The Genesis Prize, which likes to refer to itself as the “Jewish Nobel,” announced on Monday that it was ending its ongoing partnership with the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. The move was explained as an attempt to counter widespread claims that the prize had become politicized.
The Genesis Prize was established in 2013 as a partnership between the Genesis Prize Foundation, the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel and the Jewish Agency. Benjamin Netanyahu has served as Israeli prime minister during this entire period.
In a statement, the foundation that runs the prize said that “some have incorrectly interpreted” the participation of the Prime Minister's Office as “bringing a political dimension to this important initiative.
“This is the opposite of what the founders of the prize intended,” it said. “Therefore, in order to make it perfectly clear that this award transcends politics, the three partners collectively have decided that the PMO would exercise the option contained in the founding documents and withdraw from the partnership.”
The Genesis Prize has been embroiled in scandal in recent years. The 2019 recipient was U.S. billionaire Robert Kraft: Several months after the New England Patriots owner was named as laureate, he was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution in Florida. Prof. Rivka Carmi, the former president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, tendered her resignation from the advisory board in response to the decision to proceed with awarding him the prize after he was charged. Kraft has denied the allegations against him.
He won a big victory in his ongoing case in May, when a Florida judge ruled that prosecutors were prohibited from using secretly recorded videos of Kraft as evidence. The prosecutors are challenging this ruling. Kraft is known to be a close friend of both Netanyahu and President Donald Trump.
Actress Natalie Portman was picked as the 2018 laureate, but she decided to boycott the awards ceremony so as not to share a stage with Netanyahu. Following the Portman snub, the foundation decided instead to give a special lifetime achievement award to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
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In its statement, the foundation said that “the prime minister remains a strong supporter of the prize and will continue to follow its progress and GPF’s philanthropic impact with great interest.”
The foundation also announced plans to widen participation within the global Jewish community in choosing the annual prize winner. During the first five years of the Genesis Prize, it said, about 2,000 senior leaders from the fields of philanthropy, academia, public service, business and Jewish communal life had been invited to nominate laureates. In 2019, more than 90,000 people were invited to participate in the nomination process. Last month, the foundation announced that the 2020 prize would be awarded to former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. In the next nomination cycle, it said, “GPF will further expand engagement, opening the process to an even wider Jewish audience in Israel and throughout the world.”
The 2020 award was in recognition of Sharansky’s “extraordinary lifelong struggle for human rights, political freedom and his service to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Sharansky served as chairman of the Jewish Agency for nine years, stepping down in August 2018. Before that, he served as a Knesset member and minister in four Israeli governments.
Sharansky is the first recipient of the prize to live in Israel. As Agency chairman, he served as a member of the selection committee. After he left the post last year, he was appointed chairman of the foundation’s advisory board. He recused himself from the process once he learned he had been short-listed.
The $1 million prize is routinely donated by the recipients – usually quite wealthy in their own right – to charitable causes of their choice.
The prize was launched in 2013 by a group of Russian-Jewish billionaires – Mikhail Fridman, Peter Aven and German Khanto – to recognize Jews “who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields.”
Other recipients include Democratic presidential candidate and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, violinist Itzhak Perlman, sculptor Anish Kapoor and actor-producer Michael Douglas.