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Education minister withholds Israel Prize from academic accused of backing boycott

Ending months-long saga, Shasha-Biton says Oded Goldreich isn’t suitable for prestigious award; condemnations come in from left-wing coalition members

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks at a press conference at the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv, in preparation for the opening of the school year nationwide, on August 31, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks at a press conference at the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv, in preparation for the opening of the school year nationwide, on August 31, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton announced Thursday that she will block a professor from receiving the prestigious Israel Prize on the grounds that he allegedly backs boycotts against the country, despite a High Court of Justice ruling against interference in the prize committee’s choice.

Oded Goldreich, a professor of computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, was supposed to receive the prize earlier this year for his work on computational complexity theory. However, the previous education minister, Yoav Gallant, alleged that Goldreich backed the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Goldreich has denied backing BDS but said he objects to West Bank settlements. In March Goldreich signed a petition urging the European Union to stop funding for Ariel University, located in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

“Anyone who calls for boycotting an academic institution in Israel is unsuitable for the prize,” Shasha-Biton said in a statement.

“The main purpose of the Israel Prize is to encourage Israeli art, excellence and research,” the minister said. “Calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions undermines that goal, as it seeks to curtail creativity, diversity, and freedom of opinion.”

The minister said that Goldreich’s signing on to the boycott of Ariel University justified her decision, “despite his outstanding and impressive professional achievements in his field of research.”

Oded Goldreich (CC BY-SA 3.0)/Wikipedia)

Goldreich’s lawyer Michael Sfard responded in a statement that the decision was “neck-deep in improper political considerations” and “a death blow to the prestige of the Israel Prize.”

Members of the left-wing Meretz party, which is part of the government coalition, turned on Shasha-Biton of the right-wing New Hope party, attacking her announcement.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin tweeted that the Israel Prize “is given based on academic merit, not political opinions.”

“This decision is inherently and legally wrong,” Rozin added.

Fellow party member Mossi Raz said he had spoken to Goldreich to express his “disgust” at Shasha-Biton’s decision. He alleged that Goldreich was the target of “political persecution stemming from his support for peace.”

MK Michal Rozin attends a Meretz faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Im Tirzu right-wing lobby group, which campaigned against Goldreich, “saluted” Shasha-Biton and vowed to continue to act to “preserve transparency in academia and expose boycotters.”

Goldreich had originally been set to receive the award at April’s ceremony for Israel Prize winners, but Gallant, the previous education minister, decided to deny him the award.

In August the High Court of Justice unanimously overturned Gallant’s decision, saying there was no legal cause for him to have intervened in the prize selection committee’s choice.

But the judges also ruled that the decision on awarding the prize now lay in the hands of his successor, Shasha-Biton.

The prize committee had threatened to take the matter back to court if Shasha-Biton didn’t decide on the issue, setting a deadline for this week.

The High Court has previously rejected petitions against awarding the prize to certain candidates, including last year when it was awarded to Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who had made disparaging comments about LGBT people.

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