Israel Prize nominees condemn withdrawal of professor’s award over ‘BDS support’

5 of 8 candidates denounce decision by education minister to withhold country’s highest honor from math scholar over his political views

Education Minister Yoav Gallant, at the Ministry of Education in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Education Minister Yoav Gallant, at the Ministry of Education in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Five of the eight winners this year of Israel’s most prestigious prize are protesting the government’s decision to withhold the award from a scholar over his political views.

Israel’s top court on Thursday upheld Education Minister Yoav Gallant’s move to temporarily block Oded Goldreich from receiving this year’s Israel Prize in mathematics and computer science over claims he supports the Palestinian-led international boycott movement targeting Israel, allegations he denies.

In a letter to Gallant, literature scholar Nitza Ben-Dov, filmmaker Michal Bat-Adam, bible scholar Yair Zakowitz, poet Nurit Zarchi and biochemist Eli Keshet lamented what they described as the politicization of the honor, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

“We express our deep sorrow that Prof. Goldreich will be absent from the festive ceremony,” they wrote.

According to the broadcaster, the recipients of the award has considered staging a protest at Sunday’s ceremony, in front of the cameras. The plan was abandoned after the other award winners opposed the move.

Israel Prize Laureate David Harel, a computer scientist who was awarded the prize in 2004, announced Saturday he would be giving his award statue to Goldreich.

Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has defended his decision to refuse to sign off on the prize — something that is usually a formality.

Gallant tweeted Friday that Goldreich’s alleged support for the boycott movement “spits in the face of the state of Israel” and may violate laws against such activity. He said authorities needed time to determine whether Goldreich’s rejection of the boycott movement is “sincere.”

“Someone for whom the State of Israel and its laws are not dear to their heart is not worthy of the Israel Prize,” Gallant said.

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

Last month, Goldreich and hundreds of other academics signed a petition calling on the European Union to halt funding for Ariel University, which was established inside a settlement of the same name in the West Bank. The scholars said it legitimized settlement activity, which is seen by the Palestinians and much of the international community as an obstacle to peace.

Goldreich, a professor of computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, has said he does not support the boycott movement against Israel but objects to building settlements.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court gave Gallant 30 days to reach a decision about awarding the prize to Goldreich, in effect blocking him from receiving the recognition at Sunday’s ceremony. The court said he could be awarded the prize at a later date.

The international movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, known as BDS, models itself on the campaign against apartheid South Africa. Israel views BDS as an assault on its very existence, pointing to the extreme views of some supporters and the movement’s refusal to endorse a two-state solution.

According to a television report last month, Gallant asked the committee for selecting a winner to reconsider its decision to grant the prize to Goldreich over his signing of a 2019 letter calling on Germany’s parliament not to pass legislation denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic. The Channel 12 news report said it was also claimed Goldreich called Israeli soldiers “war criminals.”

The prize’s mathematics and computer science committee said Thursday it was dismayed that the award had turned into “a political playing field, and that the regulations of the prize are not being upheld by the education minister.”

Presidents of Israeli universities also released a joint letter Friday criticizing the government’s decision on Goldreich.

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.

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