For a unifying Israel prize

There may be years when it's better to select no one than those who embody the intolerances that tear us apart.

zeev sternhell 88 (photo credit: )
zeev sternhell 88
(photo credit: )
The Israel Prize is awarded, in a nationally televised ceremony on Yom Ha'atzmaut, to citizens and organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the Zionist enterprise. Some winners are world-famous, others known only within their spheres of expertise. Recipients this year include the Jewish Agency women's organizations Na'amat, WIZO and Emunah, and Ezer Mitzion, a charitable group. Among individual prizewinners are translator Nili Mirsky, short-story writer Aida Fink and poet Tuvia Ribner. But in selecting Prof. Ze'ev Sternhell for the Israel Prize, the judges made a more controversial choice. Israel's High Court on Monday heard a petition, filed by the Legal Forum for Eretz Yisrael and the Ofra Local Council, against granting the award to the highly partisan political scientist. In 1997 the court referred a decision to confer the Israel Prize on then Ma'ariv editor Shmuel Schnitzer back to the awards committee, ultimately torpedoing his selection. Schnitzer was criticized because of a single op-ed, in a prolific 59-year career, in which he warned against the high incidence of HIV among the Falash Mura. WHY THE opposition to Sternhell? Although no one questions his Zionist credentials, he is a divisive figure. Writing in Davar on April 4, 1988, he insisted that "Only those ready to storm Ofra [a settlement in Samaria] with tanks will stem the fascist tide that threatens to engulf Israel's democracy." On May 11, 2001 Sternhell wrote in Haaretz: "For many Israelis, perhaps the majority of voters, there is no doubt about the legitimacy of [Palestinian] armed resistance in the territories proper. Were the Palestinians wiser, they would concentrate their struggle against the settlements… instead of placing bombs west of the Green Line." These are troubling comments, but an even larger point is at issue. The Israel Prize is the preserve of the education minister, who appoints panels of judges for each prize category. Categories may vary annually. Each panel must number at least three members and its decisions have to be unanimous. They are then subject to the minister's approval. The rules mandate that the identity of the panel be kept under wraps until the official announcement, that no protocols be kept and that deliberation details remain confidential. The public isn't privy to how any choice was made and - until after the event - not even to who was entrusted with making it. Because a politician controls the process, political preferences are likely, although some ministers, like the Likud's Limor Livnat, failed to prevail. THIS IS hardly the first time divisive figures have been selected since the 1953 inception of the prize. But most of the controversies have taken place these past 15 years. For instance, in 1993 the prize was awarded to Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz despite his labeling IDF soldiers "Judeo-Nazis." Following an outcry and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's threat to boycott the ceremony, Leibowitz himself declined the prize. In 2003, artist Moshe Gershuni announced that he wouldn't shake Livnat's hand, and was eventually denied his prize. In 2004 the choice of sculptor Yigal Tumarkin stirred up another hornet's nest, but the panel rejected Livnat's entreaty that it reconsider its choice. This, despite the fact that Tumarkin reportedly said he wished he had gunned down nationalist politicians Rafael Eitan and Rehavam Ze'evi. Tumarkin also once fashioned a pig wearing phylacteries, and on November 4, 1988 told Tel Aviv Magazine that the sight of haredi Jews makes him "understand the Nazis." He later wished "Moroccan whiners would cease burdening us with so many babies." IN ISRAEL'S fragmented polity - 12 different political parties are represented in the 17th Knesset - we would prefer to see awards of this nature going, if not only to people and groups that bridge social, political and religious chasms, then at least not to those that seem to exacerbate them. Perhaps the anonymity of the panel members needs to be reconsidered. The decisions they make ought to embrace an ethos of non-partisanship. There may even be years when it is better to select no one at all in some categories than those who embody, rather than the values that unite us, the controversies and intolerances that tear us apart.