New Israel Fund Awards Breaking the Silence an Alternative Prize

$20,000 donation almost four times amount of Ben-Gurion University prize nixed by its president.

A conference on Breaking the Silence at Tel Aviv University, April 12, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

The New Israel Fund has obtained a $20,000 donation for the Breaking the Silence organization to replace the 20,000 shekel ($5,100) award that it was supposed to receive from a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev department before the university’s president nixed it.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people have signed an internet petition initiated by a BGU student to protest the decision by university President Prof. Rivka Carmi to overturn the award. Since Haaretz reported earlier this week on the award’s cancellation, BGU staffers and faculty members of other institutions have protested the decision.

The Berelson Prize for Jewish-Arab Understanding is granted annually by the university’s Middle East Studies Department to individuals or organizations that have contributed to such understanding. Carmi explained her decision by saying that Breaking the Silence “is an organization that’s not in the national consensus,” and that giving the group the prize “is liable to be interpreted as an appearance of political bias.”

In response to the decision, Breaking the Silence said that it regretted that the university administration “chose to capitulate to political pressure and joined the campaign of incitement and persecution” against the organization.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Following the report, the New Israel Fund decided to solicit donors and raise an amount equivalent to the sum of the prize, but in the end it was able to raise $20,000 – almost four times the amount.

According to Daniel Sokatch, the New Israel Fund’s CEO in the United States, “The disappointing decision to revoke the award is just the latest example of the chilling effect that comes from bullying and intimidation toward those who speak hard but important truths. A strong civil society is essential to Israel’s future We will not allow ultranationalist extremists to silence free speech and threaten academic freedom.”

The Internet petition initiated by Uri Kol read, “We do not accept [Carmi’s] useless argument, because especially at a time when the ‘consensus’ is controlled by extreme right-wing groups that bring with them a spirit of nationalism and messianism, there is great importance to awarding the prize to Breaking the Silence, in the name of the struggle against violence and for democracy and academic freedom.”

It adds that the decision to cancel the award “sins against the role of the university – to strengthen critical voices and not to cooperate with silencing and political persecution.” As of last night some 400 people had signed the petition, including BGU faculty members.

The Meretz party also wrote to Carmi with a demand to retract her decision, saying it was absurd that a prize aimed at promoting understanding between Jews and Arabs “has been dragged into political biases.” According to Meretz MK Michal Rozin, “This was a bad decision that stains all of Israeli academia. Academia must not capitulate to the regime of silencing and political persecution being advanced by right-wing extremists.”