The Israel Prize Scandal

The Israel Prize this year was a scandal.

Had I been sitting in the hall at the Jerusalem Theater and not watching the award ceremony on television (Channel 1, Tuesday), I am not certain that I wouldn't have stood up and shouted at the panel of dignitaries, never mind how common it might have sounded: "Where are the Mizrahi ethnic groups" (referring to Jews with origins in the Muslim countries), or: "Where are the Sephardim?"

This isn't a demand for reverse discrimination, but rather for fairness and reasonableness, because how can it be possible that in the 15 prize categories not a single place was found for a worthy candidate who is not Ashkenazi? And if so, what does this say about us - a country that has pretenses to equality - if among the more than half of the population that comes from the countries of Asia and Africa (as the statistical bulletins put it), there is not a single person who is worthy of receiving the Israel Prize, and there is no one whose life's work is worthy of note and has contributed something to the state?

What should concern an individual who takes the messages of this important official prize seriously is not only that the cultural and academic elite in Israel, 59 years after its founding, is still purely Ashkenazi, but rather that the official institutions and personages responsible for and in charge of the prize did not find anything wrong in that it is given only to unsere - that is, to one of "us" Europeans or to people born in this country whose parents came from Europe.

I did not see, for example, that this bothered the socialist Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who sat at the end of the podium and looked to be thoroughly enjoying herself during the ceremony. Of all those who were sitting there, it seems to me that the prize and its significance should have been the most obvious to her from the ministerial perspective, but also from the personal perspective. And now, the message transmitted by the education minister on this Independence Day was that she has no problem with the fact that most of the country's population would feel alienated by and unconnected to this ceremony. And the implication was that it will feel alienated and disassociated in the long term, as though it does not belong to this country at all.

Section 2 of this scandal was the thank-you speech in the name of all the recipients of the prize, which was delivered by the former president of the Manufacturers Association, Dov Lautman. Lautman chose to say things about the importance of education in Israel, and about the need to invest in it for the sake of the future. All of this was said at the time of a prolonged strike by university students and at high schools, which is part of a struggle against astronomical tuition fees that is threatening to make mincemeat of the current academic year. Is this what Lautman was referring to in his speech? No, he was talking about the education of children. The people who are able to solve the crisis with the students sat behind the table on stage and applauded him, perhaps out of gratitude that he didn't mention this distressing issue.

Altogether, I have grave doubts as to whether it is at all educational to choose men of finance for the Israel Prize. The prize, after all, is awarded to honor exceptional knowledge and research, for devoting one's life to a scientific, artistic or national goal, without thought of material profit. And business people are rewarded in any case by the sale of their products. Moreover, if my memory is not playing tricks on me, at Lautman's Delta factories the greater part of the production is not done on Israeli soil.

But in the atmosphere of the pursuit of lucre, which is represented by the prime minister himself, who sat at the center of the table, it is easy to understand how rich people, however veteran and involved they may be, rise to the level of national heroes and win the right to sit in the same place as author S.Y. Agnon, for example, who was one of the first winners of the prize (and even won it twice).

Section 3 of the Israel Prize scandal is the puzzle of why they decided to award two prizes for architecture and another prize for design in a single year, which means three prizes in almost identical fields. Did Israeli architecture (or design) have special achievements this year that justify this unexpected homage to the profession? No, because Israel is one of the ugliest countries in the world when it comes to both public and private construction, with respect to the lack of harmony between the building and the environment, with respect to the nouveau-riche taste and with respect to the rapid degeneration of structures because of the use of cheap building materials. As for design, there is no discipline that equals it in the acute expression of the spirit of the times, a spirit of dealing with images, with packaging and with the presentation of things at the expense of the substance and the truth - and also often at the expense of art.

Last on the list of elements that made the evening a scandal is the need, which has become automatic, for every respectable ceremony in our country to be accompanied by Hebrew song, a performance by a group of instrumentalists and "the dance." The source of this, no doubt, is what used to be called, at public cultural evenings, an "artistic program." But what connection is there between the laureates of the prize - some of whom wore skullkaps, and many of whom were close to 80 - and the performance by Alon Oleartchick, for example, with a glittering and wailing maiden, who bared her legs? Or the ballet troupe that suddenly burst forth from somewhere and capered before everyone in scanty lace underpants? Or the Hakol Over Habibi group? What would have been wrong, during this serious event, with a chamber trio or quartet playing a piece by Schubert, say? Alas, it is not certain that the state will be ready for a daring program like that - even in its 100th year.