended the code, saying it would prevent lecturers from promoting political agendas in academic institutes and that it was to be applied equally to both the left and right of the political field.

Education Minister and Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett, speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, January 15, 2017. Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Education Minister and Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett, speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, January 15, 2017. Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The matter isn’t directed against any political side, it is sweeping for left and right — and anyway no side has any reason to object,” Bennett said.

“Absolute academic freedom — yes. Advancing a political agenda by an academic lecturer– no. It’s unacceptable that students are afraid to express their opinions in class due to fear for their grades, or that lecturers call for a boycott of the institution where they teach.”

Chair of the National Union of Israeli Students, Ram Shefa, also protested the code and explained that union representatives met with Kasher months ago when he was formulating the guidelines.

Students expressed their objection to the code while supporting their right to express their opinion without fear of consequences, Ynet reported.

“The code is far from its ostensible ethical goal. Everything is political and it is impossible to separate between politics and other areas of life, and even more so in academia,” Shefa said.

Criticism also came from politicians, including MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), who compared it to a form of “thought police.”

Arab Israeli and left-wing student activists hold a rally marking the Nakba anniversary at the Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv on May 20, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Arab Israeli and left-wing student activists hold a rally marking the Nakba anniversary at the Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv on May 20, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) called it a “political code.”

“Its only purpose is to silence voices and cause lecturers to be afraid,” Margalit wrote on Facebook on Sunday.

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni got into a heated sparring match with Bennett on social media after tweeting that the code was “a document that is not ethical or valid. It is another step by the rulers to silence and wipe out any debate and freedom of thought, this time in academia. It is suitable for dark regimes, not Israel.”

Bennett, on his own Twitter account, accused Livni of not reading the document.

“Yes Naftali, I read it,” Livni responded. I hope that reading is still permitted. I don’t take back a word. Do you apply the ethical code to Rabbi Levinstein as an educator too? Just asking.”

Livni was referring to Yigal Levinstein, head of a pre-army religious academy who in March caused an uproar after making disparaging remarks about female IDF soldiers.

Right-wing activists protest at Jerusalem's Hebrew University against the Israeli group Breaking the Silence on December 22, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Right-wing activists protest at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University against the Israeli group Breaking the Silence on December 22, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

MK Zehava Galon, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, tweeted that it was a “Bolshevik code that undermines the education for democracy and pluralism.”

But the right-wing Im Tirtzu student group welcomed the code, saying it would restore “sanity to Israeli academia.”

“The ethical code compiled by Professor Asa Kasher is a correct and appropriate step toward the goal of ending politicization in academia,” Im Tirtzu head Matan Peleg said in a statement.