HCJ Falls Short of Reversing Prize Denial to Communist Professor

While Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ) announced on Thursday, August 12, its unanimous rejection of the decision of former Education Minister Yoav Gallant to withhold the Israel Prize in mathematics and computer science from Communist Prof. Oded Goldreich, it did so in a non-binding fashion.

Instead of unequivocally reversing Gallant’s decision to veto awarding the prize to Goldreich due to his support for the struggle against occupation of the Palestinian territories, the court ruled that current the Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton should be given the opportunity to reconsider her earlier decision. In July, the newly installed minister Shasha-Biton informed the High Court that she was upholding her far-right predecessor’s denying of the prize to Goldreich.

Prof. Oded Goldreich (left) and Atty. Michael Sfard at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem

Prof. Oded Goldreich (left) and Atty. Michael Sfard at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem (Photo: Sfard’s Facebook page)

Justices Noam Sohlberg, Yael Wilner and Yitzhak Amit reached their milquetoast, non-obligatory ruling announced on Thursday, after being split 2 to 1 over whether to make their decision binding or not. Justice Amit said he would have vetoed Shasha-Biton’s previous decision and granted Goldreich the prize since he was approved by the non-political Israel Prize committee and the award should remain non-political other than in much more extreme cases. Amit’s view was the same as Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, especially since Goldreich is a “math professor who does not teach political issues to students.” However, Sohlberg and Wilner said they wanted to avoid the court forcing Shasha-Biton to grant the prize and preferred to give her a chance to reconsider in light of “their factual findings.”

Zo Haderech has reported that Goldreich’s lawyers, Michael Sfard and Hagai Benziman said in response to the verdict: “We are of course pleased with the unanimous decision to overturn former education minister Gallant’s unfounded and dangerous decision.” “However, the decision of the majority of judges to pass the issue to the political echelon without ruling that political statements are not relevant to the question of eligibility for the award is unfortunate, and should concern all those advocating for freedom of expression in Israel,” the lawyers added in the statement.

Galant’s initial vetoing of the award to Goldreich weeks before the prize ceremony last April came after the fascist group Im Tirzu published a report which found the math professor’s signature on a petition in which he and 522 others called to boycott academic institutions in occupied territories, the most notable of which is the so-called university in the settlement of Ariel. “Anyone who calls for the boycott of Ariel and even works on the issue does not take a political position, but acts deliberately and consciously to weaken Israeli academia,” Gallant said at the time.

Education Minister Shasha-Biton’s office said on Thursday that the minister “has received the High Court’s ruling on Prof. Goldreich’s Israel Prize award, she will study it and make a decision after an in-depth examination.” Until then, the question remains what will happen if Shasha-Biton rejects the court’s recommendation and reconfirms the denial of the prize to Goldreich?

Related: Posts on Professor Oded Goldreich’s Israel Prize award controversy