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High Court rules Israel Prize must be given to professor accused of BDS support

Judges accept appeal against Education Minister Shasha-Biton’s decision to withhold 2021 award from Oded Goldreich over his supposed backing of academic boycott

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

The High Court of Justice on Tuesday ordered Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton to present the Israel Prize to a professor whom she had withheld it from because he allegedly supports anti-Israel boycotts.

A petition against Shasha-Biton’s decision was filed by the members of the prize committee that had initially awarded the honor to mathematician Prof. Oded Goldreich.

The court ruling was made as a majority decision, with justices Yael Willner and Yitzhak Amit siding with the appeal and Justice Noam Sohlberg opposing it.

Responding to Shasha-Biton’s claim that an academic boycott impacts academic freedom of speech, Amit ruled that “the harm to academic freedom of speech by withholding the prize from Prof. Goldreich is much worse.”

Denying the honor to a recognized academic over comments he made is “an invitation to monitor, track and persecute academics in Israel,” he said.

Sohlberg, who was in favor of allowing Shasha-Biton to withhold the prize, said she had the authority to do so.

Shasha-Biton said she regretted the justices’ decision but would respect it. She noted that since the court had previously said the education minister should decide the matter, it should have respected her decision.

“A person who calls for a boycott of an Israeli academic institution is not worthy of a state prize, no matter what his achievements or political views are,” she said.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks during a press conference at the Knesset on January 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Goldreich welcomed the ruling and said he hopes the development “will correct some of the tremendous damage this matter has caused to freedom of speech and the prestige of the Israel Prize.”

In December, the attorney general at the time, Avichai Mandelblit, submitted his opinion to the High Court that the prize should be awarded to Goldreich.

Mandelblit wrote that the evidence presented by Shasha-Biton to back her decision does not reach the burden of proof that would justify stripping him of the honor.

Mandelblit submitted a similar opinion earlier last year when Goldreich was first denied the prize.

The High Court has previous ruled against ministerial interference in the prize committee’s choice of recipient.

Goldreich, a professor of computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, was supposed to receive the prize for his work on computational complexity theory.

However, then-education minister Yoav Gallant alleged that Goldreich backed the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Goldreich has denied backing BDS, but said he objects to West Bank settlements.

Last March, Goldreich signed a petition urging the European Union to stop funding for Ariel University, located in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

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 with his successor, Shasha-Biton.

Shasha-Biton announced in August that she would block Goldreich from receiving the prize, but the prize committee appealed her decision, leading to Tuesday’s final ruling.

The High Court has previously rejected petitions against awarding the prize to certain candidates, including in 2020 when it would have gone to Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who had made disparaging comments about LGBT people.

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