Jabotinsky Himself Wouldn't Qualify for the Israel Prize

Netanyahu is destroying yet another corner of independent thought within state institutions.

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Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
Ze'ev Jabotinsky.Credit: Government Press Office

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attitude toward the Israel Prize is not at all surprising. With his deception, he is destroying yet another corner of independent thought in the institutions of the state. He treats them as if they were his private domain, just as he does when spending public funds on ice cream and on flying beds.

It began with then-Culture Minister Limor Livnat, who distinguished between Zionist and non-Zionist films and works of literature. Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland” wouldn’t have passed muster, not to mention S. Yizhar’s “Khirbet Khizeh” and Ram Loevy’s screen adaptation, “Khirbet Hiza’a,” a fictionalized account of Yizhar’s experiences as a soldier in the 1949 War of Independence. Livnat’s successor Gideon Sa’ar made elementary-school students write an essay on Menachem Begin’s social legacy. My daughter asked, and I pondered, was there anything besides the Shikum Shkhunot urban renewal project (that Netanyahu destroyed as well)? And now, the state’s most prestigious award.

Destruction motivated by ultranationalism is often camouflaged with populism and “it’s unthinkable” indignation. Witness Likud MK Ofir Akunis saying on radio that it’s unthinkable that all parts of “the nation” are not on the prize juries, and that so many leftists are among the laureates.

Akunis is right, but not for the reasons he gave. First, two nations live in this country, and there are no Palestinians on the Israel Prize juries. Second, women comprise 50% of the population, and their underrepresentation is an insult. Third, the Israel Prize is awarded to the most prominent members of a creative elite, and the judges who select them should also be prominent figures. It is not possible for the entire nation to be represented.

Fourth, while it’s true that a huge number of leftists have won the prize, that only because the right has failed to establish an alternative to an elite that began turning to the left way back when Begin was giving speeches in city squares. In those days rightists were also among the Israel Prize recipients: Natan Alterman, Moshe Shamir and Uri Zvi Greenberg all were awarded the prize for literature. Where are their successors? And where are the giants of film, theater, photography, dance and the plastic arts who are wavering between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett? Find them, Akunis, the boss needs names and fast!

In contrast, many right-wingers have won the Israel Prize for rabbinical literature. Not only Ovadia Yosef and Shlomo Goren, but also darling of the Etzion Bloc settlers Yitzhak (Isaac) HaLevi Herzog, for whom the settlement of Masuot Yitzhak was named, as well as Yehoshua Bachrach from the Or Etzion yeshiva and Yitzhak Arieli, for whom a street in Betar Ilit was named.

Most of the great artists and intellectuals of secular culture don’t vote for Netanyahu because they are humanists. That is, people who hold dear human dignity for all human beings, even Palestinians. They know that suppressing human dignity through occupation or the denial of other people’s national aspirations, or by tracking students into poverty and social dysfunction, cannot be fixed by building more settlements, even if they are named for giants of rabbinical literature. Such are the candidates and such are the judges who were booted out. Such are also the other jury members resigning in protest, who include, you may be surprised to know, supporters of the center-right.

A casual glance at the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky shows that even this mentor of Netanyahu is unworthy of the 2015 prize, according to Netanyahu’s criteria. Would anyone espousing full equality for “the son of Arab, the son of Nazareth and my son” merit such an honor? Or to be a judge? Unthinkable.

There are precedents for refusing to accept the Israel Prize. This year’s winner, if they have any decency, should also refuse. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz did in his time. The Talmud scholar Hanoch Albeck, definitely no leftist, refused the prize in 1957, stating in words that Netanyahu and his emissaries have long forgotten: “The multiplicity of prizes in the state and their distribution to so many people diminishes their value to the point at which they become undignified. Secondly, the heavy tax burden carried by the public does not justify using this money for such dubious purposes, and I’m troubled by the possibility of enjoying the prize money.”

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