Controversy-hit Genesis Prize distances itself from prime minister

Controversy-hit Genesis Prize distances itself from prime minister

Statement says joint decision made after ‘incorrect’ interpretation that prize is political; announcement comes 2 years after Natalie Portman refused to accept award from Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Genesis Prize ceremony, at the Jerusalem theater on June 20, 2019. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Genesis Prize ceremony, at the Jerusalem theater on June 20, 2019. (Flash90)

The Genesis Prize Foundation announced Monday that the Prime Minister’s Office would no longer be involved with the prestigious prize, in an attempt to distance the award from perceptions that it is political in nature.

Two years ago, Israel-born actress Natalie Portman, refused to come to Jerusalem and receive the honor because it was to be presented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to the Monday statement from the foundation, the decision for the PMO to quit the partnership was made in coordination with the Genesis Foundation and the Jewish Agency. The three bodies made-up the founders of the $1 million annual prize, touted by organizers as the Jewish Nobel.

“Despite the efforts of the partners to create a non-political award that unites the Jewish people, some have incorrectly interpreted the participation of the Office of the Prime Minister in the Genesis Prize as bringing a political dimension to this important initiative,” the statement read.

From left to right: Comedian Jay Leno, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Genesis cofounder Stan Polovets, Michael Douglas, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Genesis Prize ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater, June 18, 2015 (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

“This is the opposite of what the founders of the Prize intended. Therefore, in order to make it perfectly clear that this award transcends politics, the three partners collectively have decided that the PMO would exercise the option contained in the founding documents and withdraw from the partnership,” the founders said.

The prize honors individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement and commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish people.

Portman announced in 2018 that she would not travel to Israel for the award ceremony, which was then canceled, drawing accusations that Portman was supporting the boycott Israel movement. Portman said she did not want to be seen as endorsing Netanyahu.

The Genesis Foundation later decided that the prize money and an additional $1 million matching grant by Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn would still be distributed to women’s empowerment programs, but through the foundation.

Philanthropist Morris Kahn, left, Genesis Prize Laureate Natalie Portman, center, and Stan Polovets, co-founder and Chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation. (Genesis Foundation)

The saga was troubling for the Genesis Prize Foundation, which says it works hard to prevent its philanthropy from being politicized.

Last year’s recipient, Robert Kraft, was thought to have been a much safer candidate, though he later became embroiled in a prostitution scandal.

Board member Prof. Rivka Carmi, a former president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, resigned in protest over the decision to move forward with plans to honor Kraft despite the New England Patriots owner being charged with soliciting a prostitute.

Last month the foundation announced that the winner of its $1 million 2020 prize is former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, citing his “lifelong struggle for human rights.” The prize committee said that following the precedent set by previous winners, Sharansky would donate the $1 million prize to nonprofit organizations.

In addition to Kraft and Portman, previous winners include artist Anish Kapoor, violinist Itzhak Perlman, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and actor-director Michael Douglas. Winners traditionally donate the prize money to charity.

In 2018, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received a lifetime achievement award from the foundation.

JTA contributed to this report.

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