Not giving Goldreich the Israel Prize was correct - opinion

The government would have dishonored itself, and all of us, to have decided to award him the Israel Prize. 

 THEN-EDUCATION MINISTER Yoav Gallant addresses this past year’s Israel Prize ceremony in April, in Jerusalem. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
THEN-EDUCATION MINISTER Yoav Gallant addresses this past year’s Israel Prize ceremony in April, in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Yifat Sasha-Biton, the current education minister, just reiterated the decision made by her predecessor, Yoav Gallant, that the coveted Israel Prize should not be awarded to Weizmann Institute mathematics and computer science Prof. Oded Goldreich. The primary reason was that in March, Goldreich had signed a petition to the German Parliament that endorsed a boycott of Ariel University because of its presence over the Green Line, in the Shomron.

While there has been the predictable amount of hand wringing, lamentations and accusations about the decision, truthfully, it seems to reflect the wisdom of Groucho Marx’s pronouncement: “Huh! Why a four-year-old child could understand this report! Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it.”

In other words, a small amount of consideration should not only make these decisions self apparent, but should make one wonder why there has been any controversy about them in the first place.

Let’s remember that the prize is being given out by the Israeli government. The government appropriately asks selection committees to nominate worthwhile candidates, because the government tends not to have the expertise to discern professional excellence, either on its own merits, or concerning the relative worthiness of several potential awardees. 

The recommendations of the selection committees deal with the professional merits of the particular candidate.

Israelis gathered in real-time for Israel's 2021 Israel Prize Ceremony, which took place on Independence Day, April 15, 2021.  (credit: AMIR YAKOBY)Israelis gathered in real-time for Israel's 2021 Israel Prize Ceremony, which took place on Independence Day, April 15, 2021. (credit: AMIR YAKOBY)

However, the ultimate decision to award the prize carries with it the imprimatur, the hechsher, the blessing of the Israeli government, on behalf of the Israeli people. The awarding of the prize represents the government saying, “The awardee is one who represents the best of our society, our nation. He or she stands as an exemplar, to be honored, and if possible, to be emulated.”

THERE IS obviously a broader field of vision covered by the government’s award than that of the selection committee’s determination.

Would a brilliant scientist who happened to express racist views pass the muster of the committee? Just possibly yes, because the focus would be on the person’s scientific achievements.

Would the government be within its rights to take into account personal behavior in making its determination? I think there would be enormous consensus that it would be. In fact, it would look foolish and inept if such a situation was ignored, thus ending up with a widely regarded racist awardee.

The case of Goldreich is also graphic, though obviously in a different context. Should the government, knowing that the recommended awardee has adopted a position consistent with those who seek to demonize and delegitimize Israel, nevertheless say, you represent the best of our society, the best that our nation has to offer?

Let’s for a minute play through the consequences of what Goldreich wants: a boycott of Ariel University. Implicitly, there is a charge of collective guilt and complicity that those who teach or study at Ariel are somehow party to some nefarious undertaking. 

Goldreich is not just criticizing government policy, but he is weaponizing his criticism by his willingness to throw thousands of people like himself – academics, students, researchers – under the bus of his political judgment. It is a gesture that bespeaks a profound arrogance, the very opposite of “the best our society and nation have to offer.”

Forget the common sense reality that, in the spirit of “democracy is not a suicide pact” the government need not bestow honor on someone who holds it in contempt and seeks to punish it. Look at the human dimension, for there is a profound and pervasive human dimension here.

At Im Tirtzu’s recent annual conference, I had the honor to present our award for excellence for our best branch (we have more than 15 on campuses around the country.) to Ariel University’s branch. One of their amazing achievements (besides helping farmers harvest their crops, and honoring our soldiers at checkpoints with treats and hugs) was to gather 1,000 student signatures on a petition calling for the government not to award the Israel Prize to Goldreich. 

This achievement was not just a statement of political outrage, but it was also an existential cri de couer, a cry from the heart, as to the unjustness, the cruelty that such an honoring would signal. That act by our student activists says it all regarding what awarding the Israel Prize should represent: honoring one who achieves great excellence in his chosen field, but also “lives among my people.”

Goldreich, brilliant though he might be, fails the second part of the needed criteria miserably. The government would have dishonored itself, and all of us, to have decided to award him the Israel Prize. 

The writer is chairman of the board of the Im Tirtzu grassroots Zionist organization, and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]