Israel’s right-wing coalition ‘already damaging science’

Sector leaders warn of brain drain as government pushes for constitutional change to assert control over judiciary and end to recognition of degrees from Palestine

February 22, 2023
Protesters hold Israeli flags and placards while chanting slogans during the demonstration
Source: Getty
Outrage the government’s plans for constitutional reform have been met with demonstrations in the streets and have sparked altercations in the legislature

Israel’s young right-wing government is already hurting the country’s universities, and if it continues its path towards authoritarianism, it could result in catastrophic brain drain, sector leaders warned.

The sixth government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which took office in the final days of 2022, has faced weeks of mass protests over its plans to more closely control judicial appointments and to curb the powers of the supreme court.

The plans have few backers outside the coalition government, and the resulting uproar over them led the president, Isaac Herzog, to appeal for the country to step back from “constitutional and social collapse”, while furious opposition lawmakers have been thrown out of the Knesset, Israel’s one-chamber legislature.

In a joint statement in late January, the heads of Israel’s major universities said they had “deep concern” about the proposed programme of judicial changes, which could do “fatal damage to the Israeli academy” and “manifest itself in brain drain”.

Ehud Keinan, president of the Israel Chemical Society and president-elect of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, told Times Higher Education that Israel’s internationally well-regarded academic workforce would quickly flee illiberalism.

“If Israel becomes a non-democratic country, Israeli science will collapse and disappear irreversibly in no time,” said Professor Keinan, who works at Technion Israel Institute of Technology. “One telephone call and I’m out of here with my family within a week, because options are available any time, in the United States, Europe, Asia. I just say, ‘Hey, I’m accepting your standing offer, I can come next week’ – and that’s it. And there are many people like me.”

Although the centre- to far-right coalition government has had little bandwidth to devote to higher education, its policymaking is already damaging the country’s reputation as a research and innovation powerhouse, according to David Harel, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

“Scientists abroad will have second thoughts about whether to collaborate with Israeli scientists, given the fact that the situation here will be chaotic and undemocratic,” he said, adding that there have already been murmurs of concern about the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), the country’s main research funder.

“The ISF reviewing process is almost completely dependent on external reviewers from outside Israel, and we are seeing the first signs of an increase in refusals to review. If this trend continues in a big way, it will critically damage the ability of the ISF to evaluate Israeli science, which will have far-reaching ramifications.”

Other international relations could also be at risk. Avi Dichter, the agriculture minister and a former domestic spy chief, has proposed that Israel should no longer recognise academic degrees awarded by Palestinian universities because their students are “exposed to anti-Israel materials and messages”, a claim that has been rubbished by educators there.

“Palestinian public universities are crucial to providing Arab Israeli students with higher education,” Abdel Naser Zaid, president of An-Najah National University in the West Bank, told THE. “The success and growth of this community depends on the supportive, welcoming and culturally sensitive environments that these universities provide.”

Professor Keinan compared the “war” between the government and swathes of Israeli society – 35 per cent of people think the judicial reform will lead to civil war – to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. “We are fighting for democracy, Zelensky is doing the same; on the other side, this regime has all the characteristics of a mafia.”

A military veteran, he compared the constitutional crisis to the existential threat Israel faced during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “I feel the same way now – that it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be maybe a long haul. But I have no doubt that we’re going to win,” Professor Keinan said.

The decision to place the leader of the far-right Noam party in charge of a new body with a budget of NIS100 million (£23.4 million) overseeing school enrichment programmes has also drawn criticism. Deputy minister Avi Maoz, known for his anti-LGBT views, wants to see lessons on gender issues halted unless most parents explicitly give their consent for it.

“A chunk of school education curricula was handed over to a person who has very dark and primitive views of culture and of general, liberal education and values,” said Professor Harel, who works at the Weizmann Institute of Science. “It causes me to fear that bad things can happen in other arenas, too,” he said, expressing a worry that public university budgets could be cut or that critical academics could be subjected to political pressure.

“I would like to be proven wrong about some of these dark worries, these dark predictions. But there is no sign yet that these worries are far-fetched and should not be taken seriously,” he added.


Print headline: Netanyahu’s reforms ‘damaging Israel’s scientific reputation’

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Reader's comments (1)

Seriously, why do you globalists and Marxist-Stalinists insist on calling any regime other than your far left theocracy a far right regime and “enemy of science”? So Israel is no longer a democracy and the country is ruled by a mafia? Where can we find democracy and "social justice" on Earth? In Venezuela, Colombia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Palestine? Of course, by your standards, Italy must now be a "terrible, oppressive far-right regime", isn't it? Come on, do you really know the meaning of these political metaphors called "right", "left", "center", "extreme right and "extreme left", all of them born from the Franco-Jacobin Revolution?