Rectors from seven of Israel’s nine research universities have protested the government’s decision to withhold Israel’s most prestigious prize from a scholar over his political views, telling the education minister on Sunday that they believe he doesn’t have the authority to do so.
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 the professor denies.
But in a letter sent to Gallant Sunday morning, the heads of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Technion, the University of Haifa, the Weizmann Institute and the Open University said they believed Gallant did not have the authority to permanently prevent the prize being given to Goldreich.
“The Israel Prize Regulations do not give you the authority not to approve the decision of the Judges’ Committee,” they wrote, referring to the panel that selects each year’s winners.
The heads of the predominantly religious Bar-Ilan University and the West Bank-based Ariel University notably did not sign the letter. Last month, Goldreich was among hundreds of academics who signed a petition calling on the European Union to halt funding for Ariel University, saying it legitimized settler activity.
In Thursday’s ruling, the High Court gave Gallant 30 days to reach a decision about awarding the prize to Goldreich, in effect blocking the professor from receiving the recognition at Sunday’s ceremony. The court said he 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.
The university heads also said that “setting the current precedent of disqualifying Prof. Goldreich will seriously damage the status of the prize.”
On Sunday, Israel Prize laureate David Harel, a computer scientist who was awarded the prize in 2004, gave his award statue to Goldreich in an “alternative ceremony” at the Weizmann Institute.
Speaking at the event, Goldreich said that the decision by Gallant had wider repercussions for freedom of speech.
“This is bigger than me and it concerns us all,” Goldreich said. “The position taken by the education minister is just another small step in an ongoing process of de-legitimizing the left in Israel.”
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Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has defended his decision to refuse to sign off on the prize, which 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.
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.
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 that selects the winners 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.”
Over the weekend, five of the eight winners of this year’s Israel Prize also protested the decision in a letter to Gallant.
“We express our deep sorrow that Prof. Goldreich will be absent from the festive ceremony,” wrote literature scholar Nitza Ben-Dov, filmmaker Michal Bat-Adam, Bible scholar Yair Zakowitz, poet Nurit Zarchi and biochemist Eli Keshet.