The tricky story of the Israel Prize

Strange as it may sound, this petition must be credited to the Supreme Court itself.

July 14, 2019 21:52
4 minute read.
The tricky story of the Israel Prize

Independence Day Celebrations . (photo credit: GPO)

The petition, which was submitted to the Supreme Court in file 170/19, was one of the most bizarre in the history of Israeli courts. The petitioner, a lawyer from Moroccan origin, asked the court to order the education minister to revoke the Israel Prize, which was granted to Prof. Reuven Feuerstein. The petitioner based her request on a book published by Prof. Feuerstein that, in her opinion, was “racist and horrifying” by creating “stereotypes and prejudice” against Moroccan immigrants.

The petitioner disregarded the fact that 56 years have passed since the book was published, that the prize was granted to Feuerstein 27 years ago and that he passed away five years ago. The petitioner sued also Feuerstein’s estate for compensation in the amount of NIS 350,000 for her being hurt as a daughter of Moroccan Jews.

Strange as it may sound, this petition must be credited to the Supreme Court itself. In a decision handed down over two decades ago the Court decided to revoke the Israel Prize, which was awarded to Maariv editor Shmuel Shnitzer. The petitioner, MK Addisu Messele, argued that the prize should be denied due to a blunt op-ed published by Shnitzer, in which he criticized the immigration of the Falash Mura, whom he regarded as carriers of diseases that endanger public health.

The court was aware of the law provision declaring that a decision regarding conferment of a title or prize are non-justiciable. Nevertheless, the court deprived Shnitzer of the prize, stating that in nominating Shnitzer, the members of the committee of judges were not aware of the article. The court decided so in spite of the fact that the deliberations of the committee are confidential. In concluding that the committee was unaware of the article, the court relied on a media interview with the adviser of the committee. Yet the chair of the committee, Judge Gabriel Strassman, himself a former senior journalist with Maariv, stated that he knew about the article yet was never asked about it.

The court’s decision in the Shnitzer case opened the door for a plethora of petitions asking the court to turn down decisions to confer the Israel Prize, yet they all were rejected. First was a petition submitted by then deputy education minister Zvi Hendel to revoke the prize conferred upon Amos Oz for publishing an article, which constituted “a severe injury to a wide part of the public.” In his article, Oz referred to Gush Emunim Movement, describing it as “a messianic sect, sealed and cruel, a gang of armed gangsters, criminals against humanity, sadists, pogromists and murderers who emerged from a dark corner of Judaism... in order to impose a bloodthirsty ritual.”

Nevertheless, the court denied the petition since it was not proven that the committee was not aware of the article. The court added that it is not in the habit to intervene in the considerations of organs engaging in granting prizes. For the same reason, the Supreme Court rejected a petition to deny Shulamit Aloni the Israel Prize, stating that “there is no basis to assume that the committee was not aware of such and other expressions by Aloni.”

LIKEWISE, THE Supreme Court rejected a petition by The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, which requested that the court deny the Israel Prize awarded to Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell due of his harsh statements against the settlers. In his article, he wrote: “Many in Israel, perhaps even the majority of the voters, do not doubt the legitimacy of the armed resistance in the territories themselves. The Palestinians would be wise to concentrate their struggle against the settlements, avoid harming women and children and strictly refrain from firing on Gilo, Nahal Oz or Sderot; it would also be smart to stop planting bombs to the west of the Green Line. By adopting such an approach, the Palestinians would be sketching the profile of a solution that is the only inevitable one: The amended Green Line will be an international border, and territory will be handed over to compensate the Palestinians for land that has already been or will be annexed to Israel.” On another, occasion he wrote: “Only those who are prepared to take Ofra with tanks can stop the fascist erosion threatening to drown Israel’s democracy.”

The court nevertheless rejected the petition, stating that “it is not reasonable that expressing such or other opinion will erase with a blink of an eye his long activity and will overweight his contribution to the research of political science and his contribution to the academia and to Israeli society.”

The court might have been right, however, this is the same court that deprived Shnitzer – one of the leading publicists in Israel – pf the prize based on one of thousands of op-eds that he wrote.

Whoever revoked Shnitzer’s Israel Prize should not be surprised by a petition to retroactively revoke the prize from a person who is not with us anymore.

The writer is dean of the Peres Academic Center Law School and vice president of the Honorary Committee of Association Internationale pour la Defense de la Liberté Religieuse

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