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Attack on Free Speech or Reality Check? Israel Debates Code

  • Government seeks limits on political discourse in universities
  • Critics see another effort by state to stifle criticism

A proposal to define the contours of political discourse in Israeli universities has sparked a stormy debate: Is it a government assault on free speech -- or the long-overdue injection of balance into a bastion of liberalism?

Naftali Bennett

Photographer: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

The academic ethics code commissioned by pro-settlement Education Minister Naftali Bennett would bar university and college faculty from conducting political activity on campus, including an unbalanced airing of political views. Students would be able to lodge complaints against teachers, and on-campus units would be set up to enforce the code.

Bennett says the blueprint, which is still being fine-tuned, would shield students from unwanted politicking, and would prevent lecturers from promoting a boycott of Israel mounted by Palestinians and their supporters.

“It is inconceivable that students won’t voice their opinions for fear of their grades, or that professors call for a boycott of the institutions where they themselves teach,” he said through a spokesman.

Centers of Influence

These and other controversial measures seen by critics as hindering free speech have drawn fire beyond Israel’s borders from academic associations and liberal U.S. Jews.

“The ‘code of ethics’ that the government of Israel is considering for the country’s academic institutions is a threat not only to academic freedom in Israel, but to Israel’s standing as a democracy,” the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers.

The proposal reflects a frustration among Israeli government backers about the limits to their power. While the nationalist Likud Party has governed for most of the past 40 years, its supporters say the majority’s views aren’t given adequate voice in other centers of influence, including the courts, arts, media and universities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been active in recent years in trying to reshape the media landscape, which he accuses of pursuing a left-wing agenda antagonistic to his policies and family. Other members of his government have trained their sights on other institutions.

Larger Pattern

Culture Minister Miri Regev has said she would withhold funds from cultural institutions that are subversive, support incitement and racism, or burn the Israeli flag. In adding conservative justices to the Supreme Court earlier this year, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared “a historic day. The flagship of our judicial system changed its direction tonight.”

Ayelet Shaked

Photographer: Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images

The academic code, condemned by associations of Israeli university and college heads and the national students organization, would need to be approved by the state’s Council of Higher Education, which hasn’t commented on the proposal written by Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Asa Kasher.

Some schools already have their own guidelines on political discourse. Kasher, a co-author of Israel’s military ethics code, has said the draft was modeled after the code of the American Association of University Professors, which said the U.S. government had no hand in its document.

Opponents see the code as part of an objectionable government pattern.

“This is serious, impacts on the important issue of academic freedom, and is part of a broader attack on freedom of speech,” said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Majority Rule

The government is reducing democracy to a matter of majority rule and making it legitimate to reject criticism, he added.

They say, “we were elected and if the law passes, then what is the problem?” he said.

The government says it’s acting to defend the country against the diplomatic, economic, academic and cultural sanctions advocated by the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

A law recently approved by Israel’s parliament denies visas or residency rights to foreigners who champion boycotts of Israel or its settlements. In April, Netanyahu canceled a meeting with Germany’s foreign minister after he insisted on meeting with B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, groups that accuse the Israeli army of violating Palestinian human rights and are heavily funded by foreign governments.

Not Fraying

Officials in the prime minister’s office declined to comment for this story. Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren said he doesn’t see Israel’s democracy unraveling.

Michael Oren

Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

“Israeli laws go through the democratic process and are democratically voted on,” he said.

In the past, some bills assailed as undemocratic have foundered before reaching a parliamentary vote, or have been watered down because their constitutionality was questioned. But some derailed bills have been successfully revived by subsequent governments, like the law passed in February legalizing previously unauthorized settlements on privately owned Palestinian land.

These measures have been deplored by liberals in the the U.S. Jewish community that Israel relies on for support.

They “paint a picture discordant with the Jewish democratic state as a beacon of hope and light,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union of Reform Judaism in the U.S.

U.S. Jewry

With most American Jews identifying as Democrats, the contentious legislation could chip away at bilateral support for Israel. Republicans told the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in January that they sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians, by a margin of 74 percent to 11 percent. About a third of Democrats said they sympathize with the Palestinians and a similar share with Israel -- the largest party gap on this question since 1978.

Liberal Jews are already at odds with Israel over the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly of marriage, divorce and conversion in the Jewish state, as well as the 50-year occupation of land Palestinians claim for a state. Their dissatisfaction deepened on Sunday after the government suspended a plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, under pressure from Orthodox lawmakers. Separately, ministers approved a bill that would maintain the rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion. A majority of U.S. Jews are either Reform or Conservative.

Controversial legislation will only aggravate the rift, said Stuart Eizenstat, who served as U.S. ambassador to the European Union and deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Stuart Eizenstat

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

“It is important for Israel as a sovereign state to act in what it considers are its national interests, but no country can be isolated from the world, particularly from the U.S.,” Eizenstat said. “Israel can’t afford to lose support of a significant element of part of one of the two major U.S. parties.”

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