Bennett may not have backing to ban politics in universities

Education minister reportedly lacking support from Council for Higher Education to bar professors from expressing political opinions on campus

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Asa Kasher attends a conference at the Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, June 11, 2017. (Flash90)
Asa Kasher attends a conference at the Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, June 11, 2017. (Flash90)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who along with a university professor has initiated the establishment of a code of ethics that would prevent academics from expressing political opinions in universities, may not have the backing to see his plan through.

Bennett needs the support of Israel’s Council for Higher Education, the national governing body for academic institutes, which has 25 members including the education minister himself, and it appears he will not have a majority of the votes, the Haaretz daily reported Monday.

The code, written by Asa Kasher who famously wrote the IDF’s code of ethics, has a host of opponents including politicians, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the Committee of University Heads, and the National Union of Israeli students. The Union on Sunday threatened to have students go on strike if the code comes to pass, marking an escalation since the contents of the document were reported on last week.

The council’s next session is in two weeks’ time but the item does not yet appear on the agenda, according to the report, a possible indication that it may not even be brought to a vote due to uncertainty about its popularity among members.

On Monday, council member Dr. Ofir Haivry told Army Radio that he opposed Bennett’s measure and intended to vote against in the upcoming meeting.

“In general I do not think codes are a good idea and I cannot understand why philosophy or chemistry professors have to adhere to an ethical code,” Haivry said.

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.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure this code doesn’t pass, even at the price of protest and so far as shutting down the [education] system,” the head of the student union, Ram Shefa, told Haaretz.

Shefa said the code could be harmful to free speech, adding that the union “would demand that students not be punished for who they are or what they stand for.”

“It’s not ethics, it’s censorship,” he said.

Bennett and Kasher defended the document on Sunday, with the education minister arguing that the measure would serve to protect freedom of speech and Kasher asserting 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 dismissed much of the criticism against the code 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.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

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.”

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.”

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