Opinion |

Controversial Left-wing Artist Shouldn't Be Kept From Receiving Israel's Highest Honor

Expressing unacceptable opinions is not a reason, barring very extreme cases, to disqualify anyone’s candidacy for the Israel Prize in an existing category.

Israel Harel
Israel Harel
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Yair Garbuz.
Yair Garbuz.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Israel Harel
Israel Harel

Yair Garbuz was not nominated for the Israel Prize in visual arts on account of his praiseworthy work to promote unity in Israel (a worthy area of endeavor that for some reason is not among the award categories). In contrast, his “contribution” in the opposite direction, sowing division and strife among Israel’s communities, is very well known. Still, expressing unacceptable opinions is not a reason, barring very extreme cases, to disqualify anyone’s candidacy for the prize in an existing category.

Despite causing pain to hundreds of thousands because of his contempt, crudeness and arrogance toward the customs and traditions they have passed down from generation to generation, Garbuz did not break all the rules. An unacceptable artist, or philosopher, is one who in his works, or statements, destroys all conventions — such as by comparing the Israel Defense Forces with the Nazi army, collaborating with terror organizations or with boycott groups and undermining the state’s very existence. Such figures exist. Garbuz’s accusations and insults may be unacceptable, but they do not make him unacceptable. Otherwise, there would be no art in Israel, now or in the future.

That is not to say — I simply don’t know — that Garbuz is more deserving than the (numerous) other candidates considered by the prize jury. Why is it that they are not suspected of political exclusion? To the best of my knowledge, the political views of most of Israel’s esteemed visual artists are not far from those of Garbuz; the same is true — this is not conjecture — of the jury members. Why, if not for the purpose of political provocation, is the outcry focused on Garbuz? The groups whose members have had a near-monopoly on receipt of the Israel Prize, and many other rewards, in all areas except for the exact sciences and religious studies, now feel threatened. They cannot reconcile themselves to the new claimants to the throne — the formerly “invisible” who are now forcefully demanding their fair share of the awards and funding pies.

In Israel’s 1977 election, the “Garbuzes” lost control of the government, de jure. But despite all their whining, they continue to wield the most influence. In the fields of arts and ideas, in the media, the justice system, academia and the art and cultural establishments, everyone speaks as one, in step with Garboz.

When the Israel Prize was first awarded to people who were not members of “our crowd,” it was not long before those who presumed it belonged to them responded. The Israel Prize for journalism, from time immemorial the exclusive province of the left, was awarded to the editor and columnist Shmuel Schnitzer. The keepers of the holy of holies searched and found that Schnitzer had once written that the Falashmura immigrants, the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, were “apostates carrying dangerous diseases.”

A harsh statement, but certainly nowhere near the extremism and depths of hatred of another Israel Prize winner, the author Amos Oz. “A messianic cult, heartless and vicious,” Oz wrote about Gush Emunim: “A gang of armed gangsters, committing crimes against humanity, sadists, pogromists and murderers, who emerged from a dark corner of Judaism ... from the cellars of brutality and defilement ... to impose a bloodthirsty and insane ritual.”

Because of the intervention of the High Court of Justice (!), Schnitzer was forced to forgo the prize he had already been awarded. Oz, who won the prize only a year later, saw his statements accepted as being proper. The same applies in the case of Shulamit Aloni, who vilified and reviled the Haredim, in language that only total anti-Semites use. The High Court of Justice, which ruled out Schnitzer, gave approval for Aloni.

The Talmud tells us: Fear not the Pharisees and not the Saducees, Alexander Yannai said to his wife, Shlomtzion, but only the hypocrites. These words are very apt to the discussion of who is worthy to receive the Israel Prize — Garbuz — and who is impure: David Be’eri.

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