Judges quit Israel Prize panel en masse over political meddling
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Judges quit Israel Prize panel en masse over political meddling

Top literary award may have to be canceled after creative community cries foul following disqualification of new judges by Prime Minister’s Office

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein recieves the Israel prize in literature from then-education minister Shai Piron, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and then-president Shimon Peres look on in Jerusalem on May 06, 2014. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein recieves the Israel prize in literature from then-education minister Shai Piron, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and then-president Shimon Peres look on in Jerusalem on May 06, 2014. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

The Israel Prize for literature may be imperiled after the entire panel of judges resigned over what they said was political meddling in the makeup of the committee by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The panel quit this week after two new judges were removed from their post by the PMO, apparently because of their political views, sparking a backlash in the creative community.

The Education Ministry fears that the prize may not be awarded at all this year since other scholars and public figures are likely to avoid associating with the award, making establishing a replacement panel extremely difficult, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister’s Office disqualified Prof. Avner Holtzman of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Ariel Hischfeld from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as judges. The panel had already begun evaluating candidates for the prestigious 2015 prize.

The remaining six judges resigned Tuesday to protest the “clear politicization of the of the prize and the vote of no confidence the professionals’ professional judgement,” Haaretz quoted panel member Prof. Nissim Calderon as saying.

Appointments are usually made by the education minister, a position which is currently held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the December resignation of former minister Shai Piron and the rest of the Yesh Atid party in a cabinet shakeup.

In addition to Calderon, the other panel judges who resigned were Prof. Nurit Gertz, Prof. Ziva Ben-Porat, Ephraim Hazam, Uri Hollander and author Gail Hareven.

A candidate for the prize in literary research, Prof. Yigal Schwartz from Ben-Gurion University, called the move an “unparalleled scandal,” and withdrew his candidacy in protest.

“This isn’t a mistake; it’s a continuation of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s deliberate policy of undermining Israel’s elites to gain votes from other groups. This is sabotage that it’s impossible not to oppose,” Schwartz said according to the paper.

The scholars expressed concerns that external considerations would tarnish the award’s reputation, and said that Netanyahu’s meddling amounted to the “politicization of Israel’s most important prize, which is supposed to be granted solely on the basis of professional and artistic considerations,” they wrote in their resignation letter.

The Prime Minister’s Office said it reviewed the panel’s composition after learning that Hirschfeld supported conscientious objectors in the IDF, in a statement released Tuesday. It did not say why Holtzman was disqualified.

According to Haaretz, a source in the Prime Minister’s Office said the Netanyahu’s bureau demanded the appointment of a specific judge to a panel because it was “the prime minister’s will.”

On Tuesday, the PMO also disqualified a judge on the panel of the Israel Prize in film, producer Haim Sharir. Sharir’s removal prompted another producer and member of the judging panel Ram Loevy to resign in protest.

Sharir’s replacement resigned hours after accepting the bid, and then Sharir was asked to rejoin the panel, but he refused.

He said he did not intend to “help them with what seems like an attempt to meddle in the composition of the judges’ panel,” he told the Israeli daily paper. He also said that he was shocked by the “chaos that characterized the process. It’s hard to believe that’s how the Israel Prizes are run.”

The Education Ministry said it warned Netanyhu’s office against intervening in the appointment process several weeks ago, but was dismissed.

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