Eight men and one woman received the Israel Prize in an official state ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday evening, in an event marking the closing of Independence Day festivities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the ceremony echoed the comments of Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein from the day’s opening ceremony on Wednesday evening. Both reminded their listeners that the sheer rebirth of the Jewish nation in its land was a miracle of history not to be taken for granted.
“This uplifting ceremony brings to its close a day of national pride. I was at the Bible Quiz this morning, then shook the hands of 120 excellent soldiers, a symbol of our strength in security. And here with the Israel Prize we cherish a third dimension — our cultural prowess. The strength of the people of Israel is built brick by brick, layer by layer. We are here, in an advanced country from which a tremendous light shines through, and this is what makes our independence special. This is a day of celebration but also for reflection over our achievements in the past and anticipation of what is yet to come. No one believed 100 years ago that we would have the military, economic and cultural strength we have today,” Netanyahu said.
“Theodor Herzl acknowledged the contribution of Jewish creativity in the diaspora to humankind, but he understood that it was a house of cards that surrounded (them), and this is why he preached Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish army,” he said.
“Many thought he was crazy. In the diaspora we created as individuals and here — as a nation. In the diaspora we tried to survive but could not protect ourselves and here we live on our land as free people. I bless all of you with more fruitful creation: I bless the State of Israel for having people like you come from its bosom; a happy holiday to the people of Israel.”
President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, High Court President Chief Justice Miriam Naor and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat were all in attendance at the ceremony celebrating the laureates of Israel’s most prestigious award.
The winners of the 2015 Israel Prize are:
Prof Tzvi Shifrin — Asian Studies. Shifrin is a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the world’s leading sinology experts (study of China). He was a pioneer of this field of studies in the country and established the first department for east Asian studies in Israel.
Prof. Shmuel Ahituv — Biblical Studies. Ahituv is emeritus in the Department of Biblical Studies, Archaeology and Ancient Orient Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. He has been specializing in studying the bible from a scientific perspective for more than 50 years. He was also instrumental in preparing the Biblical Encyclopedia for publication as well as many other publications.
Prof. Zelig Eshhar — Life Sciences. Eshhar is an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute and the Ichilov Medical Center. He is a world leader in genetic engineering of immune system cells. The pinnacle of his achievements is the development of genetically modified T cells which can attack cancerous cells. Clinical trials have already shown positive results and his work in this field could potentially save thousands of lives.
Prof. David Weisbord — Criminology. A professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Weisbord is a world name in criminology. His research focuses on criminal behavior in relation to geographical surroundings.
David Gurfinkel — Cinema. David Gurfinkel is one of the most highly-respected cinematographers in the country. With six decades of experience, he has literally been part of Israel’s cinema from its inception.
Erez Biton — Poetry. A major poet in Hebrew, Biton is an ideological father figure to a new generation of poets who emphasize aspects of Sephardic culture and identity in a cultural landscape often perceived as Europeanized, white and exclusivist. Biton writes of love, the fear of death, and identity — but from a personal perspective reflecting his unique position in the mosaic of Israeli society.
An accident at a young age blinded Biton and cost him his left hand — curiosity led him to open an old box with an unstable hand grenade inside, which exploded in his face.
Read the Times of Israel interview with Erez Biton, published last month.
Esther Herlitz — Unique contribution to society and the state. Herlitz served as a member of Knesset, and earlier as an officer in the IDF and the British army in British Mandate Palestine. She was among the pioneers in establishing ties between Israel and US Jewry as well as US leadership. She was also a member of the negotiating team which discussed compensation to Holocaust survivors from the German government. She is also considered a trailblazer on issues of gender equality.
Herlitz is the only woman to win the Israel Prize this year. In his speech ahead of the prize-giving, Netanyahu said “Good evening gentlemen — and lady.” He then smiled and said “I am waiting for it to be the opposite — when I can say good evening ladies — and gentleman.”
Chaim Topol — Unique contribution to society and the state. Topol is one of the most famous Israeli actors, and has performed on stage for more than six decades. He received world recognition for his portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, on stage and later on film. Among his talents Topol also authored several books and illustrated others. As a philanthropist, he established the Jordan River Village, a resort where children struck with terminal illnesses can enjoy recreational activities.
Read the Times of Israel interview with Topol, published this week.
Prof. Shimon Ullman — Mathematics and Computer Sciences. The Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Ullman is a visionary of computerized eyesight and artificial intelligence, from both an academic and industrial perspective. His work combining algorithms and mathematical calculations with the study of the cognitive processes of vision has led to breakthroughs in understanding what happens in the brain when we use our eyes. This includes insights into the human ability to recreate a three-dimensional image of the world from two-dimensional pictures, the link between eyesight and attention, calculations of motion and more.
Notably absent from this year’s awards was a recipient in the field of literature. The literature prize was tainted by controversy this year when several of the judges in the field’s selection panel resigned, protesting what they called Netanyahu’s interfering with the process.
In February dozens of well known artists, authors and filmmakers publicly criticized Netayahu after it emerged that he disqualified judges Avner Holzman and Ariel Hirschfeld for their “extremist views.” Their disqualification prompted the remaining judges, together with a number of nominees, to boycott the prize in protest.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein later called on Netanyahu to retract the disqualifications and to refrain from intervening in the procedures due to the close proximity to the elections. Netanyahu complied with Weinstein’s request shortly thereafter. However, the judges refused to return to the panel, and the prize had to be canceled as it was too late to appoint a new committee.
Tamar Pileggi contributed to this report.