Netanyahu Rejects Judges’ Candidacy for Israel Prize Panel

Professors Avner Holtzman and Ariel Hirschfeld were informed of the decision after they had already begun their work.

Ariel Hirschfeld.
Ariel Hirschfeld. Daniel Bar-On

The Prime Minister’s Office has rejected the candidacy of two members of the judges’ panel for the Israel Prize for Literature.

Professors Avner Holtzman and Ariel Hirschfeld were informed of the decision last week, after they had already begun their work. The writs of appointment for the panel are signed by the education minister, a position being filled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to the early elections.

The Education Ministry was unable to explain the reason for the decision. In reaction, the third committee member, author Gail Hareven, resigned.

One field in which the Israel Prize will be awarded the year is Hebrew Literature and Poetry. The Education Ministry prize division accompanies the entire process: announcement of which fields of endeavor will be included that year, appointment of the judges’ panels, and the ceremony on Independence Day in Jerusalem. About a month ago the head of the division asked Holtzman, a professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, to head the panel. About two weeks ago he was told that the “writs of appointment will be signed in the coming days,” and they wanted to begin sending materials about candidates for the prize.

The panel’s first meeting was set for last week, but shortly before it the Education Ministry informed them that the appointment had not been approved by Netanyahu, the interim education minister. “I don’t assume that my professional qualifications to serve as the chair of the judges’ panel were questioned,” said Holtzman. “On the other hand, it’s not clear whether the reason for the disqualification is political, since I have never publicly spoken about political issues and nobody knows my opinions.”

According to Hirschfeld, a literature professor at Hebrew University, “About a month ago the Education Ministry contacted me and told me that I had been chosen to serve on the judges’ panel for the Israel Prize for Literature. I received a large carton with material about the candidates, but a few days ago, the person in charge of the prizes in the Education Ministry, David Felber, apologized profusely and said that the Prime Minister’s Office had refused to approve my appointment. He was unable to tell me the reason.”

About three months ago Hirschfeld published an article in Haaretz harshly critical of the prime minister. The focus of the criticism was Netanyahu’s use of Bialik’s poem “Al Hashehita” (“On the Slaughter”) shortly after the bodies of the three murdered yeshiva boys were found in the West Bank, but he also discussed the broader cultural and social context of Operation Protective Edge. “It’s unconscionable that my membership on the panel should be canceled because of that article,” added Hirschfeld. “I really don’t understand this conduct.”

Felber didn’t meet with the prime minister and was told of the decision by the prime minister’s adviser on Knesset affairs, Perach Lerner. Various sources found it extremely doubtful that Lerner was acting on her own initiative. “The message from the prime minister’s staff was that they wanted their own people on the panel.” The sources also said that Holtzman and Hirschfeld were told that the appointment required the prime minister’s approval.

In the past, education ministers generally approved the recommendation of the professionals regarding membership on the Israel Prize judges’ panels, so that the decision not to approve the appointments of Holtzman and Hirschfeld is considered unusual. But one source said “the responsible minister – in this case the prime minister – has a right to say that he doesn’t want them on the committee. A minister is not a rubber stamp.”

There was no response from Prime Minister’s Office or Education Ministry.