Israel Prize granted to 8 recipients in ceremony marred by political controversy

Education minister has sparked outcry by blocking one scientist from the event, claiming he backs Israel boycott

Israel Prize recipient Michal Bat-Adam attends the award ceremony in Jerusalem, prior to Israel's 73 Independence Day, on April 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israel Prize recipient Michal Bat-Adam attends the award ceremony in Jerusalem, prior to Israel's 73 Independence Day, on April 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The annual ceremony granting the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious award, to eight recipients was broadcast on Thursday, Israel’s Independence Day, under the pall of a controversial decision by the education minister to block one nominee due to his political views.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin and High Court President Esther Hayut attended the ceremony. The event took place in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center earlier this week and was broadcast on Thursday night at the close of Independence Day.

The recipients were: poet and author Nurit Zarchi; biochemist Prof. Eli Keshet; film director and actress Michal Bat-Adam; literature professor and researcher Prof. Nitza Ben-Dov; social work and criminology researcher Prof. Ariella Levenstein; Far East studies expert and scientist Prof. Ben-Ami Shillony; and biblical studies researcher Prof. Yair Zakovitch. A lifetime achievement award went to economist and former Foreign Ministry official Joseph Ciechanover.

Israeli leaders pose with recipients of the Israel Prize during the award ceremony in Jerusalem, prior to Israel’s 73 Independence Day, on April 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The historic ceremony was marred by controversy over Education Minister Yoav Gallant’s move to block Oded Goldreich from receiving this year’s Israel Prize in mathematics and computer science, over claims he supports the Palestinian-led international boycott movement targeting Israel, allegations the professor denies.

Last week the High Court gave Gallant 30 days to reach a decision about awarding the prize to Goldreich, in effect preventing the professor from receiving the recognition at Sunday’s ceremony. The court said he could be awarded the prize at a later date.

The High Court has previously rejected petitions against awarding the prize to certain candidates, including last year when it was awarded to Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who has made disparaging comments about LGBT people.

Due to Goldreich’s absence, the ceremony had the highest-ever share of women to receive the award in a year, with 50 percent of the recipients being female. A majority of 55% of the prize committee’s members were women, also an all-time high.

Accepting her award, Bat-Adam said in a brief acceptance speech, “I’m very happy to receive the prize, but I’m very sad that we’re only four women and four men tonight because we’re missing one winner.”

Gallant did not directly address the controversy during the ceremony.

“It is the human spirit that stands behind the achievements of the State of Israel. On this Independence Day, we have the right and the obligation to look proudly on the fruits of our common creation and be proud, and even satisfied,” Gallant said.

He also called for national unity. “It’s important to remember, not every opponent is a traitor or enemy, not everything that is not good is necessarily bad, not everyone who is not with us wants evil for us. That which we have in common is greater than that which divides us,” Gallant said.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, prior to Israel’s 73 Independence Day, on April 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Levenstein said on behalf of the recipients, “Today, on the 73rd Independence Day, we celebrate the victory of spirit, science and hope.”

“All of us, the men and women who received the award, have worked tirelessly in order to leave behind us a legacy of learning and doing, without receiving in return,” she said.

In another controversy surrounding the prize, the disgraced leader of the ZAKA emergency services group, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, relinquished the award last month after widespread allegations of sexual abuse against him. He had been declared a winner of the Israel Prize’s lifetime achievement award for his contributions to Israeli society.

Oded Goldreich (CC BY-SA 3.0)/Wikipedia)

Rectors from seven of Israel’s nine research universities protested Gallant’s decision to withhold Israel’s most prestigious prize from Goldreich over his political views, telling the education minister on Sunday that they believe he doesn’t have the authority to do so.

The heads of the predominantly religious Bar-Ilan University and the West Bank-based Ariel University notably did not sign the letter.

Five of the eight winners of this year’s Israel Prize also protested the decision in a letter to Gallant.

“We express our deep sorrow that Prof. Goldreich will be absent from the festive ceremony,” wrote Ben-Dov, Bat-Adam, Zakowitz, Zarchi and Keshet.

On Sunday, Israel Prize laureate David Harel, a computer scientist who was awarded the prize in 2004, gave his award statue to Goldreich in an “alternative ceremony” at the Weizmann Institute.

Speaking at the event, Goldreich said that the decision by Gallant had wider repercussions for freedom of speech.

“This is bigger than me and it concerns us all,” Goldreich said. “The position taken by the education minister is just another small step in an ongoing process of de-legitimizing the left in Israel.”

Last month, Goldreich and hundreds of other academics signed a petition calling on the European Union to halt funding for Ariel University, which was established inside a settlement of the same name in the West Bank. The scholars said it legitimized settlement activity, which is seen by the Palestinians and much of the international community as an obstacle to peace.

Goldreich, a professor of computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, has said he does not support the boycott movement against Israel but objects to building settlements.

The international movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, known as BDS, models itself on the campaign against apartheid South Africa. Israel views BDS as an assault on its very existence, pointing to the extreme views of some supporters and the movement’s refusal to endorse a two-state solution.

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