Israel Prize pummeled by literary studies scandal

"Prof. Nitza Ben Dov is a diligent and multifaceted researcher, but she does not stand for the excellence... the award demands," Prof. Yaffa Berlowtiz, one of the judges, said.

Prof. Nitza Ben Dov (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
Prof. Nitza Ben Dov
(photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
For the first time, one of the members of the Israel Prize Committee for Literary Studies has expressed reservations about her committee’s decision, according to a report on Kan Broadcasting on Monday.
This literary fracas started when Prof. Yaffa Berlowtiz, a judge this year, sent a letter to Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who is responsible for the awarding of the prizes, saying she regretted the choice her committee had made for this year’s prize, Prof. Nitza Ben Dov of Haifa University. The Israel Prize is the country’s highest civilian honor.
Excerpts from the letter were read on Kan’s “Undercover” program Monday with Yuval Avivi and Maya Sela. In Berlowitz’s letter, she wrote that Ben Dov does not deserve the award because her work does not meet the standard of excellence that the prize represents and that the choice was dictated to the committee members. “Prof. Nitza Ben Dov is a diligent and multifaceted researcher, but she does not stand for the excellence . . . the award demands,” Berlowitz wrote. “I found myself in the minority, and any attempt in advance to persuade and reason about my choices came to naught.”
The three committee members, all of whom are female, were pressured to choose a woman, she said. “I was amazed when I realized that we were chosen as women to put into practice ‘affirmative action’ and award the prize to a woman researcher.”
Berlowitz also criticized one of the other members of the committee, the author Yehudit Rotem, for choosing a winner based on the accessibility of the winner’s work rather than its quality. On his Kan program, “Culture, Too,” Goel Pinto questioned Ben Dov over the fact that she had written about Rotem’s work, wondering whether it was aboveboard for Ben Dov to be chosen for the prize by an author whose work she had critiqued.
Ben Dov, who said she was sorry to hear about Berlowitz’s letter but who emphasized that she was not involved in the committee’s deliberations, said that she felt it was fair for Rotem to have been on the committee and to have recommended her for the prize. The third member of the committee was Prof. Aliza Shenhar.
The Education Ministry responded: ”The committee selected to discuss the awarding of the prize for the study of Hebrew and general literature acted in a professional and independent manner. In the process, its final decision was made impartially and flawlessly. The committee discussed a number of candidates and decided unanimously, including Prof. Yaffa Berlowitz, to choose the candidate Prof. Nitza Ben Dov. Prof. Berlowitz was also a partner in the statement of reasons for awarding the prize.” The Education Ministry went on to detail Rotem and Shenhar’s qualifications.
In another controversy dogging Ben Dov, Dr. Gilad Padva is suing her and Haifa University over the fact that he was fired, allegedly due to his refusal to inflate grades for his students and other unfair treatment. He made an appeal to Gallant not to award Ben Dov the Israel Prize. Ben Dov told Pinto on his show that she did not know the details of his lawsuit, and, when she heard them, denied his allegations.
This is not the first time the Israel Prize has been visited by controversy. In February 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vetoed the appointment of two members of the selection panel for the Israel Prize in Literature, prompting the resignation of several other judges. Netanyahu defended his actions, accusing the judges of cronyism and awarding prizes to friends. Several members of the committees for the literary research and film prizes also resigned and other candidates, including author David Grossman, withdrew themselves from consideration.
In 1993, philosopher Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz turned down the prize after then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said he would boycott the ceremony. Leibowitz, who had described the  conduct of the settler movement as “Judeo-Nazi,” said he had decided to forgo the honor to avoid embarrassing Rabin.
The Israel Prizes are set to be awarded on Independence Day which falls on April 15.