Why Was the 'Jewish Nobel' Snatched From Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Given to Natalie Portman?

Someone remembered that Justice Ginsburg had called Trump a 'faker' in 2016, and the powers that be in Jerusalem panicked

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The Genesis Prize Foundation announced on Wednesday that the recipient of its first-ever “lifetime achievement award” would be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s 84.

A week earlier, the foundation announced that the 2018 Genesis Prize – also known as the “Jewish Nobel,” worth $1 million, which is awarded to outstanding Jews in their field – would go to actress Natalie Portman, who’s 36. Two distinct and separate prizes, both awarded out of the generosity of the Genesis Prize Foundation.

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Hats off to them. Two laureates who, besides their gender and religious affiliation, represent totally different worlds. Female empowerment in every sense of the word.

This is the first time that two different prizes will be awarded. Portman will receive her Genesis Prize next June in the Knesset from the prime minister and the speaker of the Knesset. A month later, former Israel Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, a close friend of Ginsburg’s, will present her with the Genesis Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Tel Aviv. Someone not familiar with the ins and outs of the prize could be excused for thinking that each of the awards is presented annually. But that’s not the case.

There’s a story behind the prize awards – not “A Story of Love and Darkness,” the title of the 2015 film that Portman directed and starred in (based on the book by Amos Oz), rather one of regret and apprehension. Here’s the abridged version:

The central prize was supposed to go to Justice Ginsburg. She was informed of the decision a few weeks ago by the prize committee. She was delighted. It was clear that she would not be able to keep the money. In any case, the recipients customarily donate the $1 million to social causes that they support.

Ginsburg decided that half the prize money would go to women’s organizations in the United States, and the other half to the equivalent organizations in Israel. She asked someone in Israel to map all the women’s organizations in the country for her. That was done, and her office in Washington called the beneficiaries to inform them of the hefty donations they would be receiving. They were delighted.

But a public announcement did not follow. Something had gone awry. According to a source close to the committee, someone remembered that in 2016, the justice had lashed out sharply against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Four months before the U.S. election, she called him a “faker” and said that if he were elected, she would have to move to New Zealand, as her late husband used to say.

According to the source, the incriminating information was made known to the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Major panic. How would Trump react when he saw a photo of his good pal Bibi presenting the most important prize in the Jewish world to the justice he abhors, a liberal icon and a declared supporter of Hillary Clinton? Heaven help us. Several days of frantic running around between offices and officials ensued, until the prize was taken from Ginsburg and transferred to Portman.

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Another committee source maintains that this is not the reason that Ginsburg was denied the award. This source says that the committee’s legal adviser discovered that U.S. judges are barred from receiving monetary prizes from a foreign country, even if they re-distribute the sum to others. Accordingly, with great regret and despite the unpleasantness, the original decision was overturned. But why wasn’t such a basic point as that checked at an earlier stage, and why would the justice herself not have pointed it out to the committee?

After the embarrassing U-turn, there was no intention to award Ginsburg a prize – something that had never been done before. But given the scale of the snafu, and in light of the harsh responses by present and former Israeli Supreme Court justices, who took offense in the name of their American colleague – it was decided to compensate Ginsburg. Hence the genesis of the Genesis Prize Foundation Award for Lifetime Achievement. A consolation prize. It will be interesting to see if that honor will be awarded in years to come, or if it will remain a one-time event, cooked up to make up for a screw-up behind which there may be (completely legitimate) political considerations.

Haaretz’s Washington correspondent, Amir Tibon, apprised Justice Ginsburg of the two explanations cited here: the state-diplomatic and the constitutional-technical. Which one is correct, he asked. The Supreme Court declined to reply and referred the reporter to the announcement issued by the foundation this week.

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