Education minister backpedals on academic ethics code

Bennett says new academic ethics code banning politics from lectures is only a basis for dialogue toward consensus

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Naftali Bennett speaking at a business conference in Jerusalem, June 19 2017. (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
Naftali Bennett speaking at a business conference in Jerusalem, June 19 2017. (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday that a proposed ethics code for academia that generated much opposition among educators is just a basis for dialogue with the goal of reaching a consensual document.

The ethics code Bennett asked Professor Asa Kasher to write is not meant to be the “Ten Commandments,” he said, speaking at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society in Jerusalem.

“The code is not an obligation,” he said. “We are going to try and reach the widest possible consensus. It is not the Ten Commandments but a starting point for a dialogue. I am calling on everyone to calm down.”

Last December, Bennett, head of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, asked Kasher, a philosopher 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.

Under the proposed code of ethics, presented earlier this month, 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 (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Professor Asa Kasher (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

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.

Leading figures in Israel’s academic community sharply rejected the proposed code, with university heads saying in a statement that it “seriously and fundamentally violates academic freedom.”

Bennett has dismissed such criticism, saying the proposal would help protect freedom of speech by shielding students from backlash over their views, while Kasher ascribed much of the opposition to the animus felt by left-wing academia toward the nationalist, pro-settlement Bennett.

At the conference Bennett, who has been education minister since 2015 and had previously served as economics minister, also laid out his vision for education in the so-called startup nation.

Israeli children must be educated for entrepreneurship and encouraged by their teachers to “go for it,” he said.

Before entering politics, Bennett was a high-tech entrepreneur, having co-founded the anti-online fraud company Cyota and served as CEO of cloud computing firm Soluto, both of which sold for over $100 million.

“There must be a little bit less discipline and more freedom to initiate,” Bennet said. Teachers must be mentors rather than authority figures, he continued, adding that he planned to implement changes to that end starting from next year.

“We need to teach less and spend 30 percent of our time dedicated to active learning. Instead of sitting in a frontal lecture with a teacher, go and research something yourself,” he said.

Bennett said he aimed to increase the number of students taking the highest level of the mathematics matriculation exam — five units — to 18,000 by 2020. In the decade starting 2006, that number had dropped from 13,000 to 8,500, he said.

Bennett also said that he would work toward shortening the summer vacations of Israeli children to create a greater match with the needs of working parents.

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