Authors, judges boycott Israel Prize despite PM’s backtracking

David Grossman, several others reject nominations for top prize after Netanyahu fired left-wing judges

Israeli author David Grossman. (CC BY-SA/torre.elena/Flickr)
Israeli author David Grossman. (CC BY-SA/torre.elena/Flickr)

Several authors nominated for the prestigious Israel Prize and three judges on the literary prize panel refused to backtrack on their decision to distance themselves from the award, despite the prime minister’s retraction of his removal of two judges for their political views.

Authors David Grossman, Yitzhak Ben Ner, Sami Michael, Haim Be’er, and Yigal Schwartz and judges Chaim Sharir, Professor Ziva Ben-Porat and Dr. Uri Hollander announced Saturday they would not take part in this year’s award, arguing it was tainted by the prime minister’s meddling in the makeup of its judging panel. Ruth Dayan also withdrew her candidacy.

“Despite the attorney general’s instruction to the prime minister that he retract his disqualification of the judges, the spirit of the Israel Prize and its distinctive character were seriously damaged this year, and no one can claim that nothing happened,” Grossman said, according to Haaretz.

Sharir maintained that in light of the political involvement in the literary prize panel, he “saw no option in the situation that was created to grant the award with integrity.”

On Friday, two Israel Prize judges who were removed from their posts on the judging panels by the Prime Minister’s Office agreed to return to their duties after the PMO retracted its objection to their participation. Literary scholars Avner Holtzman and Ariel Hirschfeld as well as Sharir were disqualified by the PMO earlier this week due to their political views, an unprecedented move that elicited widespread criticism and the resignation of other judges. It also led several contenders for the prize in literature to bow out, including best-selling author and political commentator Grossman.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday reversed his decision to remove the judges after the attorney general called on him to refrain from taking such steps with elections looming.

Following the announcement and after receiving a formal request from the Education Ministry, professors Holtzman and Hirschfeld told Haaretz they had agreed to return to the panel for the literary prize.

Earlier Holtzman had said that “if they ask us, we’ll probably come back. I feel it is our duty to restore the prize’s stature as much as possible.” He added that it would also be appropriate for Netanyahu to apologize for his conduct over the past week “but that is probably too wild an expectation.”

Netanyahu had been facing mushrooming condemnation over claims he politicized the prestigious prize by removing judges over their political orientation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Japan-Israel business forum in Jerusalem on January 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Japan-Israel business forum in Jerusalem on January 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Weinstein’s message to the prime minister late Thursday meant that he wouldn’t defend Netanyahu’s decision to disqualify members of the judging panels if it were to be brought before the High Court of Justice.

In a written response to Weinstein’s message, the Prime Minister’s Office legal adviser, Shlomit Barnea Fargo, said that Netanyahu respected the attorney general’s instructions. She added that should Netanyahu be reelected, he will establish an advisory committee to establish new criteria for the appointment of Israel Prize judges.

The PMO confirmed that Netanyahu was reversing his decision to remove the judges, and not merely committing to refrain from further intervention in the prize.

President Reuven Rivlin encouraged all judges and contenders who had renounced the contest in the past days to return.

“The Israel Prize is dear to us all, on the right and left,” Rivlin said in a statement Friday afternoon. “It is a common denominator for all Israeli society, one of the last that remains, and represents a rare consensus of our spiritual, cultural, literary and scientific depth, and of our values as a people. Through it, the nation cherishes its select sons and daughters, and we must preserve and keep it safe.”

“Let us preserve the Israel Prize, for all our sake’s,” he added, urging the judges to return, along with the candidates who took themselves out of the running in protest.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at a meeting of the Israeli Bar Association in December 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at a meeting of the Israeli Bar Association in December 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Thursday, award-winning author David Grossman joined a string of nominees to bow out of the running for the Israel Prize in literature.

Grossman told Channel 10 on Thursday that he pulled out in response to the “prime minister’s campaign of incitement,” calling it an attack on “freedom of thought.”

The author, known for political activism and support for the two-state solution, called Netanyahu’s actions a “cynical and destructive coup that violates freedom of spirit and mind.”

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Netanyahu said the panel was controlled by judges with “extremist views” on the far left of the political spectrum, such as encouraging soldiers not to serve in the army. He said the committee should reflect a broader swath of the public.

The Israel Prize — in the categories of literature, sciences and the arts — is awarded each spring on the day of the Jewish state’s independence.

Amos Oz, an internationally renowned author, charged that Netanyahu was trying to suppress freedom of expression. “He does not just want to replace the committee, he wants to replace the writers and judges too,” he told Channel 2. “The truth is, he would probably replace the media if he could.”

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister’s Office said it reviewed the panel’s composition after learning that Hirschfeld had supported conscientious objectors in the Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli author David Grossman addresses the crowd at a left-wing rally in Tel Aviv, Saturday night, August 16, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/GALI TIBBON)
Israeli author David Grossman addresses the crowd at a left-wing rally in Tel Aviv, August 16, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Gali Tibbon)

Responding to the prime minister’s explanation, Hirschfeld said, “The prime minister took it upon himself to determine the degree of Zionism of people who devote their whole life to Israeli culture.”

Some in the literary community have called Netanyahu’s move a “purge,” likening him to a Soviet dictator.

Author Sami Michael, who also took himself out of the running for the prize this week, told Haaretz Thursday that he would like to see all the nominees for the literature award withdraw their candidacy in protest at Netanyahu’s meddling.

“I’m aware that there’s an ugly atmosphere in the clique-filled literary world,” he told the newspaper. “But it’s very dangerous for a politician, however lofty his position, to take upon himself the job of cleaning the literary stables.”

The Zionist Union party, battling Netanyahu’s Likud ahead of the March 17 elections, filed a complaint with the State Comptrollers Office over Netanyahu’s intervention Thursday night.

AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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