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Minister decides not to give Israel Prize to professor over alleged BDS support

Yoav Gallant charges that the academic achievements of Oded Goldreich — who denies backing BDS — are ‘offset by his intensive activity to boycott Israeli research institutions’

Education Minister Yoav Gallant at a conference in Jerusalem on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Yoav Gallant at a conference in Jerusalem on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Outgoing Education Minister Yoav Gallant on Friday announced his decision to not grant the prestigious Israel Prize to a professor accused of backing boycotts against Israel.

Oded Goldreich, a professor of computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, was selected by a committee to receive this year’s prize in mathematics and computer science for his work on computational complexity theory. Gallant, however, blocked Goldreich from receiving the prize, alleging he backs the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Goldreich has denied backing BDS but said he objects to West Bank settlements.

In a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Gallant argued the prize is 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.

“Prof. Goldreich does not currently meet this condition of contribution to the State of Israel, as his contribution to the state from his research his offset by his intensive activity to boycott Israeli research institutions,” Gallant wrote.

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

He 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.

״From the factual basis before me at the time the decision was made, a clear picture emerged of continuous (over years), consistent and intentional activity by Prof. Goldreich, whose result is real harm to Israeli academia and the State of Israel,” Gallant said.

He also accused Goldreich of lending his “academic prestige” to calls to boycott some academic institutions in Israel.

“In light of the above, I decided to reject the professional recommendation of the Israel Prize committee for computer science research to grant the Israel Prize to the computer science researcher Prof. Goldreich,” Gallant told Mandelblit, who will need to decide whether to defend the minister’s position against a High Court petition filed by the prize’s selection committee.

Students walk at the Ariel University campus in the West Bank settlement of Ariel on January 25, 2017 (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

The letter from Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party came just days before the swearing-in of the “change government” that the premier’s rivals agreed to form. Gallant is set to be replaced as education minister by New Hope’s Yifat Shasha-Biton.

“Just before what appears to be the end of his term, Gallant is trying to get a few more headlines at Prof. Goldreich’s expense and is again forgetting that the Israel Prize is not a prize of the Israeli government. His letter expresses his McCarthyist approach and thus reinforces his anti-democratic legacy,” Goldreich’s lawyer Michael Sfard was quoted saying by the Haaretz daily.

A lawyer for the members of the prize committee said Gallant lacked the authority to make such a decision.

“The decision does not respect the Israel Prize enterprise and we are confident that the incoming education minister will make a different decision,” attorney Gilad Barnea said.

Goldreich had been set to receive the award at April’s ceremony for Israel Prize winners, but a High Court of Justice 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.

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