Arab MKs, academics slam bill requiring universities to fire anti-Zionist faculty

‘We will not allow terrorism to take over academia,’ says coalition whip; Association of University Heads condemns ‘McCarthyistic’ campaign against higher education

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Demonstrators protest against the war in Gaza, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, May 28, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Demonstrators protest against the war in Gaza, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, May 28, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A legislative proposal requiring institutions of higher education to terminate lecturers who express anti-Zionist sentiments has drawn strong condemnations from Arab lawmakers and academics amidst what critics see as a wartime crackdown on freedom of expression.

If passed, the bill, which was brought to the Knesset on Monday by coalition whip Ofir Katz (Likud), would require universities to fire without compensation any instructors who deny Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish nation, incite terrorism, or express support for a terrorist organization or an armed struggle against the State of Israel.

“The State of Israel prides itself on extensive freedom of expression that allows a wide range of opinions to be heard on any stage. However, the days of war in which we find ourselves oblige us to… balance freedom of expression against the basic principles of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” the bill’s explanatory notes state.

“It often seems that this balance is violated by faculty and teaching staff in higher education institutions who express — in words or deeds — support and identification with acts of terrorism,” it continues — arguing that “in order to preserve the identity of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” higher education must be made “free of statements and actions that support terrorism in any form, or those that deny the existence of the State of Israel.”

The bill was written in cooperation with the National Union for Israeli Students (NUIS), whose Chairman, Elchanan Felhimer, called on lawmakers to support the legislation.

“Yes to freedom of speech, but incitement to terrorism — unequivocally no,” he said.

Likud faction chair MK Ofir Katz, leads a Knesset House Committee hearing, February 5, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Addressing the Arab Ta’al party’s weekly faction meeting in the Knesset Monday, party chairman Ahmad Tibi condemned what he called the “fascist campaign, the incitement campaign of the national student union against lecturers and academics who have a different opinion about the war.”

“This is a cynical exploitation of the students’ own funds,” he said, praising Israel’s Association of University Heads for coming out against the legislation and against an associated NUIS billboard campaign in favor of the bill.

Describing the proposed legislation as “part of an ongoing incitement and smear campaign of a McCarthyistic nature against the Israeli academy,” the Association of University Heads warned that, if passed, it would create “an atmosphere of whistle-blowing and fear on academic campuses.”

“This bill will severely damage the independence of the academy [and] freedom of expression and will help our enemies, through the BDS organizations, to expand the academic boycott of Israel,” it continued, calling on lawmakers to vote against it and “prevent serious damage to Israeli academia and democracy.”

MK Ahmad Tibi speaks during a Knesset House Committee meeting in Jerusalem, January 30, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Katz argued that the bill was made necessary by universities’ inaction in the face the statements of academics like Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Anat Matar, who called convicted terrorist Walid Daqqa a “dear and beloved friend” and “an endless source of inspiration” after he died of cancer in an Israeli prison.

Katz also cited the case of Hebrew University’s Prof. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, said that it was “time to cancel Zionism,” and denied that Hamas terrorists sexually abused victims during its October 7 attack on Israel.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian was investigated for incitement and suspended from the university following her comments.

“We will not allow terrorism to take over the State of Israel’s academia under the guise of ‘freedom of speech.’ We will not allow statements of support for terrorism and support for activities against Israel,” Katz said. “It’s time to fight terrorism in academia, and I’m committed to doing so.”

Promoting the bill, the NUIS launched a campaign on Sunday, in which it hung billboards on the Ayalon Highway at the entrance to Tel Aviv featuring quotes from Matar and Shalhoub-Kevorkian.

Since the beginning of the war, lawmakers have proposed a number of measures to police the educational system and restrict speech, prompting the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) to caution in March that “the trends of silencing, harm to media outlets and journalists, and the intention to silence citizens who criticize the regime are intensifying.”

Among the bills currently working their way through the Knesset is one co-sponsored by Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel and Likud lawmaker Amit Halevi that would allow the Education Ministry to terminate a teacher’s employment and cut a school’s budget if it is “proven to its satisfaction” that the teacher had publicly identified with a terrorist organization, praised terrorism or actively called for terror activity.

Citing “decades of incitement… in schools and mosques” that preceded Hamas’s October 7 onslaught in southern Israel that started the current war, Religious Zionism MK Tzvi Sukkot earlier this year promoted a controversial anti-incitement bill aiming to do away with the current requirement to prove that a statement is likely to lead to an act of terrorism.

Anat Matar, senior lecturer, Tel Aviv University Department of Philosophy. (Facebook screenshot)

Lawmakers are also working on a bill criminalizing the denial, minimization or celebration of the October 7 attack, which has raised concerns among some human rights advocates over its potential impact on free speech.

In April, the Knesset passed the so-called Al Jazeera law, giving the government temporary powers to prevent foreign news networks from operating in Israel if they are deemed by the security services to be harming national security.

Early last month, police seized Al Jazeera’s broadcasting equipment from its Jerusalem offices and the Qatari news channel was pulled off the air in Israel. On May 21, Israel confiscated equipment being used by the Associated Press to livestream a view of the Gaza Strip, arguing that the news agency was in violation of the law because Al Jazeera, one of its clients, was using the feed in its own broadcasts.

In a statement welcoming Israel’s return of the equipment the following day, the Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign media in Israel, said that it “continue[d] to be concerned that Israel’s new foreign media law, which banned Al Jazeera’s operations this month, leaves the door open for further abusive action.”

“We urge the government to abolish this law and to find a better way to balance security concerns with the democratic ideals of a free press,” the group said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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