Two years after artist Yair Garbuz gave a widely condemned election rally address where he decried the left’s loss of the country to a “handful of amulet-kissers and idol-worshipers,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett prevented him from receiving the Israel Prize.
The painter, writer and veteran left-wing activist had been in the running for an Israel Prize in the fine arts, but the selection committee’s inability to reach a unanimous decision gave way for Bennett, from the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, to step in and block his nomination, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported Wednesday.
Garbuz had been maintaining a low profile since his controversial March 2015 speech, which drew wide condemnation and was seen by some as a factor behind the center-left Zionist Union’s election defeat to the Likud party’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Then, Garbuz had told a crowd of thousands that the country had been taken over by “handfuls” of extremists, painting the religious as criminals.
“They told us, and wanted us to believe,” that right-wing extremists were merely a “handful,” Garbuz said, along with “the thieves and bribe-takers,” “the corrupt and hedonistic,” “the destroyers of democracy,” “those who think democracy is the tyranny of the majority,” and “the kissers of amulets, idol-worshipers, and those who prostrate themselves on the graves of the saints.”
“If all these are just a handful,” Garbuz continued, “how does this handful rule over us? How is it that without anyone noticing or interfering, this, the handful became a majority?”
His words were perceived as a sharp attack against traditional skullcap-wearers, Sephardi Jews and the right wing in general, and aroused harsh public criticism from across the political spectrum.
His name is still used by politicians and pundits to refer to those perceived of espousing racist views of Mizrahi Jews.
In response to the reports on his loss of the award, Garbuz told Army Radio that he was “happy to be nominated for the Israel Prize and happy to not receive it from Naftali Bennett.”
“What I lost was a handshake from Bennett and an amount of money, both of which I’ll be able to manage very well without,” he said.
Taking another shot at Garbuz and the ruling Ashkenazi elite he has come to represent, Bennett stood by his decision in a Ynet news site interview later Wednesday.
Admitting that he was no expert in the fine arts, the education minister said he felt the presumption that only a “handful” can define Israel’s culture to be misguided. “We have a wonderful culture and no one has a monopoly on it,” he added
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri thanked the Jewish Home head in a tweet hours after the decision went public. “In the name of the amulet-kissers and prostraters upon graves, way to go!”
Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich chimed in as well, tweeting that Bennett was “correct…this time.”
The education minister made headlines regarding a separate Israel Prize nominee last week when he announced that controversial right-wing activist David Be’eri would receive the prize for lifetime achievement.
Be’eri founded the City of David Foundation, known in Hebrew as Elad, whose central project is the renovated City of David archaeological park, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
Elad also contentiously purchases homes in the surrounding Arab village of Silwan and rents them to Jews, a move that has led to charges that he is fueling tensions in the city.