Far-Right Minister Blackballs Top Brain Researcher Because She Protested the Occupation

Far-right Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis blocked the appointment of a leading Israeli brain researcher, Prof. Yael Amitai, to an Israeli-German scientific committee, saying he was doing so because a decade ago she had signed a petition in support of soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied West Bank.

Prof. Yael Amitai

Prof. Yael Amitai (Photo: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)

A source involved in the field of brain research warned about the potential professional harm to Amitai that could result from Akunis’ action. Prof. Amitai heads the Interfaculty Brain Sciences School at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The source added that political intervention in Israeli research could also undermine Israel’s status in the eyes of foreign foundations.

The head of the Forum of University Heads and Tel Aviv University President Prof. Joseph Klafter has written to Akunis, warning him of the potential harm to Israeli interests.

Akunis’ media adviser, Ohad Yehezkeli, said the minister, “decided not to sign the recommendation to appoint Ms. Amitai as a representative to the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research, not because of her opinions but because in the past she had signed a petition encouraging draft refusal to the Israeli army.

The Forum of University Heads has asked PM Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene and approve Amitai’s appointment. “This is an embarrassing situation for the State of Israel, in which the minister in charge of science will stop at no means to glorify himself among his political supporters, while sacrificing on the altar of politics the interests of the State of Israel and the status of Israeli academia as a whole, putting millions of euros that are supposed to reach Israeli researchers and scientists at risk,” the request said.

More than 1,500 lecturers have signed a petition demanding to “reverse the political decision regarding the scientific appointment.” The petition reads: “We, the undersigned faculty members of Institutions of higher education in Israel, strongly protest the refusal of Ofir Akunis, Minister of Science and Technology, to confirm the appointment of Professor Yael Amitai to the Board of Governors of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF). This refusal was based on Professor Amitai’s political views, as indicated by the Minister’s statement. A reality, in which a person’s appointment to a professional position, whether academic or non-academic, is denied based on political views, shatters the foundations of Israeli democracy. In particular, the disqualification of Professor Amitai, an outstanding scientist and a leading professional in her discipline, from serving in a scientific capacity based on her past political activity, sets a grave precedent, which threatens Israeli science, as well as Israel’s standing in the global scientific community. Moreover, it provides ammunition to those who call for the boycotting of Israeli academia.

“We request that the Minister confirm Professor Amitai’s appointment to the GIF Board. Until this demand is met, we call on our colleagues in Israeli institutions of higher education to refuse to serve on the GIF Board in place of Professor Amitai. Moreover, we call on the scientists already serving on this Board to suspend their participation until the confirmation of her appointment. If our demand is not met, we will reconsider our cooperation with the Ministry of Science and Technology.”

On December 2011, Akunis, who sponsored the bill to limit foreign funding to Israeli human rights organization, stood behind the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s when he presided over a committee that investigated Americans with alleged links to the Communist Party. Akunis, speaking on the “London and Kirshenbaum” television show on Channel 10, said McCarthy “was right in every word; the fact is – there were Soviet agents.”