PM slammed for ‘harming academic freedom’ by banning prof. from meeting with German chancellor.

Netanyahu and Merkel at a news conference in December 2012.

Netanyahu and Merkel at a news conference in December 2012. Photo by Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu harmed academic freedom through his decision to exclude a professor from Thursday’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said two professors who attended the meeting. Netanyahu canceled Prof. Rivka Feldhay’s participation because of her political views.

For her part, Merkel spoke diplomatically at the meeting in Berlin, but hinted that she was not pleased with Netanyahu’s actions and that she disagreed with the removal of Feldhay, the head of Tel Aviv University’s Minerva Center for Human Rights.

“The chancellor noted at the meeting that academics can speak their minds, while she, as a politician, is sometimes prevented from saying certain things,” said a|n Israeli involved in the meeting.

The meeting between Netanyahu and Merkel, in the context of a summit between the two countries, was held to discuss academic cooperation between Israel and Germany. The meeting was to be a highlight of the summit – a round-table discussion with Merkel and Netanyahu alongside 10 academics and scientists from both countries.

The day before the meeting, before Netanyahu left for Berlin, National Security Adviser Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Amidror informed the Germans that Feldhay would not be allowed to participate in the meeting due to a petition she had signed in 2008 supporting Israel Defense Forces soldiers’ refusal to carry out operations in the territories. Feldhay had been invited to the event by Israel’s embassy in Berlin a few weeks before the meeting.

Two Israeli academics who were scheduled to participate in the meeting heard of the decision on Wednesday evening. The two – Prof. Reuven Amitai, dean of the humanities faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Prof. Steve Weiner, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot – considered not appearing at the session in response. But in the end the two decided to use the opportunity to protest to Netanyahu and Merkel.

Netanyahu and Merkel both spoke briefly about academic cooperation between the two nations to open the session. Netanyahu spoke of the atmosphere of academic freedom in Israel, without mentioning Feldhay.

Amitai and Weiner then attacked Netanyahu. Amitai, after briefly explaining his research, then said he was sorry he could not fully present the situation in the humanities as his colleague was not allowed to attend.

Weiner, who spoke next, spoke briefly but harshly, claiming Feldhay’s removal was political and an attack on academic freedom. He said he would not present his research in protest. A German professor also criticized Feldhay’s removal.

Netanyahu responded that everyone in Israel can say what they want, but as prime minister he could invite who he wanted to official meetings. Whoever signs petitions calling for soldiers to disobey orders to serve in the territories cannot participate with me in such an official meeting, he said.

Merkel emphasized that Israel requested that Feldhay’s invitation be canceled and Germany honored the request.

After the meeting, the German premier spoke with Amitai and Weiner and asked them to send a personal greeting to Feldhay.