Why Netanyahu Was Right to Interfere With the Israel Prize

The PM's crude meddling enabled selection of an excellent Mizrahi recipient for the literature prize.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
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Erez Biton. Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.

Benjamin Netanyahu was right. That’s the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the decision to award this year’s Israel Prize for Literature to poet Erez Biton.

To recap: A month before the election, Netanyahu refused to approve the appointment of two members of the judges’ panel that was to select the recipient of the prize, thereby unleashing the wrath of the other judges and of the candidates for other Israel Prizes, too – in short, the collective Israeli intelligentsia. Now, from the perspective of time, it turns out that the crudeness and vulgarity he displayed were, in the end, beneficial.

They were beneficial inasmuch as a poet of Mizrahi origins – that is, of Middle Eastern or North African descent – finally managed to penetrate the exclusive club of recipients of the Israel Prize for Literature. For which the credit belongs to Netanyahu. He signaled to the judges’ panel bluntly that the good old days – when they could play at being revolutionary avant-gardists while also being part of a state-sponsored awards committee that is the epitome of dignified anti-avant-gardism – were over. He as good as gave them an ultimatum: either-or.

Reader, it worked. The moral of the story? Sometimes someone has to play the bad guy and raise his voice in order to right a long-standing wrong. Of course, there’s no way of knowing for sure which prose writer or poet would have been chosen for the prize if Netanyahu hadn’t shaken up the system. My guess is that it would have been the writer David Grossman, who is definitely worthy of the prize. But in the wake of the scandal, he and no few other honorable writers withdrew their candidacy, thus venting their disgust at Netanyahu’s crass intervention.

This move by writers of conscience led to an important consequence. For, in one fell swoop, all those who view themselves as members of the upper echelon of Hebrew literature were deleted from the candidates’ list, creating a rare opportunity to consider the more modest and less arrogant writers. Clearly, there is a measure of arrogance in declaring that you don’t want to receive a prize that you didn’t receive. It’s a tacit declaration that you have no doubt that you deserve the prize. That self-confidence is grating.

Why didn’t Erez Biton withdraw his candidacy, like his colleagues in the world of literature? Is it because he isn’t as brave as Grossman, Haim Be’er and the others? Or maybe not sufficiently anti-establishment? The answer to this question resides in Biton’s poetic style and in his self-perception as a Mizrahi writer, one of whose tasks is to give expression, through his voice, to the distress and discourse of people who have no voice of their own. In other words, his ego is not a factor to be taken into account.

“Self-representational” writers can amuse themselves with being affronted. From Biton’s standpoint, that’s a luxury.

As always in these parts, the announcement that Biton was the prize recipient touched off a controversy between the two usual schools of thought: those who maintain that he must not accept the Israel Prize for Literature after it was besmirched by Netanyahu’s crude interference; and their opponents, who argue that it is appropriate and fitting for Biton to accept the prize and that anyone who thinks otherwise is just being narrow-minded.

I noticed that the camp of those who advocate his acceptance of the prize includes poets of the ironically self-named and defiantly Mizrahi group Ars Poetica, who view Biton as something of a father figure. They were joined by many Mizrahi activists and creative artists who, when called upon to choose between their loyalty to the left and their loyalty to their ethnic identity, opt for the latter. Which reminds one of Albert Camus, who said that if he had to choose between justice and his mother, he would choose his mother.

My feeling is that on Independence Day, at the Israel Prize ceremony, Erez Biton should stride proudly to the dignitaries’ table and shake the prime minister’s hand warmly. Netanyahu gets the credit for the rare occasion of a Mizrahi receiving the Israel Prize for Literature. How this achievement came about is less important: It’s of no account to me whether the judges felt threatened by Netanyahu, or were influenced by the general mood and by the public’s secret wishes.

What’s important is the result. And this specific result has implications of principle: Namely, it’s time to acknowledge that amid the old, schematic, right-left political divide, it frequently happens that someone who’s considered a right-wing conservative acts in a manner that produces a saliently left-wing result. And vice versa: People who are considered leftists do deeds seen as bearing a right-wing, conservative character.

In the present case, it emerges that Netanyahu, by fomenting a brouhaha that shook the foundations and momentarily rattled the automatic behavior of the venerable institution known as the Israel Prize, performed a distinctly anarchistic act. He tried, with a certain mischievousness, to slaughter a sacred cow, a traditionally left-wing role. He also succeeded in showing that those who assailed him for intervening are of the same ilk as pious, conservative clergy defending the sanctity of their temple against the infiltration of the heretics.

Accordingly, without any connection to my personal opinion of Erez Biton’s poetry, I applaud the very fact that his being awarded the Israel Prize for Literature will force some people to think a little more outside of the box, and not be so automatically convinced that they’re always in the right. That in itself is a tremendous contribution to literature.

As another Israel Prize recipient, the poet Yehuda Amichai, observed, in the place where we are right, flowers never grow – nor, for that matter, poems or other literary works.