Terra Incognita: The decline of the Israel Prize

Is this country so bereft of good people that none can be found who doesn’t describe Jews as ‘apes’ or compare Jewish politicians to Nazis?

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 national television.
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 1999.
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 Ma’ariv 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 Court.
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.
In 2004 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 Line.”
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).
Jews from 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.