Minister scraps Israel Prize categories over nomination of government critic – report

Unsourced report says Yoav Kisch, whose Education Ministry oversees award, pushed back against nomination of Mellanox founder Eyal Waldman, but selection committee wouldn’t back down

Education Minister Yoav Kisch attends a committee meeting in the Knesset on December 19, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Yoav Kisch attends a committee meeting in the Knesset on December 19, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Education Minister Yoav Kisch decided to shrink the annual Israel Prize to a couple of war-related categories this year in order to prevent a prominent government critic from winning an award in one of the traditional categories, according to an unsourced report Sunday.

Kisch pushed back against the selection of Mellanox founder Eyal Waldman for the Entrepreneurship Award and tried to suggest an alternative winner, the Maariv news outlet said.

When the selection committee refused, Kisch announced a restructuring of the entire award ceremony, shrinking it down to just six winners in two categories dealing with civilian volunteers working against the background of the ongoing war against Hamas.

Waldman’s daughter Danielle was among 364 people who were slaughtered by terrorists at a music festival on October 7 when Palestinian terror group Hamas led a devastating attack that killed 1,200 people amid horrific atrocities. The thousands of attackers who burst through the border from Gaza also abducted 253 people who were taken as hostages and held in the Strip.

Israel responded to the attack with a military campaign to destroy Hamas, remove it from power in Gaza, and free the hostages.

The downsizing of the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious civilian award, has drawn criticism from academics and those in the sciences.

Mellanox founder Eyal Waldman (Courtesy)

Kisch has said that this year’s prizes are only being delayed and will be presented next year instead when the war presumably will be over.

According to the report, selection committees began working on finding potential winners in December.

The committees have no political affiliations and are supposed to make an objective assessment of candidates.

The three-person committee for the entrepreneurship prize was led by Ami Applebaum, chair of Israel Innovation Authority.

According to the report, after a number of meetings and discussions, the committee narrowed down the field to three candidates: Waldman, Dov Moran, an Israeli businessman who invented the computer USB memory stick, and a third person, a woman, who was not named in the report.

All three candidates were contacted by the committee to secure their assurances that, should they win, they would not use the award ceremony or related media interviews as a platform for any political messages, the report said.

Waldman was eventually selected as the clear winner, the report said.

Mourners gather in grief around the bodies of Danielle Waldman and her partner Noam Shai during their funeral in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Tivon, Oct. 12, 2023 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

At that point, Kisch, whose ministry oversees the prize, reportedly began to intervene.

In addition, the developments were said to have been made known to associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently suggesting the premier was also involved in pushback against Waldman.

Waldman was one of the signatories of a letter sent to Netanyahu in December 2022 to warn him that planned changes to the country’s democratic character and justice system were poised to have “dramatic consequences” for the economy in general and the tech industry in particular.

He went on to be an active figure in protests against the government’s controversial overhaul of the judiciary.

Kisch, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, contacted the committee and asked them to reconsider their decision on Waldman, and then according to the report, sought to cancel the nomination.

Kisch also put forward another candidate, Prof. Shulamit Levenberg, a pioneer in the field of cultured meat. However, the committee rejected the suggestion as her work, while groundbreaking, has not yet shown success in the marketplace.

Recipients on stage at the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, on Israel’s Independence Day, on April 26, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/POOL)

Committee members were said to be firm in their decision that Waldman get the prize, despite the pressure applied from unnamed entities that it change the nomination.

Then in mid-February, Kisch revealed that he was restructuring the prize ceremony this year, and will have six winners in the categories of Societal Responsibility and Citizen Heroism only.

In the months after the devastating October 7 Hamas assault, Israeli society experienced a groundswell of volunteer efforts, civilian initiatives, and donation drives.

Others who were destined to win prizes this year will receive them in 2025 instead.

In a statement to Maariv, Kisch said: “The decision to postpone the Israel Prize was solely due to the war situation in the country. Contrary to what has been said, this year no winner was chosen for the Israel Prize. Since the work of the committees is confidential and under confidentiality, they cannot be referred to publicly.”

On Sunday, Applebaum, the Israel Innovation Authority chair, gave an interview to Channel 12’s “Tochnit Hisachon” (Savings Plan) program in which he criticized the cancellation of the regular awards but did not suggest there was a political motive behind the decision.

He said that not awarding the entrepreneurship prize was “missing a very big opportunity” at a time when the economy was suffering from the war effort.

“I think the Israel Prize is one of the tools that can give a boost to many investors and young entrepreneurs, and I’m sorry that the prize was postponed,” he said.

Applebaum noted that no final winner of the prize had been selected, but remained tight-lipped as to what happened.

“There is a committee that holds its deliberations and forwards its recommendations to the minister, and he chooses,” Applebaum said. “From this point of view, the minister is right — he did not choose. I will not go into the question of what the committee did. I think we had a number of worthy candidates and I do not want to harm the chances of any of them of receiving the award later.”

In a statement to Channel 12, Kisch said the decision to postpone the prize was down to “the war situation in the country.”

“As was announced when the decision was made, there will be no cancellation of the prizes but a postponement for a year,” Kisch said. He noted that each of this year’s winners who have “successfully passed all the various parameters” will receive the prize next year.

Waldman, who studied electrical engineering at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, in 1999 set up Mellanox, a maker of high-speed servers and storage switching solutions that allow massive amounts of data to move within and between computers. US gaming and computer graphics giant Nvidia bought Mellanox for $7 billion in 2020.

The traditional Independence Day evening ceremony awarding the Israel Prize to the winners will still be held as usual. Israeli Independence Day, the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, falls this year on the evening of Sunday, May 13, 2024.

It is the first time since the Israel Prize was initiated in 1953 that the main categories will not be covered.

The Israel Prize is considered the country’s highest and most prestigious civilian honor and is usually given to individuals who have made a considerable mark on Israeli society over a period of many years.

The Israel Prize is a civilian award and does not relate to heroic acts or achievements by Israelis serving in security roles.

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