Citing election, Netanyahu reverses dismissal of Israel Prize judges

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — On the advice of Israel’s attorney general, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed his decision to remove two judges from a panel that awards a prestigious national prize.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday advised Netanyahu to return Ariel Hirschfeld and Avner Holtzman to the Israel Prize panel of judges. The makeup of the panel is determined by the Ministry of Education.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Netanyahu, who leads the Likud Party, is temporarily heading the ministry until the March 17 general election. In his letter, Weinstein wrote that the government should hold off on appointments and dismissals until after the vote.

The Israel Prize is the country’s most prestigious distinction for individuals or groups who excelled in their contribution to science, society the arts, or the Jewish State.

Netanyahu’s office did not explain the decision to remove Hirschfeld, a professor of literature who in the past supported conscientious objection to serving in the Israel army, and Holtzman, a literary scholar who is not known for espousing controversial political views.

Netanyahu did, however, complain on Facebook of elitism and a lack of pluralism among the panel’s judges.

“This situation where a small, closed group with extremist views passes the baton around and retains control of who receives the prize must change because the Israel Prize belongs to the People of Israel, all of them,” he wrote in a Feb. 11 posting.

The intended dismissal triggered widespread criticism against perceived politicization of the Israel Prize and caused the resignation of eight out of 13 panel judges and protests by candidates for this year’s prize, including the internationally-acclaimed novelist David Grossman.

In a statement Friday, Shlomit Barnea Farago, the head of the legal department of the Prime Minister’s Office, said Netanyahu will honor the attorney general’s request to refrain from appointments in the period leading up the election. She added that if reelected, Netanyahu would lay down new criteria for appointing Israel Prize judges.