The Israel Prize in Literature will not be awarded this year, the High Court of Justice ruled on Monday.
The announcement followed a more than monthlong controversy in which members of the prize’s judging committee resigned in protest over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent meddling in the makeup of the panel.
A group of prominent Israeli artists, including Nissim Dayan, Ran Yagil and Rachel Dayan, petitioned the Supreme Court to cancel the distribution of the Israel Prize due to a “defect” in the award process.
“This year the Israel Prize in Hebrew literary research will not be awarded,” the Supreme Court judges wrote in their decision.
“This given the fact that a new judging committee has not been appointed in this area, and given the fact that on March 3 the period for the prime minister to replace the education minister ended.”
Netanyahu, who has held the Education portfolio since Yesh Atid’s Shai Piron resigned, was asked to approve the judges panels for the prize, usually a formality.
Without a new judging panel, the appointments will have to be postponed until after the March 17 election and the subsequent nomination of a new education minister – not enough time to select a prize laureate by the March 20 submission deadline.
“The prize was contaminated and it is no longer possible to have [the judging panel] in secret,” Chaim Stanger, a lawyer who represented the artists, said during the hearing. “To date they have not succeeded in establishing a new [judging] committee for literature. Why have they not been able to establish a committee? Because it is difficult to establish a panel when others have removed themselves.”
The court further discussed the possibility that the Israel Prize would also not be awarded in the categories of literature and song; film; and lifetime achievement.
Prof. Nissim Calderon, among those who resigned from the literature judging panel, told Army Radio that he is happy with the High Court decision.
“We thought the prime minister’s intervention in the field of literature was illegitimate political interference,” he said. “The High Court has played a very important role in protecting democracy and professional integrity.”
Last month it was revealed that the Prime Minister’s Office rejected professors Avner Holtzman and Ariel Hirschfeld as members of the Literature Prize panel. The dismissals prompted the remaining members, comprised of leading authors and academics, to resign from the panel, decrying the “clear politicization of the prize.” In addition, several noted authors and cultural icons, including Ruth Dayan, Haim Be’er, Sami Michael and David Grossman, withdrew their candidacy for the Literature Prize in protest.
Following intervention by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, Netanyahu agreed to comply with the request not to interfere in the makeup of the judges panel for the Israel Prize during the election campaign period.
Despite this, the judges refused to return to the panel and no new committee was appointed.
Netanyahu took to Facebook last month to explain and justify the dismissals, writing that the judges panel for the Israel Prize was comprised of too many extremists, including anti-Zionist elements.
“The committee that chooses the winners of the Israel Prize must be balanced and faithfully reflect a variety of ideologies, attitudes and dimensions of Israeli society,” he wrote. “But over the years more and more extremists were appointed to the judging committee, including anti-Zionist elements – such as those that support refusal to serve in the IDF – and too little authentic representatives of large parts of the nation.”
According to the prime minister, the “extremist” committee members distributed prizes to their friends, whoever shared their same viewpoints, and those who did not do so found it very difficult to integrate into the judging committee or receive the coveted prize.
“This situation, in which a small and closed group with extreme positions passes the baton from hand to hand and retains control over the selection of the winners of the Israel Prize has to change,” he said. “Because the Israel Prize belongs to all the people of Israel.”
Netanyahu has said that if he will be reelected as prime minister, he will establish a committee to devise criteria for the appointment of judges for the prize according to the recommendations of the state comptroller and the attorney-general.
The Zionist Union issued a statement Monday harshly criticizing Netanyahu over the incident.
“Every issue during his tenure in which the prime minister intervened, he left behind him destruction and embarrassment,” the statement read.
“Israeli literature has been around before Netanyahu and will remain after him, but the damage that he has now caused to the prize – which is also a national symbol – tells the story of his nine-year term.”
The Israel Prize is largely regarded as the state’s highest honor. It is presented annually on Independence Day in a state ceremony in Jerusalem in the presence of the president, the prime minister, the Knesset speaker and the Supreme Court president.