Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu faced mushrooming condemnation over claims he politicized the prestigious Israel Prize for literature Thursday, with a top Israeli author joining a growing boycott of the award.
Award-winning author David Grossman became the latest nominee to announce that he would not accept the prize, after it emerged that the Prime Minister’s Office disqualified two members of the judging panel apparently for political reasons.
The affair has led to the mass resignation of the rest of the panel and calls by several authors to withdraw their candidacies for the prize, considered the country’s most prestigious, leading to fears that it may have to be canceled.
Grossman told Channel 10 on Thursday that he pulled out in response to the “prime minister’s campaign of incitement,” calling it an attack on “freedom of thought.”
The author, known for political activism and support for the Palestinian cause, also called Netanyahu’s actions a “cynical and destructive coup that violate freedom of spirit, mind, and the creation of Israel,” Channel 2 reported.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Netanyahu said the panel was controlled by judges with “extremist views” on the far left of the political spectrum, such as encouraging soldiers not to serve in the army. He said the committee needed to reflect the wider public.
The Israel Prize — in the categories of literature, sciences and the arts — is awarded each spring on the day of the Jewish state’s independence.
Amos Oz, an internationally renowned author, charged that Netanyahu was trying to suppress freedom of expression. “He does not just want to replace the committee, he wants to replace the writers and judges too,” he told Channel 2. “The truth is, he would probably replace the media if he could.”
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister’s Office said it reviewed the panel’s composition after learning that one of the judges, Prof. Ariel Hirschfeld, supported conscientious objectors in the IDF. In an unprecedented move, he and Prof. Avner Holtzman were removed from their posts by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Responding to the prime minister’s explanation, Hirschfeld said, “the prime minister took upon himself to determine the degree of Zionism of people who devote their whole life to Israeli culture.”
Some in the literary community have called Netanyahu’s move a “purge,” likening him to a Soviet dictator.
Author Sami Michael, who also took himself out of the running for the prize this week, told Haaretz Thursday he would like to see all the nominees for the literature award withdraw their candidacy in protest of Netanyahu’s meddling. “I’m aware that there’s an ugly atmosphere in the clique-filled literary world,” he told the newspaper. “But it’s very dangerous for a politician, however lofty his position, to take upon himself the job of cleaning the literary stables.”
The Zionist Union party, battling Netanyahu’s Likud ahead of March 17 elections, filed a complaint with the State Comptrollers Office over Netanyahu’s intervention Thursday night.
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 and re-nominating candidates extremely difficult, Haaretz reported earlier this week.
AP and AFP contributed to this report.