An Israel Prize for Wagner?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
February 6, 2004
The purpose of the Israel Prizes awarded annually by the Ministry of Education is presumably to provide models worthy of emulation in different areas of human endeavor. Yet ever since 1993, when Education Minister Shulamit Aloni announced her intention to award the Prize to the late Professor Yeshaya Leibowitz, the Israel Prizes have been surrounded by a swirl of controversy.
In response to Aloni’s announcement, the cabinet headed by an enraged Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin promptly censured the selection of the controversial professor, who had referred to Israeli soldiers as "Judeo-Nazis," compared IDF undercover units to Hamas, and called for Israeli soldiers to refuse induction into an army of occupation. Even Aloni’s Meretz colleague Yossi Sarid described Leibowitz as a "provocateur . . . with an urge to irritate the public." Leibowitz subsequently declined the prize.
Four years later, the Supreme Court ordered the Israel Prize Committee to reconsider its nomination of journalist Shmuel Schnitzer for a lifetime achievement award in journalism, in light of the fact that the Press Council had censured an op-ed written in 1993 entitled "Importing Death," for angering some members of the Ethiopian community. According to the Press Council opinion, "Freedom of the press must retreat in the face of the sensitivities of ethnic groups." An unrepentant Schnitzer was denied the Prize.
Another round of controversy broke out in 2000 with the nomination of Aloni herself. Despite a long history of gratuitous and highly offensive remarks about religious Jews and Judaism itself, this time the Supreme Court refused to intervene. Justice Dalia Dorner told petitioner MK Shaul Yahalom, "Don’t turn the Court into a prize committee." In a concurring opinion, Justice Yaakov Turkel cited Aloni’s right to free speech, as if that right created an affirmative entitlement to an Israel Prize. Turkel’s citation of Aloni’s right of free speech also flew in the face of the Court’s ruling in the Schnitzer case, in which it implicitly endorsed the Press Council’s notion that freedom of the press is subservient to the injured feelings of ethnic groups.
Last week’s nomination of sculptor Yigal Tumarkin to receive an Israel Prize seems sure to trigger yet another round of bitter recriminations. Tumarkin is an enfant terrible in the Aloni mold, with an equally long track record of gratuitously offensive behavior.
The nominations of such polarizing figures Leibowitz, Aloni, and Tumarkin (Schnitzer, as we shall see, was an entirely different kettle of fish), point to a disturbing trend in Israel society away from any attempt to find sources of national unity. That trend reached its peak at the Jubilee celebrations of Israeli Independence – an occasion designed to promote national unity, if there ever was one – when the Batsheba Dance Troupe was invited to perform a dance in which the performers disrobed to the tune of the Seder classic, "Echad – Mi Yodeah?" The apparent celebration of the casting off of all religious restraint was one calculated to give maximum insult and offense to Israel’s large religious population.
AN EXAMINATION OF THE VARIOUS CONTROVERSIES triggered by recent Israel Prizes, including a comparison of the Schnitzer case with those of Aloni and Tumarkin, shows that the one group in Israeli society whom one can insult with impunity – and even be awarded for doing so – is religious Jews.
In his offending column, Schnitzer wrote in support of the public’s right to know of the high incidence of AIDs and tuberculosis among the Falashmura (a position seemingly endorsed by the Supreme Court itself when it dismissed a petition seeking to bar the broadcast of these facts in a television news broadcast.) Both the Navon Commission, which investigated the refusal to accept blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants, and the 1997 State Comptroller’s report sharply criticized the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Absorption for covering up information about the health crisis among the Falashmura.
Perhaps Schnitzer’s real sin was poking fun at political correctness itself. He suggested that the desire to import thousands of apostates carrying dangerous diseases from Ethiopia stemmed from the fact that they were black, and was part of a doomed effort to demonstrate to the world that Israel is a humane, progressive country.
On the basis of that single piece, the Supreme Court deemed Schnitzer, whose journalistic career spanned 59 years and thousands of columns, unworthy of recognition.
The protective umbrella of political correctness extended over the Ethiopian community in the Schnitzer case does not, however, cover all groups. Religious Jews are excluded from its ambit. The same underlying psychological motivation to which Schnitzer attributed the desire to bring thousands of Falashmura to Israel – the desire to prove our progressive bona fides – may explain that exclusion of religious Jews. In the eyes of Israel elites, nothing is so emblematic of progressive ideas as showing a complete disdain for religion, particularly one’s own.
Witness the award of the Israel Prize to Aloni. Though the Israel Prize committee cited Shulamit Aloni for her efforts to foster good relations between the different "nations" in Israel, her solicitude for good relations has never encompassed her fellow Jews. Unlike Schnitzer who took a position in a serious policy debate, Aloni delights in gratuitous insult and offense, as long as the target is not an Arab.
She has always been free with the Nazi-Jewish equation, calling then Prime Minister Netanyahu a "good student of Goebbels" and accusing religious Jews of " drink[ing] from the same wellsprings as the Nazis." She never misses a chance to poke a thumb in the eyes of religious Jews: the mezzuzot on the doors of 98% of Jewish households, are in her opinion, "idol worship:" "Joshua and Chelmenicki are equals," she once proclaimed.
This year’s nominee Yigal Tumarkin is cut from the same cloth. His contempt extends to his fellow citizens – "a mob….[of] primitives and monkeys;" the state – "Perhaps it would have been better if the state did not exist;" even children – "One thing I’ve always hated is children." He once opined that his greatest public service would be to mow down former Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan and the late Rehavam Zeevi with a submachine gun. (And a police search of his house, after his second wife filed a police complaint for assault and threats, which turned up a number of unlicensed firearms, suggests that his violent side is not only imaginary.)
As with Aloni, Tumarkin’s favorite targets are the religious. His religious Moroccan neighbors, he says, "descended from a nation of primitive parasites," who "were brought to Israel out of caves." To protest what he considers the land fetish of the national religious, he once brought a sculpture of a pig wearing tefillin to Rabin Square. (Compare the case of Tatanya Susskind, who was sentenced to two years in jail for posting a picture of Mohammed as a pig in Hebron.) Judaism, Tumarkin once wrote in Al Hamishmar, "completed its historical task with the crucifixion of Jesus." And, of course, there is Tumarkin’s most famous bon mot: "When one sees the haredim one understands why there was a Holocaust."
Defenders of the award of Israel Prize to Tumarkin, such as Carrol Novis writing in the February 1 Jerusalem Post, cite examples of great artists who were thoroughly unsavory human beings, including composer Richard Wagner. The Wagner example, however, would seem to cut in precisely the other direction. Despite his acknowledged musical genius, the works of Wagner, who was Hitler’s favorite composer and the source of many of his ideas, are still not performed in Israel.
That refusal to perform Wagner reflects a healthy intuition that purely aesthetic standards can never be allowed to trump all, certainly not by members of a nation whose characteristic genius and mission has always been moral. One suspects that had Tumarkin’s primary offenses been against any group other than religious Jews, even the Israel Prize committee would have recognized that he is unworthy of emulation and honor by the State of Israel.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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