Universities urged to enforce code banning politics in lectures

Contentious rules, which go into effect in 2019 and were pushed by education minister, also include prohibition of calls for boycott of Israel

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Illustration. Israeli students participate in a mass chemistry experiment at Tel Aviv University on Sep 22, 2011. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Illustration. Israeli students participate in a mass chemistry experiment at Tel Aviv University on Sep 22, 2011. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

A proposed ethics code for academic institutions that drew ire last year over a clause that would prevent lecturers from promoting specific political agendas or boycotts of Israel in class has been approved and will come into force by the beginning of next year.

However, a controversial clause banning all politics from lectures will not be mandatory, at least initially, the Council for Higher Education in Israel, the national governing body for academic institutions, said Sunday in a statement.

The document laying down limits to political activism by lecturers was drawn up last year at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett by philosopher Asa Kasher, who is also the author of the IDF’s ethics code.

Although the code is not directed at any particular political orientation, Israeli academia is often seen as left-leaning. Critics have accused Bennett, head of the religious, right-wing Jewish Home party, of attempting to limit liberal voices in educational institutions while bringing in more conservative views.

Last July, Kasher presented the code to Bennett, who on Sunday morning tweeted the full statement of the Council for Higher Education, saying he was doing so “in order to avoid spin and distortions.”

“Read it,” he added. “Every word makes sense.”

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

The code also bans discriminating against or in favor of lecturers or students based on their political views, and prohibits participating in, or calling for, academic boycotts of Israeli institutes, which have been pushed by pro-Palestinian campaigners around the world.

The code also bans “party propaganda” in the classroom and presenting a personal political view as that of an institution.

“The decision on whether to take action against a staffer for violating the above instructions, and regarding their punishment if found guilty, will be undertaken in the normal disciplinary procedure,” the statement said.

The council said that the code would be embedded in the disciplinary rules of all universities and colleges in Israel by the beginning of 2019 and they will be required to enforce it.

However, while institutions will be required to include most of the code in their new rules, they will not be forced to include the article that drew the most fire when it was first proposed. That article would prohibit lecturers from “misusing their position for systematically and improperly advocating for a political view, in a manner that clearly diverges from what is required to teach the class’s subject.”

Still, the statement added, the council expected universities and colleges to include and enforce that clause, too. According to a report Sunday in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, the council will consider adding it in the future to the list of mandatory articles if it isn’t included and enforced.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the Muni Expo 2018 conference at the Tel Aviv Convention Center on February 14, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Council for Higher Education discussed the ethics code with representatives from the various academic institutions, according to the report, and heard their reservations. Eventually, it declared that it “acknowledges the supreme importance of academic freedom and excellence, while categorically rejecting politicization in academia.”

Academic institutions will be required to report their progress in implementing the new ethics code to the Council of Higher Education by the beginning of 2020.

“We should keep the world of academia free from politics and inappropriate motives,” Bennett was quoted by Yedioth as saying over the weekend. “Absolute academic freedom — yes; advancing a political agenda and calling for boycotts — no. At the gates of academia, we set politics outside.”

Last year, Bennett defended the code by saying it would be applied equally to both the left and right of the political field. “The matter isn’t directed against any political side, it is sweeping for left and right — and anyway no side has any reason to object,” he said.

But a group of university heads slammed the Council for Higher Education, calling its decision to approve the code “a continuation of the unfortunate trend in which the ethics code becomes political censorship which tramples the most fundamental principles of academic freedom and free research, and is designed to shut mouths.”

“We are already now witnessing a dangerous decline in freedom of speech and academic freedom, as practiced in backward countries and not in a country purporting to be democratic,” their statement continued.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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