Unqualifiable Disqualification

It goes without saying that all previous winners of Sapir prizes - all 10 of them - should have been disqualified, as most jury members over the years had published books with some of the publishing houses competing for the prize.

There is an inherent unfairness in the whole institution of prize giving, the Sapir Prize for literature included: Only one writer can get it. That leaves - in this case - four other contenders who did not win. More often than not a prize-giving ceremony is closely followed by allegations of a conspiracy behind the scenes, and accusations that the winner benefited from some sort of cabal.

There is an inherent problem with appointing juries to award literary prizes, especially in a country as small as Israel, where everybody knows everybody else and his or her spouse. The possibility of some mutual back-scratching always lurks. There is another option of appointing "common readers" to literary juries, assuming such an animal exists, or individuals who have nothing to do with literature to begin with. I bet you anything that their chance of coming up with a controversial winner is as high as of a jury of literary cognoscenti.

It is common knowledge in Israeli society that everything and everyone is corrupt to some degree, and it is just a matter of time and some digging until the sordid truth will be out. It has to be said that that notion is not entirely unfounded, and some of our first and best citizens contributed (and received contributions) for such a notion to prevail. The result is an atmosphere of a righteous hunt for possible miscreants, and each public deed is prone to public scrutiny by innuendos, investigative reports and complaints lodged with the State Comptrollers' office. Dwellers of glass houses wander around eager to cast the first stone.

The Mifal Hapayis national lottery, under whose auspices the Sapir Prize is awarded (to the tune of NIS 125,000 for the winner and NIS 25,000 for runners-up) responded to allegations about misconducts in the jury deliberations in the same way Benjamin Netanyahu responded, before he was even elected prime minister, to allegations that he had an extramarital affair: The Mifal Hapayis directorate admitted that there may have been something in the allegations, implicitly admitted wrongdoing that it is still unclear whether it was committed, decided to cancel this year's prize and tried to appear holier than the chief rabbi.

Admittedly, there are other ways of solving a situation when two books receive an equal number of votes by the jury than letting the jury's chairman, former MK Yossi Sarid, cast a second, deciding vote. In the past each juror rated the five runners-up, and the book scores were tallied, like they do in the Eurovision Song Contest. Even then there were allegations of dirty play.

Admittedly, Prof. Ariel Hirschfeld, a juror to whom the book by Ronit Matalon, one of the nominees, is dedicated, and who had been romantically involved with her in the past, could have abstained from casting his vote for her book. In that case, by the way, Alon Hilu's book, "The House of Dajani," would have got the prize even without Sarid's decisive second vote.

As Mifal Hapayis decided to scrap this year's jury decisions on the basis of allegations - which happen to be true - that Sarid's niece, Rana Werbin, is the literary editor of the Yedioth Ahronoth publishing house that published Hilu's book, and that Yedioth Ahronoth is also the publisher of Sarid's books, it now follows that the last two years' winners should also return their prizes. All this time Sarid was the jury chairman, and Werbin the literary editor of Yedioth Ahronoth.

It goes without saying that all previous winners of Sapir prizes - all 10 of them - should have been disqualified, as most jury members over the years had published books with some of the publishing houses competing for the prize. And all that even before starting to check the romantic lives of jurors and writers of both sexes.

The Lord alone giveth and taketh away. If Mifal Hapayis admits to some wrongdoing - and that is open to discussion - let them do it at their own expense, and try and mend their ways in years to come. Why should writers who had their books submitted for the prize return the money they won in good faith? Why should they be besmirched with scandal not of their own doing?

Mifal Hapayis has announced that the Sapir Prize will be awarded again, this time by a different jury headed by a different chairman. No honest man or woman, possessing literary knowledge or not, should agree to serve on such a jury. No self-respecting writers of either sex should submit their books for that prize. But there is a lot of money at stake - both for the jurors who receive a nice fee, and for the writers, even if they do not win the prize. That is why anything can yet happen.