Minister backtracks, reinstates regular Israel Prize categories amid court petitions

Government undoes Yoav Kisch’s controversial February decision to only award Israel’s highest civilian honor this year in two new war-related categories

Education Minister Yoav Kisch attends an Education, Culture, and Sports Committee meeting in the Knesset on January 30, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Yoav Kisch attends an Education, Culture, and Sports Committee meeting in the Knesset on January 30, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Education Minister Yoav Kisch announced Wednesday he was reversing his decision not to award the Israel Prize in traditional categories this year and to instead hand out prizes only in two new war-related categories.

The Israel Prize ceremony, the country’s highest civilian honor, will be held as usual on Independence Day with the regular categories alongside the two new ones, Kisch said.

The notice came a day before a deadline given by the High Court of Justice for Kisch and the government to respond to petitions demanding the reversal of the earlier decision to drastically pare down the Israel Prize for 2024.

It also comes a day after Kisch announced that the 2024 Israel Prize for “Civilian Heroism” would be awarded to Menachem Kalmanson and Itiel Zohar, of the West Bank settlement of Otniel, for their bravery in battling terrorists in the Gaza periphery on October 7.

In a statement, Kisch said that after speaking with Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who “unfortunately decided not to defend my position at the High Court… I chose to change the previous decision and give the Israel Prize in the various categories” alongside the new awards.

The award ceremony will be held “in a different format” from previous years in light of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, the minister noted.

“We are in days of fighting, bereavement, and concern for our brothers and sisters who are still in captivity. In these days it is especially clear that any debate that does not contribute to the just war that we are waging should vanish from public discourse,” Kisch said.

He added that he was looking into allowing awardees who wished to postpone receiving the award in light of the war to be able to do so.

The Israel Prize, which is overseen by the Education Ministry, has been mired in controversy since the mid-February announcement of its curtailment.

The Maariv news outlet reported in late February that Kisch had made the change to avoid bestowing the Entrepreneurship Award on the leading candidate, businessman Eyal Waldman, a prominent critic of the government’s judicial overhaul agenda whose daughter was murdered in the Supernova massacre on October 7.

Mellanox founder Eyal Waldman speaks in the Knesset Science Committee in Jerusalem, March 3, 2024, breaking down when talking about his daughter, who was murdered by Hamas on October 7. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Waldman himself alleged during a Knesset Science Committee hearing earlier this month that Kisch and close associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had pressured the relevant Israel Prize selection committee to change its decision to award him the honor.

At the end of February, a petition filed to the High Court argued that Kisch and the government had acted without due authority and in contravention of the Israel Prize regulations in eliminating the traditional prize categories.

In early March, a second petition was filed by the Bashaar – Academic Community for Israeli Society group, representing some 2,000 academics, arguing that Kisch’s decision did “mortal damage” to the Israel Prize institution, harmed the rights of the selection committee members, and harmed the rights of the general public to obtain public recognition for their work.

Both petitions requested that the High Court order Kisch to change his decision and restore the Israel Prize to its original format.

At around the same time the Association of University Heads, which represents Israel’s major universities, announced it would hold an alternative ceremony on Independence Day honoring the traditional categories of achievements in humanities, science and technology.

The Israel Prize has been awarded to Israelis in the fields of social sciences, humanities, life and exact sciences, art, and special contributions to the State of Israel and Israeli society since it was founded in 1953 by then-education minister Ben-Zion Dinor. It has been awarded every year since, even in years when Israel was at war.

The two new categories related to the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza are in “Societal Responsibility” for civic efforts and volunteering, and “Civilian Heroism” for acts of bravery.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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