Why Won’t Israel Prize for Lit Be Awarded Next Month? Ask Netanyahu

After all, it was Netanyahu who approved, and later even boasted of, unprecedented intervention by his office in the composition of several prize juries.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigns at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on March 9, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigns at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on March 9, 2015.Credit: AFP
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The Israel Prize for literary research won’t be awarded this Independence Day, an embarrassment for which the blame belongs entirely to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After all, it was Netanyahu who approved, and later even boasted of, unprecedented intervention by his office in the composition of several prize juries. Even the bleak statistics regarding the dearth of women and Mizrahi Jews among the prize winners shouldn’t be allowed to obscure this key point: Netanyahu and his cronies sought to determine the winners of the country’s most important prize.

Netanyahu’s behavior in this affair, from the moment it was first reported in Haaretz, proves that for him, mamlachtiut – putting the country first – is merely a cynical slogan to be exploited for immediate needs like winking at right-wing voters. When the criticism of his behavior was at its height, he even wrote on his Facebook page that “anti-Zionist elements” had been appointed to the prize juries.

How does he define “anti-Zionism”? Who are these “anti-Zionist elements” who infiltrated the prize juries and undermined our national fortitude? What are his criteria for receiving the prize, other than fawning over the government? And is it possible that at least in some cases, his lofty words hid petty hatreds connected to the awarding of the prize? Netanyahu never explained, nor did other senior members of his Likud party. Only the hatred remains. And that’s been the case in almost every election campaign.

Like his former cabinet colleague Gideon Sa’ar, who as education minister sent students to Hebron and forbade teachers to talk about the nakba, the prime minister’s fraudulent use of mamlachtiut constitutes a none-too-successful effort to conceal his political goals. And the difference between this hollow mamlachtiut and the repeated campaign diatribes against the “anti-Zionist left,” whose sole desire is “to topple the government” via democratic elections, is mainly one of style rather than substance.

The fraudulence of Netanyahu’s pretensions to mamlachtiut was second only to the fraudulence of the discomfort he and his staff voiced about the social profile of Israel Prize winners throughout the generations (though this was true only regarding the Jewish winners; he neglected to mention the minuscule number of Arab winners). It’s impossible to dispute the fact that Ashkenazi men have been the main recipients of this prestigious prize. But is the solution, as Netanyahu proposed, really to change the composition of the prize juries so that they “faithfully reflect the diversity” of Israeli society?

The study done of the prize winners’ identities examined their gender, ethnic origins and nationality (Jewish or Arab). Presumably, these characteristics are also related to their socioeconomic background. Such head-counting by gender, class or ethnic origin is important, but focusing on one of the highest points of the pyramid – Israel Prize winners – is liable to conceal the inequality among different groups that flourishes at the pyramid’s lower levels, from kindergarten through university, in numerous walks of life.

The “diversity in the prize juries” that Netanyahu seeks won’t solve this inequality, which is woven into the fabric of Israeli society; it will merely obscure it. Thus the knights of identity politics will gain only the illusion of profit.

Over the years, Netanyahu has perfected the ability to be in government while simultaneously subverting it, and also the ability to flout binding rules. Even after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein barred his intervention in the Israel Prize, the prime minister expressed no contrition, not even the hint of an apology.

Some of the judges on the various prize juries – those who continued to serve even when the storm was at its height, and those who agreed to resume serving after it ended – think it’s acceptable to make do with the partial rebuke Netanyahu received from Weinstein, as do some of the happy winners. They believe the honor of the Israel Prize has been restored and the stain has been erased. But no mistake could be more dangerous than this.

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