Nominee Turns Down Israel Prize After Remarks Ignite Controversy
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Nominee Turns Down Israel Prize After Remarks Ignite Controversy

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A left-wing Orthodox scholar named to receive the prestigious Israel Prize for Life’s Work has decided to turn down the honor because of the storm of controversy created by his nomination.

Hebrew University Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz announced his decision Sunday, hours after the Israeli Cabinet roundly condemned the nomination. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly had threatened to boycott the award ceremony in protest.

Leibowitz, who had been recommended for the prize by a government-appointed committee, told Israel Television that although “many people from all sectors of the public” had congratulated him, he would refuse to accept it.

“Why should I cause the prime minister this awkwardness?” he said.

Leibowitz’s nomination for the award became a controversy immediately after it was announced last week, but the debate sharply intensified this past weekend with the latest political remarks made by the 90-year-old scientist and philosopher.

In a series of media interviews, Leibowitz compared Israeli undercover soldiers operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to fighters of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement.

Leibowitz accused the undercover units of using “terrorist methods,” citing as evidence the claim that some 20 Palestinian children have died in recent months in shooting incidents involving these units.

Leibowitz has long been a controversial figure. He has agitated for the separation of religion and politics and condemned the official rabbinate in Israel as a “harlot of the establishment,” though he himself leads a rigorously Orthodox lifestyle.

In recent years, his outspoken criticism of Israel’s administration of the West Bank and Gaza has placed him at the extreme of the political spectrum.


Leibowitz, who was to have received the prize for his life’s work, has taught philosophy, Jewish studies and biochemistry during his long career at Hebrew University.

After deciding to decline the prize, Leibowitz said he had informed Education Minister Shulamit Aloni of his decision.

The three-member panel appointed to nominate a recipient for the prize had been chosen by the Education Ministry, and critics on the right have accused the left-wing Aloni of pressuring the committee to recommend Leibowitz.

After Leibowitz’s announcement Sunday, Aloni issued a statement praising the scholar’s suitability to receive the award but raising objections to his comments over the weekend regarding the Israeli undercover soldiers.

Even Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, an outspoken left-wing member of Aloni’s party, voiced the disgust apparently felt by most Cabinet members when he charged Leibowitz on Sunday with “intellectual dishonesty.”

“Let him attack the government, not the soldiers of these elite units,” Sarid said.

Opposition figures on the right were naturally even more enraged by Leibowitz’s remarks and his nomination.

Likud Knesset Member Dan Tichon said the committee’s recommendation was prejudiced by the fact that one of its members, Hebrew University philosophy Professor Aviezer Ravitsky, was a disciple of Leibowitz.

The other two members were reserve Gen. Aharon Yariv of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and Professor Haim Ben-Shahar, an economist at the university.

Meanwhile, another Israel Prize committee announced its recommendation for this year’s journalism prize, which won unanimous accolades. The winner is veteran Ha’aretz political cartoonist Zev, whose real name is Ya’acov Farkash.

Farkash, a Holocaust survivor, is also the major illustrator for the newspaper Ma’ariv. The committee wrote that Zev had “established the daily political cartoon as an integral part of Israeli journalism.”

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