Jewish Unity and the “Jewish Nobel”: Thoughts on the Genesis Prize Controversy

It aspires to be the “Jewish Nobel,” but few people have heard of it.  The Genesis Prize, a one million dollar annual prize established in 2014, by a handful of Jewish oligarchs from the former Soviet Union, is awarded, according to its mission statement, to

individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values. …  [T]he Genesis Prize inspires unity throughout the global Jewish community and the State of Israel by recognizing the many faces and forms of Jewish nationhood in the modern world.

If that criterion sounds vague, the list of prior recipients doesn’t offer much help in concretizing it: former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (2014), actor Michael Douglas (2015), violinist Itzhak Perlman (2016) and sculptor Anish Kapoor (2017).  I doubt that one Jew in a hundred could name a single one of the recipients.

More of them, I suspect, will be able to identify this year’s recipient.  Actress Natalie Portman was neither more nor less an appropriate recipient of the Genesis Prize than her predecessors had been, and in the normal course of events, she would have been neither more nor less memorable.  That changed, however, when she did something that wasn’t in the script — she announced that due to “recent events in Israel,” she “does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.” The “recent events” to which she referred were the harsh response of the Israeli police to the recent attempts by residents of Gaza to break through the border fence that separates Gaza from Israel.  (My views on the Israeli police actions differ significantly from Portman’s  —  but that is not the subject of this post.)

Not surprisingly, Portman’s announcement garnered much attention, both supportive and critical. The Genesis Prize Foundation, which created and administers the prize, expressed its disappointment: at Portman’s announcement: “We fear that Ms. Portman’s decision will cause our philanthropic initiative to be politicized.”

Both supporters and critics of Portman’s decision initially took it as indicating support for  the extreme anti-Israel boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.  That led Portman to clarify her reason for declining to attend, issuing a statement that said in pertinent part:

I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony. By the same token, I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance. Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values.

Many news reports, presumably written by people who had not previously been familiar with the Genesis Prize, identified it as the Jewish Nobel. Thus, in a perverse way, Portman’s decision may have helped raise the prize’s public profile.  I feel safe in saying, however, that this is not the way the prize’s founders would have chosen to gain public attention. It would seem to violate the ancient physician’s maxim “first do no harm.”

I’m not convinced that we need a Jewish Nobel prize.  Jews have certainly been adequately represented over the years among the winners of the real Nobels, and I can think of better uses for a million dollars.  If we are to have such a prize, however, then it should, as its mission statement claims, aspire to “inspire unity throughout the global Jewish community.”

The problem is that the global Jewish community is far from unified in any meaningful sense, and no prize, however well funded, can change that reality.  In its well-meaning but futile attempt to inspire unity, the foundation has ended up trivializing it.  The result is that four of the first five recipients of the Genesis Prize are from the arts: two actors, a violinist and a sculptor.  I have nothing against any of them.  They have certainly attained international renown in their respective fields, and have continued to identify proudly with their people.  Whether they are Jewishly inspiring, however, is more doubtful.  If the Genesis Prize is to fulfill its mission, its sponsors will need to use a bit more creativity in selecting recipients.

In the meantime, if the foundation wants to avoid future politicization, I have a small suggestion: let the award be presented by Israel’s President instead of its Prime Minister. After all, the Nobel Prizes, which are supposedly models for the Genesis Prize, aren’t presented by the Prime Ministers of Sweden and Norway but by those countries’ constitutional monarchs.  Israel, as a parliamentary republic, has a perfectly serviceable and non-partisan President who serves the same function as a constitutional monarch.  What’s the point of a ceremonial head of state if you don’t use him for ceremonial occasions?

Eliminating the Prime Minister’s role might well have avoided the Portman embarrassment.  More important, it would signal a commitment to unity by giving a central role to the person whose primary function is unity.  Sure, it’s only symbolic, but symbols matter.  Otherwise, what’s the point of a Genesis Prize?

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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