The absurdity of giving Michael Douglas the ‘Jewish Nobel’ prize

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 1/24/15

The founders of the Genesis Prize, popularly known as the “Jewish Nobel,” hoped to create an award that would inspire the next generation of Jews. A secret group of nominators and a selection committee bestow the great honor – and a $1 million prize – on someone who exemplifies commitment to Jewish values and the State of Israel.

The inaugural award went to Michael Bloomberg. I wrote last year of the absurdity of giving a billionaire $1 million; of old rich white Jewish men giving other old rich white Jewish men $1 million.

Bloomberg re-gifted the money, as anything else would have been slightly odd. Though the former mayor of New York has never inspired me as a Jew, I can appreciate his very many accomplishments. He was a public servant, a globally successful businessman, an incredibly generous philanthropist. It is not unfair to say that Bloomberg is a global phenomenon. Despite the oddness of giving $1 million to a man worth more than $30 billion, I could see some semblance of logic in the choice.

This year the Genesis Prize was awarded to Michael Douglas. Be honest now: How many of you knew the Hollywood actor was Jewish?

Apparently Douglas was bestowed this honor given his commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish state. I know that his son celebrated his bar mitzvah in Israellast year. What other qualifications does he have? Looking at the announcement, his so-called involvement in Jewish cinema (he narrated the voice of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the documentary “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers”) and his humanitarian work (he is a UN Messenger of Peace) seem to have made him the best candidate in entertainment for the award.

His mixed faith background and his desire to give his son a bar mitzvah in Israel also seemed to excite the judges. The committee stated: “The Douglas family’s experience of connecting with its heritage and embracing it on their own terms embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds.” Given the number of mix faith couples in the Diaspora, I don’t find this particularly remarkable, but it appears that the judges do.

No matter which way I look at it, I can’t understand this decision. Michael Douglas has little to no Jewish profile. He is not outspoken about Israel or his faith, and has never sought to be a beacon of Jewish culture.

If the committee was intent on giving $1 million to someone in the entertainment industry, they could have given it to Steven Spielberg, who clearly, through both his films and his philanthropy, has made his heritage part of his success.

The committee could have pivoted from honoring mega-famous men to mega-famous women, giving consideration to Mayim Bailik, a Modern Orthodox neuroscientist and actress who now stars in “The Big Bang Theory.” Bialik has always voiced her commitment to Judaism and expressed support for Israel.

If the aim is to inspire the next generation, the foundation could have picked from a whole wealth of young actors: Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Nick Kroll, Lena Dunham or Scarlett Johansson. All of these actors are more popular with the younger demographic that the prize hopes to inspire.

As long as the prize committee doesn’t have to clearly explain its reasoning, and the nomination process continues to be secret, the Jewish world will continue to be perplexed by this bizarre and frankly hysterical prize.

The prize would be nothing but a joke, if there were not thousands of deserving candidates out there who could do a huge amount of good with the resources and recognition that something like this would bring.

If the officials behind the Genesis Prize ever want the award to live up to its stated intentions, maybe they should look to the MacArthur Genius grants that pluck often obscure experts and give them resources and recognition to continue their groundbreaking work. Until then, at best we will continue to giggle as we learn who won the prize, or at worst, we will just ignore it.

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