Israel Prize for Literature Faces Cancellation as Judges Resign

Judges protest what they call efforts by the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in its composition.

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Prof. Nissim Calderon
Prof. Nissim CalderonCredit: David Bachar

The Education Ministry fears the Israel Prize in literature may not be granted this year, after the entire judges panel resigned this week to protest efforts by the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in its composition.

Now literary lions are likely to shun the panel, making it hard to establish a replacement, ministry sources warned.

In an unusual move, the Prime Minister’s Office vetoed two people originally nominated as judges for the prize – professors Avner Holtzman and Ariel Hirschfeld. After Haaretz reported this on Sunday, all five of the people ultimately appointed to the panel resigned, to protest “the clear politicization of the prize and the vote of no confidence in the professionals’ professional judgment,” as one of the five, Prof. Nissim Calderon, put it.

Moreover, Prof. Yigal Schwartz, who was one of the candidates for the prize in the field of literary research, announced Tuesday night that he is withdrawing his candidacy in protest.

“This is an unparalleled scandal,” said Schwartz, a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and editor-in-chief of the Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir publishing house. “I’m withdrawing my candidacy and urge other candidates to do the same. This isn’t a mistake; it’s a continuation of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s deliberate policy of undermining Israel’s elites to gain votes from other groups. This is sabotage that it’s impossible not to oppose. Even this institution, the Israel Prize, which had remained untainted, they have sabotaged.”

“No such thing has ever happened before,” Calderon agreed.

Tuesday, it emerged that Netanyahu’s office had also vetoed a nominee to the judges’ panel for the Israel Prize in film – producer Chayim Sharir. Another member of that panel, producer Ram Loevy, has also resigned in protest.

Over the past few weeks, Education Ministry staffers had repeatedly warned Netanyahu’s aides against intervening in the panel’s composition, but the bureau dismissed these warnings, they said.

Now, the ministry is awaiting “instructions from the prime minister’s bureau” on how to fill the judges’ panel, they said.

Aside from Calderon, the other judges who resigned were Prof. Nurith Gertz, Prof. Ziva Ben-Porat, Prof. Ephraim Hazan and Dr. Uri Hollander. Author Gail Hareven had resigned earlier, after learning independently of the veto imposed on Hirschfeld and Holtzman.

In their resignation letter, the five scholars said the intervention by Netanyahu’s bureau constituted “politicization of Israel’s most important prize, which is supposed to be granted solely on the basis of professional and artistic considerations,” and raised fear that extraneous considerations would taint the award.

At first, the bureau declined to say why it suddenly decided to veto Hirschfeld and Holtzman after the two had already begun work. Tuesday, it said in a statement that it “decided to review the panel’s composition” after discovering that Hirschfeld supported refusal to do army service. The statement did not say why Holtzman was nixed.

Conversations with sources in the Education Ministry, the judging panels and people involved in previous years’ Israel Prizes show that Netanyahu’s bureau has been deeply involved in the process. In addition to the instances noted above, one source said the bureau had demanded the appointment of a specific judge to one panel, terming this “the prime minister’s will.”

Usually, the Education Ministry puts together the judges’ panels in November or December. The norm is for each panel to include at least one former Israel Prize laureate and at least one leading academic or public figure. Ministry staffers usually consult university presidents, among other people, on whom to pick.

The appointments are formally signed by the education minister, and Netanyahu has held that post ever since early December, when former minister Shay Piron resigned along with the rest of his Yesh Atid party.

An Education Ministry source said that when David Felber, the ministry official in charge of the Israel Prize, approached Hirschfeld and Holtzman, he warned them that the appointment still needed Netanyahu’s approval. Nevertheless, the source added, “nobody dreamed there could be any substantive reason to disqualify two of Israel’s leading literature scholars.”

Sources in the judges’ panel for the film prize said they believe the order to dismiss Sharir came from Perach Lerner, the prime minister’s liaison to the Knesset. Lerner then demanded a specific replacement, they said, but after the panel objected, he proposed somebody else. That person initially accepted the appointment, but retracted his acceptance several hours later.

Felber then asked Sharir to rejoin the panel, but he refused. He told Haaretz that he “didn’t intend to help them with what seems like an attempt to meddle in the composition of the judges’ panel.”

Sharir said he didn’t think anyone in Netanyahu’s office actually objected to him; rather, he speculated, they wanted to appoint someone specific “and I was in the way.” He added that he was shocked by the “chaos that characterized the process. It’s hard to believe that’s how the Israel Prizes are run.”

A senior Education Ministry official said that two or three weeks ago, people in Netanyahu’s bureau complained that the “list of judges was no good” and included “names unacceptable to us.” The official said ministry staffers had warned Lerner and other Netanyahu aides that altering the panels would damage the prize’s prestige, but these warnings went unheeded.

“Who today would want to be on the judges’ panel for the literature prize?” the official asked. “It’s hard to envision any honest person taking this job on now, and an unhealthy cloud will hover over whoever is chosen.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

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