Jerusalem (May. 11)
Israel bestowed its most prestigious prize for the first time on an Arab citizen last week.
But the presentation on Yom Ha’atzmaut of the 1992 Israel Prize for Arabic literature to 71-year-old writer Emil Habibi triggered an outburst of ideological protest symptomatic of the dichotomy in Israeli society.
As Habibi mounted the stage to accept the award from President Chaim Herzog, former Cabinet minister Yuval Ne’eman rose from the audience, announced he was returning the Israel Prize for physics he received in 1969 and stalked angrily out of the huge Binyanei Ha’uma convention hall in Jerusalem.
Ne’eman is leader of the extreme right-wing Tehiya party, which quit the Likud-led coalition government earlier this year to protest its participation in the bilateral peace talks with Palestinians and other Arab delegations.
Ne’eman, a professor of nuclear physics at Tel Aviv University, and former minister of science and energy, said in a letter to Education Minister Zevulun Hammer that he was returning his prize not because Habibi is an Arab.
Indeed, he claimed, it was a “joyous fact” that an Israeli Arab was found qualified for it.
Rather, Ne’eman wrote, he was objecting because two years ago Habibi accepted “The Jerusalem Prize” from Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.
He also complained that Habibi’s most acclaimed work, a satire on the Arabs of Israel titled “The Optimists,” “compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and perhaps even worse.”
MOST ISRAELIS NEVER HEARD OF HABIBI
Until a few weeks ago, when this year’s 10 Israel Prize recipients were announced, most Israelis had not heard of Emil Habibi.
He had been a member of the Israeli Communist Party from 1951 to 1962. But that was long ago to most Israelis.
His opus consists of four books in Arabic, only two translated into Hebrew, and even those were limited to the most highbrow readers.
But the Israeli literary community recognized Habibi as the foremost writer among Israel’s 780,000 Arab citizens and one of the leading Arab writers of the entire Middle East.
Still, members of the Prize Committee showed considerable courage in selecting him, an Arab of openly nationalistic views. If they expected controversy, they were not disappointed.
The first to protest Habibi’s receipt of the award were Palestinians. Mahmoud Darwish, a former Israeli Arab writer, now an adviser to Arafat, urged Habibi not to accept the prize.
According to Darwish, accepting the award on Israel Independence Day and shaking the hands of the Israeli president and prime minister amounted to sacrilege.
Habibi hesitated for a time. A staunch supporter of the PLO, he did not want to do anything that might harm the organization.
On the other hand, rejecting the prize would have serious consequences for Arab-Jewish co-existence in Israel, of which Habibi has been a leading advocate.
He spoke to Arafat by telephone in Tunis and got the PLO chief’s blessing.
Another hurdle cropped up in the case of an Israeli Arab poet, Shafik Habib, who was tried and sentenced for writing mediocre nationalist verse. Habibi testified for his colleague at the trial. Habib got a suspended sentence. Had Habib gone to jail, Habibi said, he would not have accepted the prize.
When Ne’eman walked out with his Tehiya entourage, part of the audience cheered and part jeered. When Habibi rose to receive the prize, shaking the hands of President Herzog and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the audience burst into prolonged applause.
Habibi wanted to use the opportunity to say he was accepting the prize “on behalf of all people of good will in the country, Arabs and Jews, on behalf of those who recognize the established fact that all solutions of genocide have failed.”
But he was prevented from delivering his little speech “for lack of time.” Another Israel Prize winner thanked the jurors on behalf of all 10 recipients.
Habibi said Sunday that after the ceremony he received dozens of cables, letters and telephone calls congratulating him. He said they came from editors of Arabic newspapers throughout the Middle East, from former Israel Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, and from the Egyptian Nobel Laureate in literature, Naguib Mahfouz.