Making the world a better place

EMET Prize honors nine outstanding individuals in their annual ceremony.

EMET PRIZE winners pose with the award committee as they receive their prizes on stage. (photo credit: KOBI KALMANOVITZ AND DUDI SALEM)
EMET PRIZE winners pose with the award committee as they receive their prizes on stage.
When David D’Or took the stage and began his soaring rendition of Arik Einstein’s “Ani Ve’ata” (“You and I”), his words described not only the iconic late singer’s vision for the future of Israel, but also the esteemed individuals sitting behind him.
Those nine individuals were honored last week at the Jerusalem Theater for not only being the best in their respective fields, but for also – like the song says – aiming to change the world for the better.
As winners of the EMET Prize, which celebrates Israeli excellence, they represented the cream of the crop from a variety of fields. The winners included Michal Rovner and Sharon Yaari for Photography; Prof. Meir Lahav and Prof. Leslie Leiserowitz for Chemistry; Prof. Nahum Rakover for Jewish Law; Prof. Hanna Engelberg-Kulka and Prof. Ephrat Levy-Lahad for Genetics, and Prof. Eva Illouz and Prof. Hanna Herzog for Sociology.
But their stories are much more than achieving the pinnacle of success in their careers. Instead, they tell the tale of how a small agrarian society was able to transform into a hub of knowledge and innovation in less than 100 years.
“The desire for excellence, diligence and passion for curiosity are not only characteristics of the Jewish people from the dawn of history, but rather the basic guidelines on which the state was founded,” Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren said at the ceremony.
“Israel of 2018 is seen not only as a leader in technology and innovation, but also as a leader in the field of thought and science. You are the ultimate proof of this. It is not in vain that many countries see fit to invest here, in our small country,” Oren, who attended on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said of the awardees.
“These winners are dedicated to making the world a better place,” the night’s emcee Gal Ravid told the audience in the Jerusalem Theater.
And although the prize is celebrating 18 years, it has reached a laudable milestone with its decision to bestow five of its nine prizes on women.
“Giving the prize is special this year because out of the nine winners five are women. You don’t see that kind of representation in other prizes. This is a call for women in all fields, to also claim their rightful acknowledgment in other disciplines,” former Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, chairman of the prize’s award committee, said.
The prize’s executive director Arie Dubson added that the accomplishments of the winners could not occur just anywhere. To uncover such groundbreaking discoveries whether they be in science, math or sociology, one must live in a just and open society where freedom of expression is encouraged, he argued.
“These achievements can only happen in a pluralistic society where freedom of speech is a given right. I believe that whoever lives here wants security and freedom,” he said to rapturous applause.
That is not to say that the Jewish state is not without its fault. Oren criticized Israel for facilitating the brain drain phenomenon and argued that had any of these winners (five of whom are immigrants) planned to come to Israel today, they may not have been able to achieve the same success.
“As a country that champions the ingathering of exiles and seeks to provide a home for every Jew regardless where he is in the world, Israel does not do enough to appeal to the new waves of immigrants,” he lamented. “I fear that the five winners would have found it difficult to immigrate today had Israel applied their current approach to immigration back then.”
However, the night was an optimistic one that focused on the value of knowledge and education’s ability to open doors – even if that knowledge, on the surface, appears esoteric and without practical everyday use.
“‘The world has always been a sorry and confused sort of place, yet poets and artists and scientists have ignored the factors that would, if attended to, paralyze them,’” prizewinner Illouz said during her keynote speech, quoting renowned American educator Abraham Flexner. “‘But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free for the adventures which in our own day have, on the one hand, taken Hale and Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space, and, on the other, loosed the boundless energy imprisoned in the atom..’” Illouz also extolled the value of knowledge for its ability to be utterly non-discriminatory and not limited to gender, race or religion, and judging by the diversity of winners who graced the stage, this seems exceptionally accurate this year.
“There are no chandeliers in here, I see. That’s good,” D’Or joked in the middle of the ceremony, recalling an embarrassing moment during a performance in Latin America where he hit a high note that shattered an antique chandelier hanging up above.
Although his singing didn’t result in a potential hazard this time around, his booming voice singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” reached every corner of the theater. And the message of the song, a yearning for a perfect world that seems so close but yet so far encapsulated the dream of Israel where everything can (and should) be possible.
This article was written in cooperation with the EMET Prize.