Opinion: ‘Israel Prize’? Call it the ‘Anti-Israel Prize’

“Someone for whom the State of Israel and its laws are not dear to their heart is not worthy of the Israel Prize,” Galant said.

By David Isaac, World Israel News

Israel has a bad habit of making the worst choices for its best prizes. This goes especially for its most prestigious prize – the Israel Prize – its highest cultural honor.

The latest cringeworthy awardee is Oded Goldreich, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute.

Goldreich’s pastime appears to be signing BDS petitions. He signed one in 2019 urging Germany to scotch a resolution equating BDS with anti-Semitism. In March of this year, he signed another calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in Judea and Samaria, notably Ariel University. (There’s actually a right-left consensus in Israel not to give up Ariel University, making Goldreich a truly exceptional leftist.)

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has long been recognized as an anti-Semitic movement whose goal is the destruction of Israel. Last year, the co-founder of the BDS movement said as much.

A selection committee chooses the winners of the Israel Prize. In what is usually a formality, Israel’s Education Minister signs off on its decision. Last month, the current minister, Yoav Galant, got wind of the committee’s plans to give it to Goldreich. He told the committee to revisit its decision, which is his privilege according to the prize rules.

“Someone for whom the State of Israel and its laws are not dear to their heart is not worthy of the Israel Prize,” Galant said.

The committee didn’t like being second guessed and petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court. What role does the Supreme Court have in this? Absolutely none. But in Israel everything is justiciable, so the Court jumped in. Though it leans (more like screams) left, the Court sided with Galant. This was partly thanks to the pro-Zionist group “Im Tirtzu,” which revealed that Goldreich had signed onto the recent anti-Ariel University petition, a fact that hadn’t been known.

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The Supreme Court agreed to give Galant 30 days to review the newly produced material, which meant that Goldreich couldn’t receive the award as the ceremony took place this week.

“Whoever does not value the State of Israel and its laws – does not deserve the Israel Prize,” Galant said afterwards, echoing his earlier words.

However, that’s not what the Court said. The Court argued, “Calling for boycotts can in certain circumstances, without setting a precedent at this stage, fall into the scope of exceptional circumstances in which non-professional considerations can be taken into account. [italics added]”

In other words, the Court said in some cases it’s OK to look outside the winner’s area of expertise, or in the case of Goldreich, at more than his math ability.

Here the Court has it exactly backwards. An Israel Prize winner’s ideas about Israel should be a central consideration. That’s because the Israel Prize isn’t just about exact sciences, or culture, or sports, or any of the other categories in which prizes are given. Israel’s citizens are encouraged to view the prize as bestowed on those who set the highest standard, the country’s moral lodestars. Goldreich isn’t just receiving a math prize. He’s being held up as someone worthy of emulation, someone in whose footsteps people should follow. Not for nothing is the ceremony broadcast on Israel’s Independence Day.

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What happens when Israel gives its greatest prize to a Goldreich? Israel tells its citizens that it values most those who value it least. The prize then serves to undermine Israel’s legitimacy from within. An Israeli can justifiably ask, “If he’s given an Israel Prize, maybe we are ‘Judeo-Nazis’” (to borrow a disgusting term coined by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, another Israel Prize committee pick). It also gives succor to Israel’s enemies without. How is Israel to fight BDS at the same time it awards BDS supporters with its highest honor?

Goldreich is only the latest of many dismal Israel Prize choices. Certainly Minister of Education Ben-Zion Dinur, a staunch Zionist who founded the prize in 1953, would be horrified at some of the recipients. Yigal Tumarkin, a third-rate sculptor, was awarded the prize in 2004. He said of the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox: “When I see them, you understand why there was a Holocaust.”

Poet Natan Zach won in 1995. He joined Gush Shalom, which organized boycotts against Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Novelist A.B. Yehoshua, another 1995 winner, called for recognizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1970s, an idea acceptable to only the most radical at the time. (He now appears to have ‘evolved’ to embrace a one-state solution, suggesting a complete overhaul of Israel’s system of government and the merger of the Israeli and Palestinian police forces.)

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the 2015 Israel Prize ceremony, “The strength of the people of Israel is built brick by brick, layer by layer.” It seems too many prize recipients want to tear it all down.

The failure to understand the meaning of the Israel Prize reflects the moral drift, the lack of honor and the loss of national purpose among Israel’s elites. No less than five of the eight current winners protested withholding the award from Goldreich. Much of Israel’s media joined in, arguing that barring him menaces free speech, that the prize is being “politicized.” An op-ed in Israel Hayom completely missed the point when it argued that the way to remove politics from the prize is to take it away from the Education Ministry and give it to the president’s office. Supporting BDS is beyond “politics.”

Kan Bet, a radio station run by Israel’s public broadcaster, brought on David Harel, winner of the Israel Prize in 2004, who declared that denying Goldreich the prize would “damage Israel and hurt its standing in the world.” In a truly vulgar comparison, he equated Israel’s political atmosphere today to that of 1930s Germany. In other words, to discuss Goldreich, Israel’s public broadcaster brought on another Goldreich.

The sorry truth is that for the Israel Prize to change, Israel’s elites will have to change. The Goldreich saga is only a reminder of who is really in charge in Israel. It’s an ugly bunch.

David Isaac is managing editor of World Israel News.