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Israeli Education Minister's New Prize Rewards Individuals Not Unlike His Own Voters

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Supporters of the the Habayit Yehudi party stand in front of a campaign poster depicting the head of the party Naftali Bennett in Tel Aviv January 16, 2013.
Supporters of the the Habayit Yehudi party stand in front of a campaign poster depicting the head of the party Naftali Bennett in Tel Aviv January 16, 2013.Credit: Reuters

The Education Minister’s Prize for Jewish Culture, a new set of prizes invented by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, was awarded for the first time at the Jerusalem Theater on Sunday night.

It calls forth questions: Who are the artists in the area of Jewish culture for whom the prize was created, and who, on the other hand, do not fit the bill and therefore are ineligible? And what exactly do Bennett and his ministry mean by “Jewish culture”? Is Jewish culture any cultural work made by a Jew, or only a poem or a movie that references the Bible or the Talmud? Or perhaps “Jewish culture” is only a sculpture or a dance created by religious Jews?

Nor do the regulations for the prize define the “Jewish culture” for which it is granted. They say only that “the education minister will this year award six prizes to artists in the area of Jewish culture” and that “the prizes are meant to reflect the Jewish people’s esteem for the creator of Jewish culture.”

Nevertheless, a fairly broad hint as to what they mean when they talk about “Jewish culture” lies in the fact that the selection process is administered by the Education Ministry’s Torah Culture Department. So in other words, “Jewish culture” is essentially “Torah culture”?

The list of the 11 winners offers a kind of answer: Sara Friedland Ben Arza and Rabbi Haim Sabato (in the field of literature and poetry), Rachel Keshet and Rabbi Baruch Brenner (theater), Ka’et Ensemble and Tamara Mielnik (dance), Neomi Hashmonay and Avihu Medina (music), Yair Qedar and Dina Perlstein (film) and Shuli Rand (lifetime achievement).

Of the 15 recipients (Ka’et is a dance company comprising five men, all of them observant Jews), 12 are religious and only three are not. Moreover, most, if not almost all (it’s impossible to know with regard to the dancers) are Ashkenazim (surprise, surprise!). Only two or three (Medina, Sabato, Hashmonay) are Mizrahi Jews. (Where is the Biton Committee when you need it?)

In other words, according to Israel’s education minister and Education Ministry, “Jewish culture” is a sculpture or mask or dance or poem created by Ashkenazi Jews who observe the Torah and the religious commandments, with a few additions here and there.

And, what a surprise, what a coincidence: The demographic composition of the creators of this “Jewish culture,” by pure happenstance, matches the demographic composition of the Habayit Hayehudi party which Bennett heads, as well as that of the messianic settlers’ cult in general, for which Bennett serves as spokesman and Knesset representative.

One more thing also needs to be said: The size of the prize awarded by the education minister in every category of these “Jewish culture” prizes is 150,000 shekels ($40,000). That is twice the size of the Israel Prize, which is ostensibly the state’s most important prize and is awarded every Independence Day by that same Education Ministry, headed by that same minister, to the country’s top scientists, researchers and artists.

The education minister has thereby declared, from the diving board on which he stands, that he views Yiddishkeit settler culture as at least twice as lofty and important as all the other science and culture created in Israel.

At least from now on, when Bennett talks about a “Jewish state,” we’ll know exactly what he means.

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