Education Minister Naftali Bennett has decided to add a new prize to those already awarded in Israel – a Jewish Culture Prize. He thus follows in the footsteps of one of his predecessors, Limor Livnat, who, as culture and sports minister, initiated a prize for artists who “reflect Zionist values and history.”
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Both Bennett and Livnat have imposed problematic criteria by which works or artists up for the prizes must be judged.
Awarding prizes for cultural and artistic work is always likely to be divisive, particularly when the awards are based not only on quality parameters in the award’s particular field, but also on the relationship of the prize-givers and the public to the full range of the winner’s work. The innumerable disputes that erupt here over the suitability of candidates for various awards testify to this.
The prize initiated by Bennett will be awarded by the Education Ministry’s Torah Culture Department and will not cover the plastic arts, in consideration of the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or likeness of anything.” These facts, and not just these, indicate that the minister’s intent is for the prize to promote a specific perspective of Judaism – the religious perspective.
Adding an adjective that is not from the realm of the creative arts reduces the worth of the work and leads it to be assessed according to ideological criteria that often have no connection with art. In addition, the two adjectives bestowed on these culture prizes – Zionist and Jewish – are at the center of the debate over the character of the State of Israel.
Since its inception, the Jewish character of the state has been the subject of fractious dispute, both because a substantial part of the Israeli public is secular, but also because Jewish religious society has so many variations. As a result of various sociopolitical processes in Israel, ministers, Knesset members and political activists have labored in recent years to promote and emphasize Judaism in its separatist sense, committed to the provisions of ancient laws that are translated into extremist political dictates, most at the expense of the state’s democratic character. Habayit Hayehudi, the political party headed by Bennett, is advancing these dangerous processes.
Culture and public life in Israel are by themselves undergoing a process of “religionization,” supported by demographic trends that will, in a few years, see most of the pupils in Israel’s Jewish schools studying in religious frameworks, both public and private. There is no need to supplement the wealth of prizes awarded in Israel with another prize dedicated to works that have a sectorial or nationalist character.