Netanyahu Defends Purge of 'Radical' Candidates From Judging Panels for Israel Prize

Netanyahu takes to Facebook to explain decision to interfere, labeling one disqualified panelist's call for IDF refusal 'an insult to Zionism and a show of contempt for the literary world.'

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of Likud's election campaign, January 5, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of Likud's election campaign, January 5, 2015.Credit: David Bachar
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his purge of candidates for Israel Prize judging panels on Wednesday, writing on Facebook, “Over the years, more and more radical figures, including anti-Zionists have been appointed to the panel along with too few authentic representatives of other parts of the nation.”

His remarks come in the wake of the resignation of an entire panel of judges – for the Israel Prize for Literature – over the Prime Minister’s Office’s efforts to manipulate the panel’s composition.

The State Comptroller’s Office said it has started to look into the complaint submitted earlier this week by Zionist Union heads Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, regarding Netanyahu’s intervention in the Israel Prize judging.

Professor Ariel Hirschfeld, the target of Netanyahu’s reference to “those who support refusal to serve in the IDF,” said the Facebook statement was “an insult to Zionism and a show of contempt for the literary world.”

Professor Nissim Calderon, who resigned from his post as chairman of the judges’ panel in the field of literary research due to Netanyahu’s interference, said the prime minister is accusing “the Israel Prize judges over the generations of a politicization that never existed.”

The Prime Minister’s Office had also disqualified Cinema and TV producer Haim Sharir. Sources said the prime minister’s adviser for Knesset affairs, Perach Lerner, gave instructions to replace Sharir with a famous actress.

Panel members objected to this and suggested a number of female directors instead. But then the Prime Minister’s Office said a veteran (male) director must be appointed. The director agreed at first, or asked to think about it, according to one source, but a few hours later declined the offer.

A source close to the panel and the goings on behind the scenes said the Prime Minister’s Office’s intervention wasn’t only about “personal appointments.”

“The pressure was intolerable. It’s blatant interference that knows no limitations,” the source said.

Another source said the Prime Minister’s Office’s excuse that Sharir should be replaced by a woman “to ensure gender balance” lasted hardly one night and was a cover for some ulterior motive.

Until yesterday Netanyahu didn’t respond. An official said that “after it transpired that one of the candidates for the judges’ panel supports not serving in the army, it was decided to reexamine the panel’s composition.”

Yesterday afternoon Netanyahu responded on his Facebook page. “More than 60 years ago Israel began to grant a special prize – the Israel Prize – to citizens who excelled in their field,” he wrote.

“The prize is first and foremost a show of gratitude, but it also carries an ideological and educational statement,” he wrote.

“The composition of the panel that selects Israel Prize laureates must be balanced and faithfully reflect the various streams, positions and strata of Israeli society,” he wrote. “However, over the years, more and more radical figures, including anti-Zionists – for example, those who support refusal to serve in the IDF – have been appointed to the panel along with too few authentic representatives of other parts of the nation.”

“Too often, it seemed that the extreme panel members were bestowing the prizes on their friends. ... Those who didn’t identify with their stance, those outside of their clique, had great difficulty in getting on the panel or being selected for the prize,” he wrote.

This situation must change, he wrote. “The Israel Prize belongs to all of Israel. It is our national asset, and it must represent the entire nation: men and women, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular, veteran citizens and new immigrants, Israelis of all stripes irrespective of political leanings one way or the other.”

More than 10 years ago Hirschfeld and 350 university and college faculty members signed a petition expressing “support and appreciation for students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories. This service very often involves carrying out orders that have no place in a democratic society.”

Yesterday Hirschfeld said, “The prime minister took upon himself to determine the degree of Zionism of people who devote their whole life to Israeli culture.”

Professor Avner Holtzman, who was also vetoed by Netanyahu’s aides, said “one look at the list of Israel Prize laureates in literature and literary research in the last 15 years shows that most of them, apart from being great creators and researchers, are very far from the demonic profile portrayed by Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s statement is totally groundless and stems from some paranoia.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

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