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Dancer, Advocate and Pioneer Win Prestigious Israel Prize for Lifetime Work

A legendary dancer and choreographer, a Druze advocate for Israel and a veteran socialist-Zionist pioneer will be honored on Independence Day as winners of the coveted Israel Prize for lifetime achievement.

Altogether there will be 16 recipients this year, spanning literature, the sciences and the arts. But most of the attention goes to those who will receive the prestigious award highlighting their “lifetime achievement and exceptional contribution to society and the State.”

The trio who won the award this year — in addition to an organization, the Israel Foundation for Handicapped Children — will be honored April 20 in a ceremony capping the festivities. The Forward spoke to each of the three about their lives.

Yardena Cohen

Less than three months short of her 100th birthday, Yardena Cohen, widely considered Israel’s most original dancer and choreographer, is still light on her feet. She continues to teach once a week at the Haifa dance studio that she established in 1933.

Had history taken a different turn, Cohen may have become one of the greats of European dance. Schooled in Haifa, she received a scholarship in 1930 to study dance and music in Vienna. She moved to Dresden to begin her dancing career, but with the rise of Hitler, she “got out quickly.”

Cohen returned to Haifa and opened her studio. Her emphasis was on creative dance, and the defining characteristic of her work was her use of biblical passages, motifs and characters as the basis for her dances. She said she considers dance a “bridge between the past, present and future.”

Most of the characters in Cohen’s dances are based on women in the Bible. They include Lot’s wife, Hagar from Genesis and Shulamith from the Song of Songs.

Cohen, whose interest in the Bible does “absolutely not” reflect religiosity, told the Forward that her approach stems from a belief that “biblical women give expression to the problems women face today.”

She rose to fame at a time when the Zionist community in Mandate Palestine wanted to build a modern Jewish culture including literature, music, art and dance. Cohen developed several new agricultural rites — water celebrations and ceremonies to mark the ripening of fruits — that became popular on secular kibbutzim. These involved elaborate dances that involved all kibbutz members as well as Arabs from nearby villages, and they became an integral part of the growing agriculturist secular-Zionist culture.

The Israel Prize judges chose Cohen for her lifetime contribution to Israeli dance. At her studio, she has trained many acclaimed dancers and stage professionals, and her use of biblical motifs has been widely imitated in contemporary Israeli dance.

Cohen told the Forward that she always had an enthusiasm for the Bible. “I grew up, from the age of 4, constantly hearing Bible stories,” she said, adding that as a child, she sometimes expressed herself using biblical phrases, to the amusement of her parents. “And from the age of one and a half, I have been dancing. It’s in my veins, in my blood, even today.”

Kamal Mansour

The visitors’ books at Kamal Mansour’s home in the Druze village of Isfiya, near Haifa, are crammed full of signatures. He estimates that since Israel came into existence, he has hosted about 40,0000 people — diplomats and politicians from around the globe, Israeli lawmakers of every political shade, and run-of-the-mill Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Mansour’s open-house policy has promoted intercultural understanding, and it was this work that led the Israel Prize judges to honor him.

But the 79-year-old’s home hospitality is only part of his efforts. For 40 years he has advised Israeli presidents on minority affairs, offering insight on matters related to the Muslim, Christian and Druze communities.

Mansour is a son of Sheikh Najeeb Mansour, mayor of Isfiya during the British Mandate and the early days of the State of Israel. The elder Mansour advocated the Druze aligning themselves with the Zionists, ahead of the Declaration of Independence. His view won out, and today many Druze youth serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

In the 1950s, when Israeli officials were looking to tell the world about the fledgling Jewish state, they turned to the younger Mansour for help. In 1957, he became the Foreign Ministry’s first non-Jewish representative dispatched overseas to speak on Israel’s behalf.

For almost 20 years he conveyed a simple message as he traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. “I said that in Israel, Arabs and Jews live together, will do [so] forever, and Arabs could be a bridge with the surrounding countries,” he recalled.

He stands by that message today. “You cannot say that we are living in paradise. We have not solved all the problems,” he said. “But compare ours to problems in other countries, like Iraq. If you compare our standard of living with Arabs elsewhere, there are differences to the good, and the same is true of the freedoms that we have.”

As for his work with presidents, he said that all of them, including the incumbent Shimon Peres, have proved receptive to his ideas. “All of them are today friends of mine. I visit them, and they visit me.” But he declined to say which he enjoyed working with the most. “For that, you need to wait for my book,” he said.

Aharon Yadlin

Aharon Yadlin, 84, is the archetypal socialist-Zionist pioneer.

In his youth he was a senior leader of the Hebrew Scouts and heavily involved in developing the scouts as a national movement for the Jewish youth of British Mandate Palestine. In his late teens and early 20s he helped to ensure Jewish sovereignty over the Negev.

He received orders, conveyed from Jewish Agency leader David Ben-Gurion, to get 30 scouts ready to establish Kibbutz Be’eri in the Negev on Yom Kippur eve of 1946. It was part of a move to create 11 settlements on a single night to persuade an imminent U.N. fact-finding commission for the 1947 Partition Plan that the Negev should be part of the Jewish state.

Yadlin was one of the participants. “It was very exciting. We knew it was history in the making,” he recalled.

As an adult, he moved to the nearby Kibbutz Hatzerim and helped make the desert bloom, overseeing the development of technology to irrigate Negev agriculture.

Yadlin went on to become secretary of the Labor Party; a member of the executive committee of the Histadrut, which is the Israeli trade union, and, for two decades, a Labor lawmaker.

In politics he held various appointments, including deputy minister and minister in the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The Israel Prize committee credited Yadlin with transforming the Hebrew Scouts into a “pioneering” youth movement. “I tried to shape this movement from a scouting movement in the Baden Powell sense to a pioneering movement that prepared members for establishing settlements, especially kibbutzim,” he told the Forward.

The committee said that the award also was given on the basis of Yadlin’s contribution to Israeli education. Yadlin was praised for instituting programs to help disadvantaged youth, including extended school days and mentoring programs.

He still lives on Kibbutz Hatzerim and remains committed to building the Negev and to improving education, and brings together these two priorities by serving as deputy chairman of Ben-Gurion University’s management committee. And while the Zionist left is widely said to be going through something of a crisis, he believes that socialist-Zionism is as relevant as ever. “We need Zionism because half of the Jewish people is outside of Israel and we need socialism — even if today, people call it social democracy,” he said.

“The global economic crisis of our days convinces everyone that we need the state to take responsibility and help to build a more just society.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]

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