Minister says Israel Prize event to be held in Gaza-adjacent Sderot; more winners named

Prominent government critic Eyal Waldman awarded prize after controversy; six new laureates announced

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

An aerial view of Sderot. (Golan Sabag/Sderot municipality)
An aerial view of Sderot. (Golan Sabag/Sderot municipality)

For the first time, this year’s Israel Prize ceremony will be held in Sderot near the Gaza Strip instead of Jerusalem, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, who is in charge of the event, announced Thursday.

Sderot was one of the towns hit by Hamas’s October 7 attacks on southern Israel, and has for years been a symbol of southern communities under threat by Gaza rockets.

The decision was criticized by Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion. Lion said moving the award ceremony from Jerusalem was “a deviation from the tradition of ceremonies and state events in Jerusalem.”

He argued that though “our hearts are with southern and northern residents, despite their importance and centrality in our hearts, it is important to ensure that all national and state events are held in the capital of Israel.”

Thursday’s announcement also listed six new awardees of Israel’s highest civilian honor, all men. Among them is businessman Eyal Waldman, a prominent government critic, who will receive the Israel Prize in Entrepreneurship and Technological Innovation.

Waldman was the focus of controversy in February, after Kisch canceled the traditional prize categories in favor of two new war-related categories. Kisch said the decision came as a result of the war. However, some Hebrew media reports claimed another consideration was avoiding bestowing an award on Waldman, a prominent activist against the government’s judicial overhaul agenda. Waldman’s daughter was murdered in the Supernova massacre on October 7.

After intense pressure and appeals to the High Court of Justice against the decision to cancel nearly all prize categories this year, Kisch last week announced a reversal of the decision, reinstating the traditional categories alongside the newly created ones.

Another pick mired in controversy is Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who won for Torah Literature and Hebrew Law.

Yosef, the son of the late Shas party spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, has a history of controversial remarks. He made headlines earlier this month and came under widespread criticism for saying that ultra-Orthodox communities would move abroad if forced to enlist in the IDF amid growing pressure to draft Haredim, saying, “If they force us to go to the army, we’ll all move abroad. We’ll buy a ticket… We’ll go there.”

Addressing the lack of women among the winners announced on Thursday, Kisch said, “Unfortunately in my announcement today, there were no women prize winners, only men. Discretion in this matter lies in the hands of the organizations and members of different committees. I hope they will choose deserving women in other categories.”

Previously, Dr. Cochav Elkayam-Levy, an international law and human rights expert, was announced as a winner in the new “Solidarity” category, for her work to bring attention to Hamas’s crimes against women and children during the October 7 atrocities.

In addition to Waldman and Yosef, the prize winners announced on Thursday were: Prof. Gershon Ben Shachar of Hebrew University, for Psychology Research; Prof. Hagai Bergman of Hebrew University, for Life Sciences Research; Prof. Vitali Milman of Tel Aviv University, for Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering Research; and Prof. Yaakov Ritov of Hebrew University, for Economic and Statistics Research.

Dr. Chen Kugel, director of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine, was previously announced as the winner of the prize for “Civilian Heroism,” one of the new categories, for his work leading the institute and his efforts to identify the murdered and fallen since October 7.

Menachem Kalmanson and Itiel Zohar, of the West Bank settlement of Otniel, were also previously announced to have been awarded the prize in the “Civilian Heroism” category, for their bravery in battle and in rescuing civilians during the events of October 7.

The Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor, is given out on Independence Day, which falls on May 14 this year. The ceremony is usually attended by many top dignitaries, including the president, the prime minister, the speaker of the Knesset, the president of the Supreme Court, the mayor of Jerusalem and the education minister.

The award process is done through public nominations and then decisions by specialized committees. Awards in more categories are still to be announced, the Education Ministry said, including for lifetime contributions and achievements.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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