I’ve always thought that to be Jewish was to live the life of the mind. What do I mean by that? I mean that what I have always seen as the core of our Jewish identity, the engine that has driven us through the centuries, is the intellectual package of values we carried with us wherever we went. And to keep that package of values secure, we relied on our biggest thinkers to articulate them, to contest them, to deconstruct them, and to restore them. It is the fate of the Jew never to be able to take anything for granted, but the denial of the gift of complacency is the irritant in the oyster that creates pearls like our best thinkers. Which brings me to Etgar Keret, part Chekhov, part Zola, part Swift, part Spielberg, part Trilling and Trillin, and tonight, all Bronfman.
Nabokov said the 3 facets of a great writer are being a storyteller, teacher, and enchanter. From this combination of story, pedagogy and magic, we learn about the human condition, what Ralph Ellison called “the human universals” and Matthew Arnold called “humanized knowledge”. And when we learn how to understand humanity, we learn compassion. And learning compassion is learning Jewish values.
Etgar Keret is weaving his universal, compassionate magic from the most complicated democracy in the world. Israel’s story is one that has already encountered more than its fair share of temperamental economies, territorial tensions, religious chess games, insecure security, and some of the most complex diversity issues in the world. But from the often arid soil of this adversity has grown a vibrant democracy with an historically courageously independent judiciary; a thriving and cacophonous commitment to freedom of the press and expression; a luminous constellation of outstanding universities; and some of the most sophisticated environmental, technological and scientific achievements in the world. Israel, under the most intense and often insensitive scrutiny given to members of the international community, and under the most persistent threats to its ongoing peace and security experienced by any of the democratic members of that community, in the face of all this, Israel carries on bravely, grappling with everything all at once all the time, but bravely grappling nonetheless.
Keret’s stories are rooted in this story, but they teach exegetical lessons that reveal the human universals. Watching his country has led him to urgently urge never to sacrifice our moral compass on the altar of expedience. Watching his parents, holocaust survivors, has led him to poignantly appreciate that to understand what kind of future you want, you can never forget where or what you came from. Watching his son grow has made him understand that our children are the joyful presence that help us keep our balance and inspire us to make the world safer for them than it was for their grandparents.
Keret’s way of making sure that our Jewish identity survives is to keep it under constant examination and protective scrutiny, exploring who we are, what we are, and why we are. As Israel’s young Boswell, he holds a mirror up to the country and asks “Are we the fairest of them all?”
All this and so much more Etgar Keret has done as a writer, scholar, filmmaker, and thinker, an internationally recognized Israeli voice with lessons for the world, a voice that provokes us into being our best selves, with majestic ideas for protecting Israel’s and our values. He is a cultural polymath whose humanity emerges seamlessly from Israel’s complications and history, and soars transcendently over those complications and history to show Israel — and the world — that for democracy to survive, nationhood, culture, and justice are indispensable partners.
The Prize judges are honored to be able to lend Charles Bronfman’s name to this magnificent public intellectual, a man who is never without his intellectual package of Jewish values, a man not only of his times, but a man who will make the times, and by making his times, he is a man for all time.
Rosalie Silberman Abella is a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, In January 2017, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights named her the Global Jurist of the Year in 2016 for her lifelong commitment to human rights and international criminal justice. She was born in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, where her father, a lawyer, was defence counsel for displaced persons in the Allied Zone of Southwest Germany.