The Real Scandal of the Israel Prize

Forget the chaos that beset us this week: The genuine problem of the coveted literature award lies in its chronic irrelevance and total disconnect from reality.

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

What happened this week with the judges’ committee for the Israel Prize for Literature is apparently a colossal bureaucratic snafu. As I understand it, this snafu involved no hidden intentions, political, ideological or otherwise. It was mostly an act of folly that quickly assumed a strong comic character: Those who were dumped from the judges’ panel by the Prime Minister’s Office groped in the dark, trying to guess why they were anathema to the authorities.

The great embarrassment that arose immediately unleashed a wave of apocalyptic visions about the end of culture, penned by pessimistic people of conscience, who flooded the Internet and the newspapers with their cogitations. The terms “Zhdanovism” and “fascism” flew through the air like balloons disconnected from their strings, without anyone noticing that those who uttered them had gone somewhat overboard and were only making themselves look ridiculous.

Still, once the genie of chaos was released from the bottle, not even a thousand wise men could push it back in. It looks as though there’s no choice but to wait patiently for the next weekly scandal, on some other subject, which will make people forget this one.

But now that the issue of the Israel Prize for Literature has been opened for discussion, it should be said that the real, years-long scandal related to the coveted award has nothing to do with the latest act of folly. The true scandal of the Israel Prize for Literature lies in its chronic irrelevance and its total disconnect from literary reality. Here are a couple of particularly acute examples.

Yoram Kaniuk, whom many considered one of the most relevant and riveting writers in Israel’s history, was a victim of systematic abuse by the Israel Prize judges, who deprived him of the coveted award year after year. Why? Just like that. The same sadistic treatment is meted out to Sami Michael, who is without a doubt a giant of an author and an important intellectual. But he’s a writer of Mizrahi origins (from Middle Eastern or North African countries), and Mizrahi writers are not favored by the Israel Prize judges’ committees. Why? Just like that.

Yet no one has cried out in protest against this discrimination, and no one has resigned demonstratively. I remember that in 2007, when I was a television reviewer, I watched the Israel Prize awards ceremony, appalled, and could not help but notice that in all 15 prize categories there wasn’t one winner who was not an Ashkenazi.

In other words, whereas statistically those of Oriental and Sephardi origin constitute more than half the population of Israel, not even one person who was born to a Mizrahi or Sephardi family could be found who was worthy to receive the Israel Prize, whose life’s work was noteworthy and who had contributed in some way to the country.

Anyone who thinks there’s been an improvement in this sphere is dead wrong. All those who are fulminating about Zhdanovism should glance at the list of recipients of the Israel Prize for Literature since its inception. The only “Sephardim” on the list are A.B. Yehoshua, Israel Pincas and Yehuda Burla – three people whom it’s almost a joke to call “Sephardim.” That’s Zhdanovism! But it’s hidden from the eye, cynical, covered over with academic rationale and highfalutin’ words.

In short, the politicization of the Israel Prize for Literature is a given fact, and not just this year. Because of it, the club of prize recipients has remained almost hermetically sealed. Its gates are shut not only to Mizrahi writers but also to nonconformist or overly rebellious authors (such as Kaniuk), and in large measure also to women.

Let’s think for a minute. For some time there have been a great many good female writers and poets in Israel. How many of them have received the Israel Prize? What chance does a great writer like Ruth Almog have to enter the winners’ circle? And all those Israeli authors who write in Russian who are living in our midst? Some of them have written masterpieces. The prospect that any judges’ panel will take notice of them is negligible.

How does the winners’ club of the Israel Prize for Literature succeed in remaining closed? Maybe it’s because its judges’ committees always come from the same conformist, cultural oligarchy that wants to preserve the status quo.

But the machine short-circuited. Someone, maliciously or mistakenly, yanked some cable and burned the fuse box. The oligarchy is groping in the dark. They don’t understand what suddenly happened.

In the end, I think that the result of this great chaos will be far more positive and gladdening than the doomsayers think. First, the Israeli intelligentsia has united and showed exemplary solidarity in the face of the bitter adversary who humiliated two distinguished professors of Hebrew literature who were disqualified as Israel Prize judges. This proves that someone still cares about the academic discipline known as Hebrew literature. Given that the departments teaching that subject at many universities have shrunk or disappeared completely due to the disinclination of young people to enroll in them – this is a considerable achievement.

A second positive outcome of the recent, colossal snafu is that it’s time to grow up and stop seeing the state as a body that possesses authority to make determinations in the realm of culture. The state is a golem, it’s a mechanism, it’s never possessed any inspiration, whether it’s ruled by the left, the right or whatever party. So it’s pointless to expect that the appreciation bestowed by the golem called a state bears any artistic or cultural meaning. Anyone who did not grasp this until now has another chance to wise up from his delusions.

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