Prize situation

To hear the hue and cry, nothing as untoward had ever marred the history of the prize. But the opposite is true. Controversies and scandals continually plagued it.

2014 Israel Prize ceremony (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
2014 Israel Prize ceremony
(photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
The latest pandemonium over the Israel Prize petered out only after restoration of the status quo ante – the return of the judges whom Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (in his role as caretaker education minister) tried to remove for gross politicization. They in turn accused Netanyahu of unbridled politicization.
It took the attorney-general to calm things with the request that there be no messing with the prize panel during the election campaign.
Netanyahu, having presumably made his point about the panel’s tendentiousness, was quick to comply.
Yet to hear the hue and cry, nothing as untoward had ever marred the history of the prize. But the opposite is true. Controversies and scandals continually plagued it.
The incontrovertible fact is that the public is not privy to how choices are made and not even who is entrusted with making them – until after the event. Because a politician (the serving education minister) pro forma controls the process, political preferences are likely to influence the awards, although some ministers – notably in Likud-led governments – serially fail to prevail.
This reality has produced some bizarre choices since the Israel Prize’s 1953 launch. But the greatest controversies have occurred from the 1990s on.
In 1993, then-education minister Shulamit Aloni appointed dovish Labor politician Aharon Yariv as panel chairman on condition that he secure an award for left-wing- guru Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, notorious for labeling IDF soldiers “Judeo-Nazis.” Yariv resigned in fury.
Leibowitz subsequently declined the prize following a maelstrom of protest (then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin threatened to boycott the ceremony).
In 1997, the High Court of Justice set an interventionist precedent when it referred back to the awards committee its decision to confer the Israel Prize on (moderately rightist) Ma’ariv editor Shmuel Schnitzer. The committee then predictably backtracked. Schnitzer was disqualified because of one op-ed – in a prolific 59-year career – in which he warned against the high incidence of HIV among the Falashmura.
But in 2008, the same court adopted a noninterventionist stance towards Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell, among the bluntest spokesmen of Israel’s far Left. That was despite the fact that Sternhell had previously written: “Only those ready to storm Ofra [a settlement in Samaria] with tanks will stem the fascist tide, which threatens to engulf Israel’s democracy.”
One of the judges Netanyahu sought to dismiss is Prof. Ariel Hirschfeld, who openly urged young Israelis to refuse military service. In a 2002 stint as judge, Hirschfeld foiled a majority decision to award the Israel Prize to author Aharon Megged. He did this behind the backs of other panelists.
In 2003, artist Moshe Gershuni was denied his prize after refusing to desist from caustic verbal onslaughts. He had announced, amid a plethora of diatribes, that he would not shake education minister Limor Livnat’s hand at the ceremony, because he detested her and the Likud.
In 2004, the choice of sculptor Yigal Tumarkin stirred another hornet’s nest, but the panel rejected Livnat’s entreaty that it reconsider honoring him. This, despite the fact that Tumarkin said he wished he had gunned down former IDF generals and Israeli politicians Rafael Eitan and Rehav’am Ze’evi.
Tumarkin fashioned a pig wearing phylacteries, and proclaimed that the sight of haredi Jews made him “understand the Nazis.” He later wished “Moroccan whiners would cease burdening us with so many babies.” Unlike Schintzer’s relatively minor single glitch, Tumarkin’s outbursts were not regarded as excessively divisive.
The prize honors contributions to Israeli society and in an ideal situation should be divorced from the judges’ and the laureates’ opinions. Yet this is not the best of all worlds.
Ours is a polarized society. Panel members are surely cognizant of this. They know that blatant bias will generate indignation. To risk offending sizable segments of the population is willful provocation.
If collective plaudits for given individuals are impossible, then perhaps we would all be better off without the state prize. If the state’s award-givers cannot steer clear of discord, perhaps it is time to reassess the Israel Prize altogether.
It is not sacred. The prize is not a must.
Independence Day and the prize celebrating Israeli achievements should emphasize the values we all share, what unifies us – not what tears us apart.