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Israel denies professor prestigious prize for allegedly supporting BDS

Oded Goldreich denies endorsing BDS, and says that the education ministry's decision was 'because I am a leftist'
A protester holds up a sign reading 'I boycott Israel but not Jews!' during a march marking al-Quds International Day in Berlin, 1 June 2019 (AFP)

Israeli Education Minister Yoav Gallant has denied an Israeli professor of computer science the prestigious Israel Prize over his alleged support of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Oded Goldreich was set to receive the 2021 Israeli Prize in mathematics and computer science on Monday before it was withheld from him.

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On Thursday, the Israeli High Court of Justice asked Gallant to justify his decision within 30 days. Goldreich, professor of computer science at Weizmann Institute of Science, denied supporting BDS, according to Haaretz.

He said that Gallant's decision is “another small step in the delegitimisation of the left in Israel” and is a “political persecution”.

"If I supported BDS I would not have agreed to accept the prize, I would have had to boycott it," Goldreich said. He insisted that he never supported BDS, saying that the education minister's goal was “to prevent me from receiving the prize because of my opinions because I am a leftist. There is nothing else.”

Gallant tweeted on Friday saying that although Goldreich is “a brilliant scientist”, he “spits in the face of the State of Israel and Israeli academia, and may even be breaking the law” by supporting BDS.

He added that Goldreich’s renunciation of BDS should be investigated if it is “sincere… and if the information he gave the [High Court of Justice] and the state is correct.” Gallant also said that he “will not contribute to a boycott supporter standing on a stage on Independence Day and receiving a prize from the heads of state.”

Anti-occupation views

Goldreich had signed a petition, 13 years ago, that called for the boycott of Ariel University in the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel in the occupied West Bank.

According to Haaretz, Michael Sfard, Goldreich’s lawyer, said in a statement to the High Court that “withholding the prize is an attempt to determine - even by allusion - that anyone who opposes the settlement project and all assistance to it is not a legitimate part of Israeli society."

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“The attorney general, together with the education minister, devised a clearly McCarthyist path to prevent awarding the Israel Prize to those with anti-occupation views,” Goldreich’s lawyer said.

A joint letter was released on Friday by presidents of all Israeli universities objecting to Gallant's decision.

"Denying a person a prize due to his political beliefs contradicts the basic principle of the Israel Prize and severely harms free speech and free thought,” the letter said.

Established in 2005, the BDS movement seeks to apply financial pressure on Israel to address its violation of Palestinians' rights, a tactic the Israeli government has actively sought to discredit. The movement is inspired by the international pressure placed on South Africa's apartheid regime.

Over the years, Israeli authorities have increased efforts to fight BDS, passing a number of laws seeking to criminalise calls for a boycott of Israel or Israeli companies. 

Settlement-building is seen by many as the greatest obstacle to any potential Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Last week, Israel approved the construction of hundreds of illegal settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem, in the first such move since US President Joe Biden took office in January.