Why Netanyahu's Israel Prize Purge Is Great News

The right wing's attempt to interfere in the process of awarding the prestigious prize proves that it is far from being certain of its righteousness or its victory over an open-minded Israel.

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Writer David Grossman.
Writer David Grossman. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

There is something encouraging and even gladdening about the prime minister’s blatant interference in the judges’ committee of the Israel Prize for literature. There is something hopeful in the similar process unfolding in several other spheres: over the Israel Prize for cinema [in which the Prime Minister’s Office has also disqualified a judge]; in the effort to prevent journalist Igal Sarna from being awarded the Levi Eshkol Prize; and in the right wing’s boycott of Haaretz’s Israel Democracy Conference.

Such recklessness by the right wing is good news: It proves that the fight is not over yet, it is not won, nor is it lost. It proves that the right wing is far from being certain of its righteousness or its victory; that even the right wing realizes that there are intellectual bastions they have not been able to overrun — they are not in the right’s pocket and may never be.

If the right wing had more self-confidence, it would not need to resort to such violent measures. Only forceful regimes with an insufficient support base engage in such acts. Only a prime minister who lacks confidence deals with matters such as the dismissal of Ariel Hirschfeld from the Israel Prize committee or a possible attempt to withhold the prize from author David Grossman.

If the right wing had more self-confidence, it would realize that among the last assets of the State of Israel are the remnants of its open-mindedness and its intellectual scene. Awarding the Israel Prize to Grossman would echo throughout the world like a day of bombardment in Gaza, but in the opposite direction. The left-wingers whom the right wing fights are actually the ones who assure the last bit of support for his right-wing and nationalist Israel. Without them, it will finally become a pariah, even more abhorred and ugly than it is today.

Will the world know less about the occupation’s crimes and begin to admire Israel after the elimination of its human-rights groups and NGOs? Will it like Israel more when it barks only in Liebermanese? Even broad segments of Israel’s right wing would not really want to be in a country without Grossman, B’Tselem or Haaretz.

The presentation of the 2014 Israel Prize awards in Jerusalem, June 7, 2014Credit: Ohad Zweigenberg

The battle has supposedly been decided: Israel is veering rightward, and nothing is stopping that momentum. The majority wants Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Miri Regev. The majority wants Operation Protective Edge, and the more, the better. But several groups that think otherwise still stand in the way of this thundering herd. They represent a negligible minority, which is precisely why they are driving the right wing — which has been in control of the country for more than a generation—out of its mind.

It is no accident that there is no right-wing Amos Oz, David Grossman or A. B. Yehoshua. Israel has no right-wing creative artists who write exemplary books such as Oz’s “The Gospel according to Judas” or Grossman’s“A Horse Walks into a Bar,” and no committee on earth can change that. That deeply upsets the right wing, some of whose members are seriously convinced that democracy really does mean the tyranny of the majority, and that committees can change minds.

The right realizes that the fight over the country’s identity is not over. Almost 70 years after the state was established, not only does it lack borders, but it also has not solidified its identity or its goals. What is this country, then? And what does it want to be? Sparta or Athens? Democracy or apartheid? A state of Jewish law or of modernity? Western or Eastern? A welfare state or a capitalist one? One state or two?

Very few Israelis have answers to these crucial questions. Most have never considered them. That is why the battle is going on in full force. That is why it is being fought over every post, every appointment. That is why the identity of who is awarded the Israel Prize, and mainly who is not awarded it, is so important to the right wing.

These are signs of hope, that there is still a chance. At a time when it seems like all is lost, that there is no longer anyone who talk to in Israel or anything to talk about, at times like these, even the disqualification of a committee is gladdening, because even the joy of the poor is still joy.

Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz

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