Science minister blocks academic from panel over her views on army service

Ofir Akunis nixes Yael Amitai’s appointment to board of Israel-German grant body due to a 2005 petition she signed calling on soldiers to refuse to serve in the West Bank

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis addresses the Knesset plenum, April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis addresses the Knesset plenum, April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Politicians and academy officials on Monday slammed Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis for blocking the appointment of an Israeli neuroscientist to a grant foundation because she had once signed a petition urging Israel Defense Forces soldiers to refuse to serve in the Palestinian territories.

Akunis prevented the appointment of Professor Yael Amitai to the board of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development, explaining that in 2005 she had signed a petition supporting soldiers who refused to serve beyond the Green Line, the limit of Israel’s pre-1967 territory.

“The science minister believes it is inappropriate for someone who supports refusing orders to represent the State of Israel in international forums,” an aide said.

Critics said Akunis made the move simply in order to gain points with his political base.

Prof. Yael Amitai (courtesy)

Amitai herself said, “It’s crazy. He had a whole year to choose someone who didn’t sign the petition. He didn’t have to do it in the eleventh hour. There are ways to make such choices quietly, but he was looking to make noise.”

The Committee of University Heads of Israel has appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get involved and press to approve Amitai’s appointment, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

“This is an embarrassing situation for Israel,” the committee wrote to Netanyahu, “in which the minister in charge of science stops at nothing to promote his image among his political supporters, and sacrifices on the political altar Israel’s interests and Israel’s entire academic status, and endangers millions of euros intended for researchers and Israeli academics.”

Opposition MK Tzipi Livni tweeted that the government was “hounding its citizens and scientists. We must cry out against this governmental McCarthyism… Everyone needs to choose a side. They will try to claim that the division is over being for or against refusal [of army orders] and we will make it clear that the division is for or against a free country.”

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni speaks at the faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 11, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Fellow Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova also criticized Akunis for his decision.

“This is what thought police looks like, this is how they once stopped the progress of Andrei Sakharov and his friends in the Soviet Union,” she wrote, referring to the Russian nuclear physicist, dissident and disarmament activist. “It is all painfully familiar.”

Akunis told the radio station that he blocked Amitai’s appointment not because of her views, but only because she signed the petition.

“Professor Amitai doesn’t represent her own name, she represents the country,” he said. “When she calls for refusal, in my opinion she is not able to represent Israel. I didn’t disqualify her… because of her views. She can think whatever she wants.”

In a post to his Facebook page Sunday, Akunis included a photo of a media article about his decision and wrote “Supporting the IDF — Campaigning against refusal.”

Amitai has explained in media interviews that the petition she signed only objected to service in the West Bank and not to army service in general.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak, a stern critic of the current government, wrote on Twitter: “A new height of stupidity and aberration. The science minister rules out a scientist in a professional matter because of her political views? Have you gone mad? Where are we? The Church at the time of Galileo or Giordano Bruno? Or in Orwell’s 1984? This government is a joke.”

Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development was founded in 1986. According to the foundation website over the past two years it has distributed 12 million euros ($14.14 million) per year in grants.

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