The High Court of Justice unanimously overturned on Thursday former education minister Yoav Gallant’s decision to block a professor from receiving the prestigious Israel Prize on the grounds that he allegedly backs boycotts against the country.
The justices said there was no legal cause for Gallant to intervene in the prize selection committee’s choice.
The judges additionally ruled in a majority decision — with Justice Yitzhak Amit dissenting on the matter and justices Noam Sohlberg and Yael Willner in favor — that the awarding of the prize now lies in the hands of his successor, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton.
Last month it was reported that Shasha-Biton had decided to uphold Gallant’s decision against awarding the prize to Oded Goldreich, a professor of computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, for his work on computational complexity theory.
Gallant alleged Goldreich backs the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Goldreich has denied backing BDS but said he objects to West Bank settlements.
Lawyers for Goldreich said Thursday that while they welcomed the court’s unanimous ruling that the decision should be overturned, it was a blow to freedom of expression that the decision over whether the award should be given remains in the hands of a politician, and that the judges did not clarify that political statements by potential recipients should be irrelevant.
“We are, of course, pleased with the unanimous decision to overturn former Education Minister Gallant’s unfounded and dangerous decision,” Michael Sfard and Hagai Benziman said in a statement.
“However, the majority decision of the judges to return the decision to the political echelon, without determining that political statements that are not a violation of the law are not relevant to the question of eligibility for the award, is unfortunate and should concern all those in Israel who advocate freedom of expression,” the lawyers said.
A lawyer representing the selection committee said that the award should be given to Goldreich.
“The result should be as was stated in the opinion given by Justice Yitzhak Amit: Award the prize to Prof. Goldreich,” said Gilad Barnea.
Last month Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told the court that Gallant did not have the authority to make the decision, and the selection committee should be permitted to grant the prize in mathematics and computer science to Goldreich.
“The decision of the then-education minister exceeds the range of reasonableness and accordingly cannot stand legally,” Mandelblit wrote.
The attorney general stressed that calls for boycotting Israel or state institutions could generally be used as a consideration in granting the Israel Prize. But he said Goldreich’s actions did not “meet the high standard necessary to disqualify a candidate from receiving an award.” He called the professor’s alleged actions “isolated” and noted they were not recent.
Shortly before he was replaced by Shasha-Biton, Gallant sent Mandelblit a letter arguing the prize was meant to reflect a candidate’s contribution to the State of Israel and not only as a recognition of excellence in a given field.
He also denied his decision was rooted in opposition to Goldreich’s political views, saying he objected to Goldreich’s signing of a 2019 letter calling on Germany’s parliament not to pass legislation denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic.
In his letter to Mandelblit, Gallant also noted Goldreich signed a petition with hundreds of academics in March urging the European Union to stop funding for Ariel University, located in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The academics claimed such funding legitimizes settlement activity, which the Palestinians and much of the international community contend is an obstacle to peace.
Goldreich had been set to receive the award at April’s ceremony for Israel Prize winners, but a High Court decision giving Gallant time to reach a decision about granting the prize to the professor effectively prevented him from getting it. The court said at the time that Goldreich could be awarded the prize at a later date.
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 has made disparaging comments about LGBT people.