Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and a university professor he commissioned to write a code of ethics that would prevent academics from expression political opinions, both defended the controversial document from harsh criticism Sunday.
The code, written by Asa Kasher, drew a slew of criticism from politicians and academics after the contents of the document were reported on last week.
Under the proposed code of ethics lecturers would be prohibited from airing their political opinions during teaching sessions and from participating in, or voicing support for, academic boycotts against Israeli institutions, a measure that has been pushed by pro-Palestinian campaigners around the world.
Bennett said Sunday that the measure would serve to protect freedom of speech and Kasher asserted it would keep academia free of political pollution.
Speaking at a Bar-Ilan University conference on the threat of the academic boycott against Israel, Kasher, who famously wrote the IDF’s code of ethics, spoke about the uproar over his more recent work and dismissed much of the criticism against it as being either pointless or unfairly biased.
“Ninety-nine percent of the responses [on social media] in the last days on the ethical code weren’t to the point,” he told the conference. “Political debate is full of lies. The principle of truth doesn’t apply to them. It is permitted to lie all the time, to exaggerate, and to make false assurances.
“The problem that these people have with the ethical code is the problem they have with Bennett,” he added. “As soon as Bennett signed on, the left was opposed.”
Although the code doesn’t single out 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.
“When you look at the activity that I was appointed to do, it has no connection, not even half a connection to minister Bennett’s views,” Kasher said. “The purpose of my document is to protect academia from political adulteration.”
Kasher also scorned the Committee of University Heads, which, in a statement, had sharply criticized the notion of Bennett imposing a code of ethics on academic lecturers.
“The committee works like the ultra-Orthodox rabbis,” Kasher said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox resistance to demands for secular education within their high school system. “Their response is that ‘you can’t decide what our children learn.’ It is a conservative instinct of a group that wants to protect its own interests.”
In defending the plan, Bennett said it would help protect freedom of speech by shielding students from backlash over their views.
“Today we are working to prevent the silencing of voices in academia,” he said ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, “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 academic boycott.”
A committee of university heads said in a statement Saturday that Bennett’s plan to apply the code was “violating academic freedom.”
Last December, Bennett asked Kasher 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.
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, 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.”