The controversies surrounding the Israel Prize in recent years serve as a measure of our increasingly frayed social fabric. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz declined the prize in 1993 after the cabinet, led by an enraged prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, voted 15-1 to censure education minister Shulamit Aloni's decision to award it to him.
In 1997, the Supreme Court required the prize committee to reconsider honoring veteran journalist Shmuel Schnitzer, due to an article he had written three years earlier, saying the Ethiopian immigrants included "thousands of apostates carrying dangerous diseases," who should not be allowed to immigrate under the Law of Return.
The award of this year's Israel Prize to Shulamit Aloni, announced last week by Education Minister Yossi Sarid, promises to trigger yet another round of controversy. Ironically, Sarid was one of the sharpest critics within the cabinet of Aloni's choice of Leibowitz, and for reasons that apply equally to his choice of Aloni herself.
Neither Aloni nor Sarid have ever made any secret of their mutual loathing for one another, but that enmity has its source in internal Meretz power struggles, not matters of ideology. If anything, Sarid has been even more determined than Aloni was, in her day, to turn the Education Ministry into a Ministry of Indoctrination in Meretz Philosophy. His decision last week to expose all schoolchildren to the poetry of the bard of Palestinian return to the ancestral homeland is but the latest example. Awarding the Israel Prize to Aloni allowed Sarid to engage in a pastime for which both he and Aloni share an uncontrollable penchant - poking the religious community in the eye - while showing magnanimity to a vanquished rival.
A comparison to the Leibowitz and Schnitzer precedents demonstrates why Aloni is unfit for the Israeli Prize.
It was Sarid who labelled Leibowitz a "provocateur ... with an urge to irritate the public" for the latter's well-known description of Israeli soldiers as "Judeo-Nazis," his comparison of IDF undercover units to Hamas, and his call for soldiers to refuse induction in an army of occupation.
That same "urge to irritate" characterizes Aloni. Like a child who discovers the shock value of a dirty word, she has always preferred provocation and insult to argument, especially when it comes to expressing her contempt for religious Jews and Judaism.
Religious Jews, according to her, "draw on the same dark forces that fed Nazism," the mezuzot that adorn over 98 percent of the doors of Jewish homes in Israel are a form of idol worship, and the Book of Joshua is a book of conquest that should not be studied.
Yeshiva students are taught every week, she charges, that it is a great mitzva to kill nonreligious Jews. (No doubt that's the reason that we have witnessed such a rash of such murders.) A secular school syllabus that includes readings from the weekly Torah portion and from the appropriate megillot connected to festivals, betokens in her eyes, "soul-snatching" and "missionary activity."
"Why do Jews [not to mention Christian thinkers, like Soren Kierkegaard] make such a fuss over the Binding of Isaac?" she once asked in the Knesset. Another time she queried, "Why protect Rachel's Tomb?"
Schnitzer was denied the prize because one op-ed out of the thousands that he wrote over a 59-year career as ajournalist and editor of Ma'ariv was deemed offensive by the Ethiopian community. Yet in arguing that the provisions of the Law of Return excluding those who have converted to another religion or who are carrying contagious diseases should not be waived for the Ethiopians, he was staking out a position in an ongoing public policy debate. The same was true of his defense of media reporting of the high incidence of tuberculosis and AIDS among new immigrants from Ethiopia.
No one suggested that Schnitzer's intention was to gratuitously insult the Ethiopian population. Indeed he was justly cited by the prize committee for increasing understanding among different groups in society through his writing.
Yet he was lynched first by the Press Council, which censured him, then by President Ezer Weizman, who loftily said he would not present him the Israel Prize, and finally, by the High Court of Justice.
(Parenthetically, it is worth noting that the Press Council never saw fit to censure Yonatan Gefen for calling for a secular intifada against the haredim, or Gideon Samet for terming the ba'al teshuva movement "the most disgusting phenomenon of our time." Religious citizens enjoy a unique status: fair game. )
In contrast to Schnitzer, Aloni's divisiveness has been intentional and repeated. That is why Rabin dismissed her as education minister. She continually brandishes the threat of civil war. When Tommy Lapid was still just a buffoon on TV, Meretz campaigns featured posters of spreading black hordes and the slogan, "Stop the haredim."
Even her pretense of being a civil libertarian - for which she was ostensibly chosen for the prize - is a fraud. The free marketplace of ideas is anathema to her. After the Rabin assassination, she called for the closing of Bar-Ilan University. And when a Yated Ne'eman columnist accused Supreme Court President Aharon Barak of being a judicial dictator, she was one of the loudest voices demanding closure of the newspaper.
To honor Aloni, then, would be to honor one of the ugliest traits of Israeli society: the delegitimization of all those with whom one disagrees and the use of power to stifle their ideas. It is to elevate purveyors of hatred over voices of conciliation.