Israel sees prestigious academic prize as tool to engage increasingly hostile academic world

The Dan David Prize has been awarded to some of those in the top echelons of academia, a community that includes many backers of the movement to isolate Israel for its occupation. 

Kiichiro Sato/AP/File
World-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays in the rotunda of the State of Illinois building, the James R. Thompson Center, in Chicago, March 2012. This year's winners of the Dan David Prize, which gives $3 million annually to a handful of recipients, join a long list of distinguished laureates who have received the prize since 2002, including Yo-Yo Ma.

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At a time when the international pressure on academics to boycott Israel caused even Stephen Hawking to decline an invitation to a prestigious conference in Jerusalem, it is perhaps surprising that one of the most generous prizes in academia is based in Israel.

The Dan David Prize, which gives $3 million annually to a handful of laureates – almost none of whom are Israeli – is intended to reward innovation in a variety of disciplines.

But the prize is also aimed at helping Israel further integrate with the rest of the world, says Ariel David, president of the Dan David Foundation and the son of its namesake. Headquartered at Tel Aviv University, it requires each laureate to come to Israel to collect his or her award, and partake in a cross-pollination of ideas with Israeli professors and students.

“Isolating Israel and putting it in the corner just reinforces its existential fear, which isn’t completely unjustified,” says Mr. David, citing Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. “On the contrary, the more Israel gets the feeling that it’s part of the international community economically, culturally, and politically, the easier it is to set aside its existential fear.”

Each year, themes or areas of studies are chosen in three categories: past, present, and future. This year’s winners include Prof. Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, recognized in the “past” category for his comparison of Greek and Chinese science; philosophy professor Michel Serres of Stanford University and The New Republic’s Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier in the “present” category; and MIT economist Esther Duflo and Prof. Alfred Sommer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the “future” category of preventive medicine.

They join a long list of distinguished laureates who have received the prize since 2002, including Tony Blair, Al Gore, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Winston Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert, and Israeli novelist Amos Oz. The winners all donate 10 percent of their prize to fund scholarships, and have a say in choosing the recipients.

A $200,000 that kick-started his career

David’s father, Dan David, grew up in Romania during World War II and became active in Zionist organizations. He had dreamt of establishing a fishing kibbutz on Israel's Mediterranean coast, but due to communist rule wasn't able to leave until 1960, under a law promoting the reunification of families. He left with one suitcase and the equivalent of $10.

During a year in Israel, he established the country's first photo booth. The mother company then authorized him to open a branch in Italy, which was made possible by a $200,000 loan from a distant cousin that kickstarted his career as a highly successful entrepreneur. He went on to start companies in Spain, the US, Japan, and even his native Romania after the fall of communism. 

In part due to gratitude for his cousin’s crucial donation, the late Mr. David donated most of his assets to his foundation 13 years ago and launched the prize a year later.

Two novelist laureates reject pressure to boycott Israel

As the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has gathered steam in its efforts to punish Israel economically for occupying Palestinians, some recipients of the prize have been pressured to decline it. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and joint literature recipient Amitav Ghosh of India faced a particularly intense lobbying effort.

However, they held firm to their position that novelists boycotting Israel would not effect the desired change in Israeli policies.

“We have to stand, as we have stood from the very beginning, against the very idea of a cultural boycott,” they said in a joint acceptance speech, quoting Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center, an organization that promotes literary endeavors. “We have to continue to say: Only connect.”

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