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New education minister won’t reinstate Israel Prize for alleged pro-BDS academic

Yifat Shasha-Biton said planning to tell attorney general, High Court that she won’t reverse her predecessor’s decision to deny award to Oded Goldreich

New Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (L) shakes hands with outgoing Minister Yoav Gallant during a handover ceremony at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem, June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
New Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (L) shakes hands with outgoing Minister Yoav Gallant during a handover ceremony at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem, June 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

New Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has decided to uphold her predecessor’s decision not to award the prestigious Israel Prize to a professor accused of backing boycotts against Israel, Hebrew media reported Tuesday.

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. However, the education minister at the time, Yoav Gallant 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.

The prize’s selection committee has since filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against the decision.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Shasha-Biton is planning to inform Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and the High Court that she does not intend to get involved. Mandelblit needs to decide whether to defend the minister’s position against a High Court petition filed by the prize’s selection committee.

Quoting sources in Shasha-Biton’s office, the report said she spoke with Mandelblit and that afterwards there was an understanding the decision was final, with the matter now in the hands of the High Court.

Goldreich’s lawyer ripped into Shasha-Biton’s decision.

“I thought that this was a ‘government of change’ and that it will bring change concerning its treatment of those who criticize the government’s policies, but Minister Shasha-Biton’s decision shows that the evil winds that blew from the previous government are still punishing leftists,” Michael Sfard was quoted as saying by Kan.

Sfard added: “It’s very unfortunate. This shows there is no change, that the same McCarthyite spirit continues to rule the corridors of the Education Ministry. We will keep fighting with the relevant legal mechanisms.”

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

Shortly before he was replaced by Shasha-Biton last month, Gallant sent Mandelblit a letter arguing 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.

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

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.

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