The Secret of Authority

A huge farce is being staged in the Israeli High Court of Justice. Every university in the country has joined an appeal of a ruling by the National Labor Court (which ordered Bar-Ilan University in April 2005 to reveal its procedure for appointing professors), and in the name of academic freedom, they are asking the court to uphold the secrecy of their minutes. The appeal asked the court to recognize the secrecy of these deliberations as a component of academic freedom, arguing that publicizing them would do irreversible harm to the academic system, its status and the reputation of Israeli academia.

The court has yet to hand down its decision, but from the petition, it seems that the universities understood something the labor court did not want to understand: This is not America. Here, tenders are issued only for the record, and the record is valid only for the moment when what is written there is written. All the rest is strictly oral. Nowhere else is the appearance of knowledge dependent on the secrecy of the considerations of those who determine it, the way it is in the universities. And nowhere is this appearance undermined as severely as it is in prize committees outside of academia, to which academics bring their reputation for knowledge, but are exposed to outside criticism.

The granting of the Sapir Prize to a young journalist, Ron Leshem, can teach us something about the importance of public deliberations. It could be that the prize’s name suits it. After all, the culture of unrecorded decisions, and their results, can clarify how our lives are run. This culture is embodied by the legacy of Pinhas Sapir. The American model may be good for the business world, with its myriad competitors. But in our intellectual life, we continue to act like officials in an eastern European synagogue: What has been agreed upon in advance will not be recorded.

Five judges chose a single novel out of three that had been published over the past year. The uproar that arose over their decision does not reflect the problematic nature of the system. No one asked about the other novels that made it into the final round, nor about the dozens that did not reach this stage. The chairman, Yitzhak Livni a man of great knowledge, great activity and many positions was the only one who liked Leshem’s book. And therefore, the prize was ultimately awarded to a novel that most of the judges, according to a report in Sunday’s Ha’aretz, did not like with the exception of the chairman, who has not been replaced for years. Why replace him? After all, we need someone who knows the oral tradition.

The explanation given by Professor Dan Laor–a former dean of the humanities, meaning he has a history of discussions whose key points were never written down in the minutes–for the panel members’ change of heart raises questions, to say the least. Livni’s powers of persuasion seem bizarre. And doubts immediately arose about the nature of the relationship between chairman Livni–who earns money, among other things, from Channel 2 television’s news program–and the author of the winning novel, Leshem, a deputy managing director of Channel 2 franchisee Keshet. This is certainly the place where an old and very cynical power structure, the university, intersects with a new and much stronger power structure, the electronic media. Here, there is no pretense of ‘knowledge’ or ‘taste’ Here, power rules. But here, things are also made public, to the point of endangering secrecy. And that is not the only innovation in our intellectual life.

The newest players in the field of ‘prize culture’ are book publishers. Some of them now earn turnovers of millions of shekels, and their PR staff rushes about between the critics, literature supplements and, of course, prize committees. Anyone who misreads the new relationship between these power structures and the intellectual values of our life is making a grave error.

There is seemingly no recourse for this type of subverted justice. Nevertheless, whether the High Court creates order in the places where thousands are trained in this system of decision-making ethics, or whether it refrains from doing so, there is no problem with instituting a new order in everything connected with literature prizes. Why not hold public deliberations? Let committee member Meir Wieseltier explain, in a session open to the public, why he considered Leshem’s book better than others. Books are made of words. Decisions are also made of words, when they are explained. His judgment could interest the public. After all, it was Wieseltier who opened his poem, The Secret of Authority, with the line: ‘When in the inner sanctum a purple seal is stamped.’

But the most important thing has not yet been said about Leshem’s reportage-cum-novel–and it would have been said if the discussion had been open: This novel returned the center of Hebrew prose to the days of ‘shooting and crying,’ to the days of ‘might makes right,’ to the Lebanon War as an inseparable part of Israel’s wars of the few against the many.?

Anyone who thought Ariel Sharon’s rehabilitation would stop at the color of the etrog, and would not include the Lebanon War in culture, was, of course, naive. Power structures all include each other in the same gray color.

YITZHAK LAOR is an Israeli novelist who lives in Tel Aviv.



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