The Israeli government has scored yet another own-goal in its efforts to promote Brand Israel. A few years ago, Russian oligrach predators, the most notorious of whom are Mikhail Fridman, German Kahn, Pyotr Aven , and Len Blahvatnik, donated $50-million to establish the Genesis Philanthropic Fund (see also Connie Bruck’s remarkable New Yorker profile). Considering the billions contributed by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to their charitable endeavors, this venture seemed very much on the low-down. For a relative pittance, five Russians with an exceedingly seedy, shady past would wash many of their sins away in the cleansing agent of philanthropy. The five are also known as being exceedingly close to Russia’s foremost oligarch and mafioso, Vladimir Putin. Tellingly, the Prize was launched in Russia during a visit by Bibi Netanyahu to Putin.
One of the major features of the Fund was the Genesis Prize. Other than promoting Brand Israel is an especially blatant way, the purpose of the prize seemed vague and amorphous. Here is the purpose as enunciated on its website:
The Genesis Prize honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and the State of Israel.
…By sharing the narrative of the Laureate, the Genesis Prize Foundation envisions the Prize encouraging younger generations of Jews to reaffirm their Jewish identity and to retain their sense of belonging to a collective future and collective past. By highlighting the inherent Jewish values which inspired the Laureate’s achievements the Jewish community can unify around its core tenets that transcend borders.
How this Prize is supposed to have any impact on “younger generations of Jews” is anybody’s guess. If you were to ask virtually any Jewish teenager anywhere in the world what the Prize is or who has won it, I’d venture to say 99.99% would stare at you and not have a clue what you were talking about.
The first recipient was Michael Bloomberg, who does not have an especially high Jewish profile. Nor did he need the $1-million prize money. The second was Michael Douglas, who also doesn’t have an especially high Jewish profile. Though he is of course a movie star…or was. The Genesis Prize seemed aimed to honor famous celebrities who happen to be Jewish. It was a prize in search of a purpose.
The Russian mafia teamed up with the State of Israel as co-sponsors of the Prize. The head of the state committee awarding it was Natan Sharansky, the chief of the Jewish Agency. The prime minister himself played a role in the process. In effect, Israel was rendering the untold billions these gangsters had stolen in Russian assets kosher through this charity charade. It was literally money-laundering, in the sense of cleansing their lucre of the stench of the ways in which it had originally been amassed (or stolen). When a nation-state teams up with robber barons in such a fashion, what does it say about the state itself? It’s as if the chairman of the Federal Reserve went on the lam with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and jumped off a cliff with them.
Sharansky offered this entirely fraudulent statement about his intent in establishing the Prize:
“All my life I had to prove again and again that there is no contradiction between a desire to contribute to universal values and your desire to be part of your tribe or your identity,” he said. “What gives your life value, what gives you strength to fight for universal values is your identity.”
Really. What “universal values” does Sharansky support? He’s a neocon protegé of both Dick Cheney and Vladimir Putin. I can definitely see the tribal nature of their affiliations. But universal values? C’mon.
With the fourth recipient, Anish Kapoor, the intent seemed to be to make a statement on the international art scene, where Kapoor has a flashy presence as a sculptor. Further, as the child of an Iraqi-Jewish mother and Indian Hindu father, Kapoor is what would be called a Mizrahi Jew. Finally, Kapoor hit another pro-Israel sweet spot when a sculpture he’s installed at the Palace of Versailles was defaced twice by anti-Semitic graffiti. The second time, he refused to remove the graffiti and was sued by a right-wing French politician. This would certainly endear him to Israel’s leadership, which believes Europe is rife with anti-Semites who hate Israel too.
In this sense, the award co-opted two important audiences on behalf of Brand Israel. Yet another benefit is Kapoor’s statement dedicating the award to NGOs working on behalf of refugees. This is a direct response to Donald Trump’s recent executive order barring refugees from seven Muslim countries from U.S. entry. One of the seven is Iraq, where his mother was born. Since Kapoor was born in Bombay, he is not restricted by Trump’s travel ban. But as an individual who is one-half Iraqi Jew, he no doubt feels the sting of the ban quite strongly.
But have the recipients, including Kapoor, thought through the problematic nature of accepting the charity of former Russian gangsters? Do they believe that the mere fact of their intending to do good with the proceeds of the award washes away the moral ambiguities?
Further, neither Kapoor nor Natan Sharansky seem to have thought through several problematic issues involved in his accepting the Prize. First, Israel’s prime minister tweeted his own admiration and support for America’s refugee ban. Second, Israel itself treats its own refugees with disdain and extreme prejudice. Third, Israel’s treatment of its own Holocaust survivors has been shoddy. Many of those who still survive are either homeless or living in extreme poverty, while the government does little to alleviate their suffering.
There are 65,000 African refugees from several countries suffering civil war, famine or Islamist insurgencies. Most of them walked hundreds of miles through both the Sahara and Sinai deserts, where they were beset by bandits who raped and robbed many. When they arrived in Israel, they were hunted down by the Border Police. They were assaulted during riots in Tel Aviv. They were called a “cancer” by current culture minister, Miri Regev. They were arrested and detained in a desert prison.
If they grew despondent about remaining in Israel, the State bribed them with a few hundred dollars to board planes which dropped them unceremoniously in African countries they’d never seen in their lives. Once there they had no papers and were stateless. They could not work legally. Israel, in violation of international refugee law, washed its hands of them.
How can Kapoor accept an award from Israel and dedicate it to the world’s refugees (as laudable a purpose as that may be) when the money is as tainted as it is? How does one deal with the moral contradiction inherent in such a transaction?
One Israeli news report says the artists will dedicate the proceeds to Syrian refugee relief. If that’s the case, Kapoor should know that Israel has, if anything, been a cause of the disintegration of the Syrian regime, which has exacerbated the refugee crisis. Further, Israel has accepted no Syrian refugees for resettlement despite other neighbors like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan accepting millions.
Kapoor, unfortunately, does not provide any means of contacting him directly via his website. I’ve e-mailed his London gallery and sent a tweet via a Twitter account in his name asking some of these questions. I look forward to hearing his response.