What do Antiguan-American author Jamaica Kincaid, top French economist Esther Duflo, Israeli writer Amoz Oz and U.S. politician-turned-environmental-activist Al Gore have in common? All four were recipients of the prestigious Dan David Prize, an honor awarded to individuals whose outstanding achievements in their respective fields have made a lasting impact on society

Liza Rosenberg
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Mrs. Gabriela David, writer Jamaica Kincaid and Prof. Itamar Rabinovich
Liza Rosenberg
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Philanthropist and businessman Dan David was passionate about the sciences and the humanities, and fascinated by their intrinsic connection to each other and to the way we use them to shape our societies, our times. His early experiences in setting up his own business inspired a deep desire to help young students and researchers become the scholars and leaders of the future. David derived immense pleasure in encouraging them to strive for greatness in their chosen fields. To facilitate this vision, he conceived of the Dan David Prize, a prestigious international award based in Israel and awarded annually to people whose outstanding achievements have made a lasting impact on society.

Three prizes of US$ 1,000,000 each are awarded in three time dimensions – Past, focusing on fields that expand knowledge of former times; Present, for achievements that shape our world today; and Future, for breakthroughs that hold great promise.

Every year, the Prize’s board selects a different theme for each dimension. The fields for 2019  are “Macro History” (Past), selected to identify historians whose research of long-term historical trends can increase understanding of changes in our own time; “Defending Democracy” (Present), chosen to celebrate individuals who work tirelessly to preserve democracy and its institutions, norms and values at a time when they are under siege; and “Combatting Climate Change” (Future), to recognize those who are engaged in fighting climate change despite increased resistance and denial.

An international prize with an Israel connection

Dan David was born in Romania and worked as a journalist and photographer. He was very active in Zionist organizations, an activity that caused the Romanian government to forbid him from leaving the country and even resulted in his arrest on several occasions. When he was finally allowed to leave the country, David came to Israel – a place he would visit often over the course of his lifetime. He went on to create a number of successful companies around the world that manufacture and operate photo booths and other automatic vending machines. He served on the boards of various international and Israeli companies and was a major donor to Tel Aviv University, where he was a member of the Board of Governors and received an honorary doctorate in philosophy.

The Prize itself is a joint project of the Dan David Foundation and Tel Aviv University, established in 2001 and based at the University. It was an integral part of David’s vision to bring outstanding international figures in the sciences and the humanities to the State of Israel.  For this reason, he required that laureates come to Israel in order to receive the Prize. Another stipulation is that laureates donate 10 percent of their monetary award toward scholarships to young researchers in their respective fields. 

The Award Ceremony and the Scholarship Award Ceremony take place during the course of Tel Aviv University’s annual Board of Governors meeting. Prize recipients come to Israel for approximately five days, participate in various symposia, attend ceremonies, and meet with students and faculty members.

Anyone can nominate any living person or existing institution for the Prize. The nominations are then examined by ad-hoc committees of experts in each field. These committees prepare a report with their recommendations for the board of the Prize, which has the final say on the selection of the laureates.

David passed away in 2011, but his passion and legacy live on, and can be felt in every Prize-related aspect. His widow, Gabriela Fleischman David, and his son, Ariel David, both continue to be actively involved with the Prize.

Cycle of time

In addition to the time dimensions incorporated into the Prize itself, David’s vision for an entity that represents the entire cycle of life is seamlessly woven into all aspects of the project.

Doctoral and post-doctoral students from around the world vie for the 20 available scholarships, with 10 scholarships going to Tel Aviv University students and 10 to students from other academic institutions. By granting these scholarships to talented, up-and-coming doctoral and post-doctoral students, the Prize, together with the laureates, hopes to help create the next generation of outstanding researchers.

The Prize also runs the “Name Your Hero” competition, held in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Education and The Dov Lautman Unit for Science Oriented Youth at Tel Aviv University. “Name Your Hero” is an essay contest for Israeli high school students and draws more than 1000 entries every year. Students write essays in Hebrew, presenting their choice of candidates or fields for the Dan David Prize and providing detailed supporting arguments. The competition gives students the opportunity to learn how to write properly and think critically on multiple levels – skills that cannot be taken for granted today.

Students from schools all over Israel participate in “Name Your Hero” each year; their essays are incredibly moving, and some stories are even quite personal. It’s encouraging to note that many of the chosen essay subjects reflect the students’ desire to support values of equality and leadership. Popular topics for the 2018 competition included gender equality, human rights and the sciences. The winning essays are chosen for their originality, critical thinking and writing quality. Approximately 100 of the most innovative and creative essays are selected, and their authors are invited to Tel Aviv University for a one-day seminar that includes a lecture and a writing workshop to help them edit their final essays.

There are three first-place prizes of NIS 10,000, six second-place prizes of NIS 5,000 and 12 third-place prizes of NIS 2,500. In addition, the high school with the most participants is awarded NIS 20,000; this money is then earmarked for innovative educational programming. The recognition and the prize money play an important role, giving students a feeling of genuine pride in their accomplishment.  Some students use their monetary award to further their education, perhaps putting themselves on track to eventually apply for one of the Young Researcher Scholarships and possibly even win the Dan David Prize someday.

By acknowledging the laureates, supporting young researchers and inspiring high school students, the impact of the Prize trickles down through generations.

Moving ceremonies

“Dan David had a passion for the sciences and humanities, a love for life and a desire to live life to its fullest – without compromises,” noted Ariel David during his speech at the 2018 Award Ceremony.

The Award Ceremony is an illustrious affair with distinguished audience members from around the world in attendance. The opening speech is given by Tel Aviv University’s president, Prof. Joseph Klafter, who is also the Chairman of the Dan David Prize Board. The program includes an impressive array of speakers interspersed with artistic interludes that reflect the concept of time and touch on each of the different fields. Prize laureates and their achievements are introduced using multimedia presentations, and they receive their award from members of the Dan David Foundation and Tel Aviv University leadership. In their address, you can hear laureates speak passionately about their fields of study and express profound respect and admiration for their fellow laureates. “It is a glorious celebration of science,” exclaimed the President of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, Professor Nili Cohen, while speaking at the 2018 award ceremony.

The award ceremony for the Young Researchers Scholarships and the “Name Your Hero” winners is equally inspirational. The scholars are handed their award by the Dan David Prize laureate in their respective field, who is often their academic icon. “Name your Hero” winners are introduced by name and essay topic, and receive the award from Gabriella David.  Attendees include members of the David’s family, friends and family of the winners, school principals and teachers from all the winning schools and more. It is especially moving when some of the students’ essay “heroes” are in attendance, creating an emotionally powerful dynamic. For example, in 2008, laureate Al Gore presented one of the awards to a student who had named the former U.S. vice president as his hero. 

Each component of the Prize was conceived by David, and his philosophy served as a guide. ““Success can be a source of satisfaction, but money should be put to work for good causes after personal needs have been met,” he once stated.   “This is the reason why I chose to create the Prize, to devote some of my fortune to rewarding and furthering the work of the eminent figures who have increased our knowledge of our past, improved our present and helped us forge a better future.”

The laureates

To date, there have been 105 Dan David Prize recipients since the initial prizes were awarded in 2002. Most laureates hail from North America and a multitude of European nations. Other countries include South Africa, India, Chile and Indonesia. There are six Israeli laureates.

In addition to the sciences, laureates represent a myriad of fields, including journalism, humanitarian fields, the arts, economics, literature, history, media, politics and more. In 2004, the subject for the “Past” dimension was “Cities: Historical Legacy.” This interesting twist resulted in the cities of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Rome sharing the Prize.

Some Dan David Prize recipients are world-renowned figures, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and conductor Zubin Mehta.  In 2018, out of nine laureates, four were women: Prof. Lorraine Daston, from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, whose work on the History of Science masterfully demonstrates how seemingly universal concepts have changed dramatically since the seventeenth century; Prof. Evelyn Fox Keller, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose pioneering work on language, gender and science has been hugely influential on shaping views of the History of Science; Baroness Mary Warnock, an English philosopher who was honored for her leading role in the development of practical bioethics; Prof. Mary-Claire King, who discovered the breast and ovarian cancer gene mutation, which she named BRCA1.

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