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Update from Israel

The furor over Gavriel Avital's denial of evolution and global warming continues, with a host of eminent scientists calling for his dismissal and with the minister of education reportedly describing his remarks as "unacceptable." Avital, the chief scientist at the Israel ministry of education, was quoted in Haaretz (February 21, 2010) as saying, "If textbooks state explicitly that human beings' origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct ... Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula." Subsequently, Haaretz (February 23, 2010) editorially called on the minister of education, Gideon Sa'ar, to sack Avital, describing him as "an obscurantist Orthodox zealot who casts doubt on the validity of scientific research and rejects both evolution and global warming."

The reaction to Avital's remarks from the scientific community was indignant, with Yehoshua Kolodny, who recently won the Israel Prize — the country's highest civilian honor — for his contributions to the earth sciences, telling Haaretz (February 22, 2010), "Denying evolution is like denying science itself." A letter to Sa'ar signed by ten recipients of the Israel Prize, including Nobel laureates Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover, protested that Avital's remarks "undermine the standing and importance of science and take us centuries backward, even as the world celebrates the importance of Charles Darwin's discoveries and the great contributions he made to human knowledge and scientific development, and is striving to uproot benighted doctrines such as intelligent design," and commented, "We don't see any alternative other than to replace Dr. Gavriel Avital with an individual suited to fill the position, one who could do so faithfully and professionally," Haaretz (February 26, 2010) reported.

Sa'ar is apparently taking the protests seriously, telling a session of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, that Avital's remarks "are not in line with Education Ministry policy, and are unacceptable to me." Haaretz (February 25, 2010) reported that a letter sent by one of Sa'ar aides to Eyal Morag, a blogger who publicized Avital's statements, explained, "The statements of the chief scientist of the Education Ministry reflect only his personal views and do not reflect the policy of the ministry, those heading it and the professionals in charge [of the said] subjects." A source in the ministry described the letter as in effect a vote of no confidence in Avital; and although Sa'ar told the Knesset that "a process of clarification with the chief scientist" was underway, a source in the ministry told Haaretz that Sa'ar would prefer for Avital to resign. Instructed by the ministry not to give any interviews, Avital reportedly told a religious website that he stands behind his statements, but would not make any comment to Haaretz.