Israeli University Nixes Decision to Grant Prize to Breaking the Silence

The anti-occupation NGO was to get a prize for Jewish-Arab understanding until Ben-Gurion University’s president overturned her department head’s decision.

In an exceptional move, the president of Ben-Gurion University recently canceled a department’s decision to grant an award to the Breaking the Silence organization.

The Berelson Prize for Jewish-Arab Understanding, which is worth 20,000 shekels ($5,100), is granted annually by the Middle East Studies department to individuals or organizations that have contributed to such understanding. But in response to the decision of BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi to overturn the decision to grant the award to Breaking the Silence, department head Prof. Haggai Ram said the department has decided not to give the prize to anyone this year.

Carmi’s decision shocked and outraged many people on campus. One termed it “unacceptable intervention and capitulation to an anti-democratic atmosphere,” while another said that “nobody believed the university administration would cancel the award.”

The university said the prize “is granted by the university, not a particular department,” and the department made its decision “without consulting the university president, who believes the organization doesn’t meet the criteria for the prize. This is an organization that isn’t in the national consensus, and giving it the prize is liable to be interpreted as an appearance of political bias.”

Past recipients of the prize, which has been granted for 25 years, include Egyptian playwright Ali Salem; Palestinian poet in Israel, Siham Daoud; the Parents Circle – Families Forum, an organization of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families; Physicians for Human Rights; a bilingual school in the Galilee; Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality; and the Andalus publishing house.

This year, the department voted unanimously to give the prize to Breaking the Silence. Ram said it did so because the public debate has moved “dangerously” toward right-wing extremism, and “Breaking the Silence has been one of the principal targets of this onslaught.” Moreover, he said, “We believe that advancing Jewish-Arab relations requires confronting the public with the truth of the occupation – which may not be pleasant to hear, but constitutes a fundamental condition for reconciliation between the two peoples.”

The university has never intervened in the department’s decision before. Sources familiar with Carmi’s thinking said she argued that the NGO, Breaking the Silence, is different from previous prize recipients.

Late last month, the university held a seminar on “Whistleblowing through the Ages,” and two representatives of Breaking the Silence were invited to participate on one of the panels. In that case, Carmi defended the decision against right-wing critics.

“It could be that for the university administration, granting the prize — which was supposed to happen right after the seminar — was a step too far,” one campus source said. The prize was supposed to be awarded tomorrow at a department seminar on freedom of expression.

Another source said that “In internal discussions, university administrators express a similar view toward Breaking the Silence as that held by most of the public … There’s also pressure from donors, but that has an impact because it falls on fertile ground. The decision to cancel the award was an attempt to send a message that the university won’t agree to ‘subversive’ initiatives like this. It’s very sad.”

Breaking the Silence said it regretted that the administration “chose to capitulate to political pressure and joined the campaign of incitement and persecution against soldiers and combatants who broke the silence about what’s happening in the territories.” Noting that the prize was endowed in memory of Yitzhak Rabin, it said that deeming Breaking the Silence unworthy of the award because it isn’t in “the national consensus” was inappropriate, because Rabin himself “never hesitated to act on his beliefs even in defiance of the consensus.”

As for the claim that the prize could be interpreted as political bias, “The administration’s decision to disqualify it is itself political bias,” the organization said.

The NGO, which was founded in 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, has as its express goal “to bring an end to the occupation.” It is made up of veteran combatants who have served in the Israel Defense Forces and choose to expose the reality of everyday life in West Bank.