How low did things have to get so that the Israel Prize – the country’s highest
civilian honor – is routinely awarded to people who feel outright contempt for
their fellow citizens? One was reminded of this last week, when it was revealed
that singer Yehoram Gaon had said of Mizrahi music: “It’s rubbish that even the
devil didn’t create.”
His comments were tame compared to those by prize
laureate Natan Zach, who last year described Sephardi Jews as cave dwellers on
Since its inception in 1953, the prize has been
awarded to individuals in a variety of categories such as culture, sciences, the
humanities and special contributions to the nation. Over the years more annual
prizes have been awarded (14 in 2010), for a total of 633. Several people
received the prize twice, and one – architect Ram Karmi – was the brother and
son of recipients. Beginning in the 1990s, numerous anti-Israel people have
received the prize.
Controversy began in 1992, when the Arab nationalist
and communist Emile Habibi received the prize. The nomination caused scientist
Yuval Neeman to return his.
Awarding the prize to people who don’t like
Israel was inaugurated by education minister Shulamit Aloni in 1992 (she also
received the prize in 2000). Aloni has declared that this is an apartheid state
in the online magazine Counterpunch (January, 2007). She compared Yitzhak Rabin
to Mussolini in 1989 and Binyamin Netanyahu to Joseph Goebbels in
The next controversial person to almost receive it was Yeshayahu
Leibowitz, the philosophy professor who called this a “Judeo-Nazi” state.
However, he declined the prize.
In 1997 the prize was almost awarded to
columnist Shmuel Shnitzer, who had written an article in 1994 entitled
“Importing Death” (sometimes translated as “Importing Blood”), in which he
argued that Ethiopian Jews were “thousands of apostates carrying dangerous
diseases.” His nomination was only blocked by the High
Aloni was given the prize in 2000 by her Meretz Party colleague
Yossi Sarid when he was serving as education minister. No one asked whether
there was a conflict of interest. In 2003 the prize was awarded to artist Moshe
Gershoni, who refused to accept it because he didn’t want to shake hands with
prime minister Ariel Sharon or education minister Limor Livnat.
Yuval Tumarkin, a sculptor, received the prize. Tumarkin described
religious Jews as “a mob... [of] primitives and monkeys... When one sees the
haredim, one understands why there was a Holocaust.” Moroccan Jews were
“descended from a nation of primitive parasites.”
In 2005 Alex Levac,
famed photographer of the bus 300 affair, received the prize. He said after that
“although the prize was given to me by the officialdom, they are not the ones
who choose me” – an apparent reference to his respect for the cultured members
of the selection committee. He accepted his prize despite his revulsion at the
“officials” who gave it to him.
Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell received the prize
in 2008 despite a 2001 column in Haaretz
in which he suggested that “there is no
doubt about the legitimacy of armed resistance in the territories themselves. If
the Palestinians had a little sense, they would concentrate their struggle
against the settlements... and refrain from planting bombs west of the Green
NOT EVERYONE has stood silently by while the prizes were given to
Israel-haters. Writer Carol Novis compared rewarding a prize to unsavory
characters to appreciating Wagner, who was a great artist and a bad man. Uri
Avnery went further, arguing that those who stirred controversy by getting the
prize should be happy not to receive it, for the real prize is that they are
moral people standing against the state. Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan
Rosenblum condemned the continuing awarding of the prize to intolerant
individuals. But this misses the point.
Is Israel so bereft of good and
brilliant people that none can be found who has contributed greatly to arts and
culture and who doesn’t describe Jews as “apes” or compare Jewish politicians to
Nazis? Why did Aloni receive the prize but not Shimon Peres or Menahem Porush?
Perhaps when it comes to the latter it is because the prize has almost never
been awarded to a religious Jew (let alone a Sephardi one).
Muslim countries make up a third of the population, yet, by my own estimate,
only about 2 percent of Israel Prizes have gone to them. Unfortunately, the
prize is generally awarded to people from a very narrow, selfappointed elite. In
these circles it seems that comments about Sephardim being “from caves” and
haredim being “monkeys” are acceptable. No member of this elite seems to recall
which culture produced the Holocaust.
YUVAL NEEMAN was right to return
the prize; it has become, like some Groucho Marx joke, a club to which one would
not want to belong.
The fact that people like Zach are only “outed” as
racists years after receiving the prize doesn’t say much. If they describe
Sephardim as cave-dwellers on national television, what do they do in private?
If they write in a major paper that Ethiopian Jews are disease-ridden, what
curses must they hurl in the company of friends? And it’s not about “freedom of
speech.” The freedom of Zach and Tumarkin to hate other Jews is not in question;
they are welcome to wallow in their sewer of hate. It’s just that a sewer
shouldn’t deserve an award for being the best cesspool on the block.The
writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem
Institute for Market Studies.