Opinion |

Israel Must Learn How to Separate Art and Science From Politics

Artist David Reeb in his studio in Tel Aviv, last week.
Artist David Reeb in his studio in Tel Aviv, last week.Credit: Hadas Parush

An unseen force brought together two entirely independent incidents last week, but it turns out that they share a bond of iron. The first was the removal from the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art of “Jerusalem,” by artist David Reeb, on the orders of Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen, on the grounds that it contains offensive text. The second was the refusal of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to defend in the High Court of Justice Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton’s decision to withhold the 2021 Israel Prize for mathematics from Prof. Oded Goldreich. Mendelblit wrote that the education minister’s decision “is not supported by the evidence, in accordance with the strict criteria set by this honorable court for taking ‘external’ considerations into account.”

These two incidents prove, like the testimony of a thousand witnesses, the need for absolute separation – barring extreme cases on which there is broad public consensus – between political considerations and decisions regarding the recognition of scientific or artistic-cultural accomplishment. By their nature, political decisions are a slippery slope, based on the decision-maker’s worldview, and they cover a wide range: from statements that are entirely unacceptable to most of the public to those that are subject to thorough investigation and the gathering of evidence by the thought and intention police. It is therefore appropriate for achievements in these fields to be judged by experts, and that they shall decide what is or is not deserving of recognition.

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The need for separation stems from the simple consideration that contemporary decision-makers have a clear worldview and political identity, as well as the desire to please their supporters and voters. All of that is legitimate, but not in these cases. Other education ministers, such as Yossi Sarid, Shulamit Aloni and probably also Zalman Aran and Ben-Zion Dinur in the 1950s and ‘60s, would certainly have decided otherwise. And a different mayor, such as Yisrael Zinger, who was the mayor of Ramat Gan from 2013-18 and was previously principal of the liberal Blich high school, would, I assume, have decided otherwise. This demonstrates that such topics are controversial and that there is no consensus regarding them.

Shasha-Biton, in whose hands the High Court placed the decision in the previous legal round, hopes that the court will honor her decision because, in her opinion, “Anyone who calls for boycotting an academic institution in Israel is not worthy of the Israel Prize for academic achievements.” The problem is that in the view of others, and to a large extent also in the view of recent Israeli governments – which are signatories to agreements with the European Union stating explicitly that universities over the Green Line would not receive EU financial support – Ariel University is not located within Israeli territory.

Prof. Oded GoldreichCredit: Moti Milrod

I want to state, clearly and explicitly, that in saying this I am not taking a political stand or siding with one side or another in the arguments around these topics: neither with the mayor nor the artists who oppose his position and have asked that their own works be removed from the museum. And not with Goldreich’s stance nor that of the previous education minister, Yoav Gallant, nor the incumbent minister. My political views are more centrist and my taste in art is different. All I want to say is that controversial politics that divides the public shouldn’t interfere in subjects that primarily involve creative excellence. That’s due to the damage that it inflicts upon the world of thought and creativity. Original and creative excellence in any field should be judged only by the standards of that excellence.

If the Nobel Prize were subject to local considerations in Sweden, a country that has many antisemitic incidents, Jews, who account for more than 25 percent of recipients – more than 500 times their share of the world’s population – would have probably made do with a fraction of that. Those who say that unlike the Israel Prize, the Nobel Prize is not conferred by a country are mistaken. The prize has become Sweden’s national symbol, and it is entirely administered under the auspices of the royal family.

When it comes to the Israel Prize, it has already wallowed in the dirt many times in its roughly 70 years of existence, and this year all the more so. It should be transferred to an impartial body, such as the institution of the Israeli presidency, or a national scientific entity, such as the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Because if that doesn’t happen, these disputes, which have already damaged the reputation of the Israel Prize many times, will continue indefinitely.

As to the High Court of Justice, it should be said that the decision to require the education minister to grant the prize – in accordance with the prize jury’s decision – should have been made in the previous round rather than shifting it (albeit by a majority opinion and not unanimously), to the current minister to decide. This decision put her between the rock of science and the hard place of her opinions, politics and her voters.

In the Israeli political system, excessive judicial activism is presumably necessary when rulings deviate unreasonably beyond the areas of policy, economics and defense. The proof is that the decision returned to the court, as predicted, in the wake of Shasha-Biton’s decision. As the saying goes, the sage doesn’t go into places that a wise man knows how to get out of.

Prof. Aaron Ciechanover was awarded the Israel Prize in biology in 2003 and the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2004.

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