Israel Prize

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Israel Prize
Awarded for Those who have displayed excellence in their field(s), or have contributed strongly to Israeli culture or the State
Country Israel
Presented by State of Israel
First awarded 1953
Official website

The Israel Prize (Hebrew: פרס ישראל‎) is an award handed out by the State of Israel and is generally regarded as the state's highest honor. It is presented annually, on Israeli Independence Day, in a state ceremony in Jerusalem, in the presence of the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Knesset (Israel's legislature), and the Supreme Court President. The prize was set up in 1953 at the initiative of the Minister of Education Ben-Zion Dinor,[1] who himself went on to win the prize in 1958 and 1973.[2]

Awarding the prize[edit]

The prize is awarded in the following four areas, with the precise subfields changing from year to year in a cycle of 4 to 7 years, except for the last area, which is awarded annually:

  • the humanities, social sciences, and Jewish studies
  • the natural and exact sciences
  • culture, arts, communication and sports
  • lifetime achievement and exceptional contribution to the nation (since 1972)

The recipients of the prize are Israeli citizens or organizations who have displayed excellence in their field(s), or have contributed strongly to Israeli culture. The winners are selected by committees of judges, who pass on their recommendations to the Minister of Education. Prize winners are elected by ad-hoc committees, appointed by the minister of education for each category each year. Decisions of the committee must be unanimous. The prize money was NIS 75,000 as of 2008.


As of 2009, the prize has been awarded 633 times. Prominent winners include individuals such as Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Martin Buber, Abba Eban, A. B. Yehoshua, Israel Aumann, Golda Meir, Amos Oz, Ephraim Kishon, Naomi Shemer, David Benvenisti and Teddy Kollek, and organizations such as Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Jewish Agency, Yad Vashem and Jewish National Fund. Though the prize is generally awarded to Israeli citizens only, in exceptional cases it can be awarded to non-Israelis who have held Israeli residency for many years. Zubin Mehta received a special award of the Israel Prize in 1991. Mehta is originally from India, and is music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.


The decision to award the prize to specific individuals has sometimes led to impassioned political debate. In 1993, the strong reaction of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin against the nomination of Yeshayahu Leibowitz led Leibowitz to decline the prize. In 2004, Education and Culture Minister Limor Livnat, twice sent the decision to award the prize to sculptor Yigal Tumarkin back to the prize committee. Cases in which the decision was brought before the Supreme Court of Israel included the prizes given to publicist Shmuel Shnitzer,[3] politician Shulamit Aloni, professor Zeev Sternhell[3] and Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club chairman Shimon Mizrahi.[3]

On occasion, the committee has been criticized for failing to award the prize to a specific individual. For example, many have expressed criticism (or regret) that the poet Natan Yonatan never received the prize.[verification needed]

In other cases, the recipients were reluctant to retrieve the prize. These include Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and performer Uri Zohar. In 2003, artist Moshe Gershoni informed the press that he will not shake the hands of the prime minister and education minister, and in return his prize was annulled.

Another criticism of the prize is that the large majority of winners have been male, Jewish, and secular. Although around 25% of Israel's population is non-Jewish, as of 2010 fewer than 2% of winners have been non-Jewish. These include one Arab Muslim (diplomat Ali Yahya), two Arab Christians (writer Emile Habibi and actor Makram Khoury), one Circassian (industrialist Eldin Khatukai), two Druze (judge Amin Tarif and government official Kamal Mansour), and one French Catholic (theologian Marcel-Jacques Dubois). Awarding the prize to Habibi resulted in physicist and politician Yuval Ne'eman relinquishing his own prize.

In Popular Culture[edit]

  • In the film Footnote, father and son scholars compete for the Israel prize, straining their already complex relationship.


  1. ^ Marom, Daniel. "The Role of Jewish Studies Scholars in Early Zionist Education". Mandel Foundation. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 
  2. ^ Ben-Zion Dinur: Knesset website
  3. ^ a b c Leave the prize winners in peace The Jerusalem Post, May 1, 2011

External links[edit]