Can $1 Million Genesis Prize Inspire Jews Year After Year?

Some Doubt the Need for Prize and Selection Committee's Slant

New Home: Wayne Firestone, former head of Hillel, will lead the new Genesis Prize Foundation.
Courtesy of Wayne Firestone
New Home: Wayne Firestone, former head of Hillel, will lead the new Genesis Prize Foundation.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published April 26, 2013.
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That means that the two committees the prize organizers have chosen to select the winner will have great leeway in deciding whom to name as the recipient of their annual $1 million prize.

The members of the two committees, however, do not appear to be a broadly representative group.

Of the 12 people who will be making the selections, just two are women.

And, politically, they represent a narrow spectrum of beliefs. Four are current or former Israeli politicians or political officials. All those are members of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. Among them is Yuli Edelstein, a settler and the current speaker of the Knesset, and Natan Sharansky, the former Russian Jewish political prisoner who currently serves as head of the Jewish Agency.

Fiamma Nirenstein, one of the two female members of the selection committees, is a former member of the Italian parliament from Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing People of Freedom party and a member of the advisory board of NGO Monitor, a right-wing Israeli not-for-profit.

Two of the committee members are former members of the Israeli Supreme Court. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and novelist, is also a member of the committee.

Lawmaker: Yuli Edelstein is a right-wing Knesset member.
Getty Images
Lawmaker: Yuli Edelstein is a right-wing Knesset member.

None of the committee members are known as public critics of Israeli government policy on the Palestinians or of the Netanyahu administration.

Cohen, who was highly critical of the gender imbalance, said that he doubted the group, given its makeup, would choose to award the prize to someone who had been critical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. “It’s hard to conceive that an activist who has struggled for human rights in Israel in a menshlich way… that that person would be awarded the Genesis Prize,” Cohen said.

Firestone defended the selection committees, saying that the selection process would be nonideological.

“The people nominating, although it’s confidential, is from such a broad spectrum,” Firestone said. “Really, we’ve gone out of our way to create criteria and a setting where the types of people, over a period of time, should look very representative of the Jewish people, which is very diverse and very accented.”

Added Firestone: “I don’t see this as a political prize, and I don’t think any of [the selection committee members] joined with any intention to advance anything politically.”

Others have suggested that the prize’s $50 million endowment could be used more effectively. Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis of Zionism” and editor of the website Open Zion, suggested that the funds could have gone to Jewish day schools. “Everyone knows that the day schools are extremely expensive and often in very, very bad financial shape,” Beinart said. “Thinking that… [the Genesis Prize] is going to have a comparable impact, to me it’s bizarre and depressing.”

Yet one Jewish foundation head said that it was too early to judge the prize. “You take risks in order to try something and see if it has the impact you desire,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “The only way I believe you can measure a prize is after six, eight, 10, 15, 20 years, to see who the recipients have been…. It’s just too early to see.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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