President Reuven Rivlin spoke out on Sunday against a proposed code of ethics for university lecturers that would bar them from expressing political opinions in lectures.
“Freedom of speech and thought should not be taken for granted,” he said in a speech at the Knesset, stressing the importance of a plurality of opinions for the good of society.
“We cannot build thriving educational systems if we do not develop one that encourages controversy,” he said. “The freedom to express a different opinion needs procedural protections and constant vigilance.”
Rivlin, who was awarding the Wolf Prize for achievements in science and the arts, warned that the proposal, propounded by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, would stunt academic research and development.
“We will not be able to build thriving and vital systems of scientific research and development of inspirational works of art,” he said, “if we do not actively foster educational systems that encourage diversity, controversy, initiative and unpredictability.”
The skepticism and desire to discover new worlds is “the driving force of invention and scientific development,” Rivlin continued, adding that art, culture and science “are not the property of any individual, certainly not of one political camp or another.”
The ethics code, proposed by Bennett and 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 code would serve to protect freedom of speech, while 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.”
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.