Warn it will trigger global 'wave of academic boycotts'

University heads denounce coalition bill that would ban display of Palestinian flag

Joint statement says measure would infringe on free speech, make schools ‘branches of police and Shin Bet’; Tel Aviv University chief vows not to enforce ‘fascist’ law if passed

Israeli and pro-Palestinian students stage protests at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on May 23, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Israeli and pro-Palestinian students stage protests at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on May 23, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Israeli university chiefs on Thursday blasted a coalition law bill set to be discussed in the upcoming cabinet meeting that would outlaw waving the Palestinian national flag anywhere in Israel, alleging that if it passes, it would trigger a “wave of academic boycotts of Israeli institutions all around the world.”

The president of Tel Aviv University, Ariel Porat, went further in a separate statement, saying that if the passes, he will not enforce the law’s clause mandating the permanent expulsion of students who wave the Palestinian flag.

The bill, sponsored by MK Limor Son Har-Melech of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party and which passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset last week, would make it illegal to wave the flag of an entity that is hostile to Israel.

Explanatory notes say it seeks to establish “reciprocity” by banning the flags of entities that likewise prohibit the Israeli national banner.

The aim of the bill appears to be to make it illegal for Israelis to wave Palestinian flags. The legislation would apparently enable police to take a more forceful and immediate action against demonstrations in the Arab community, where such banners are often displayed.

Also, the flags of countries officially at war with Israel — such as Syria — have been displayed by peace activists at events.

While acknowledging the right to protest, the bill “draws a red line between a legitimate protest and a protest during which the flags of those who do not recognize the State of Israel are raised, those who are not friendly to it or those who do not allow the State of Israel to raise its flag.”

It proposes making the display of such flags a criminal offense, punishable by a year’s imprisonment.

People wave Israeli flags during a demonstration supporting soldiers in Israel's military operation in Gaza, as they stand opposite a counter-protest at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem November 15, 2012. A Hamas rocket killed three Israelis north of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, drawing the first blood from Israel as the Palestinian death toll rose to 13 and a military showdown lurched closer to all-out war with an invasion of the enclave. Photo by Oren Nahshon / Flash 90.
Illustrative: Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Thursday. (Oren Nahshon/Flash 90).

In a Thursday statement, the Association of University Heads decried the legislation as draconian and as clamping down on freedom of speech.

“The law bill seeks to turn the higher education institutions into branches of the Israel Police and the Shin Bet, forcing them to track hundreds of thousands of students on their premises, and to impose punishments on actions that currently are mostly protected by freedom of speech laws,” it wrote.

Prof. Ariel Porat (Yoram Reshef, via Wikipedia)

“This is politicization and deep and unreasonable intervention in campus activities. An attempt to use academia for criminal enforcement, turning the institution managers into cops, judges and even executioners — when dealing with offenses that have nothing to do with academia,” the university heads added.

“Inserting political considerations into an academic decision of termination of studies is a decision that will severely harm the higher education institutions and the status of Israeli academia around the world,” they continued, arguing that the move would “justify all the arguments” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement and “cause a wave of academic boycotts of Israeli institutions all around the world.”

Porat, the Tel Aviv University head, said the law would be “illegal” and predicted it would be struck by the High Court of Justice, and therefore the school will not enforce the measure if ultimately passed.

“The Palestinian Authority is not an enemy state or a terror organization. Raising its flag is an action protected under freedom of expression,” he said. If we enforce this law if, on the measure it indeed becomes law, we will likely be forced to expel a considerable number of our students, who justly would not put up with oppression like this and will not hesitate to raise the flag of the Palestinian Authority.”

Porat urged government ministers and the attorney general to oppose the proposal, which he called “fascist.”

Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech attends a debate in the Knesset plenum, November 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The government’s upcoming deliberations on the bill come after another Otzma Yehudit bill seeks to double the punishment for offenders convicted of sexual harassment for racist reasons was approved in a preliminary reading.

The bill was sponsored by Son Har-Melech and fellow Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer, who tied the legislation to what they claim is a recent trend of intensified “nationalistic terrorism” via sexual harassment.

“Every day there are reports of women being sexually harassed on the basis of their religious identity,” the explanatory notes to the bill read. “The intensification of the phenomenon has reached the point that in various regions of the country, in the north, in the south, and even in the city of Tel Aviv, women are afraid to go out for sports activities or to go out alone in the evening.”

They noted that under the penal code, a person “who commits a crime out of a motive of racism or of hostility toward the public because of religion or belonging to a religious group is liable to get double the punishment.”

The law does not explicitly pertain to sexual harassment, they said, and “the purpose of this bill is to correct this situation.”

The bill also proposes that courts be able to award double compensation to victims of such crimes — up to NIS 240,000 ($66,000) — even without proof of damage.

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