With “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg turned on its head the old Hollywood paradigm that held that the influential Jews who ran the movie business were the sort of people who were loath to do anything to bring attention to Jewish causes. That film, and his subsequent efforts on behalf of survivors via his Shoah Foundation and other philanthropies, brought him well-deserved praise and have turned him into something of a secular American Jewish saint.
Nevertheless, Spielberg’s other major film on a Jewish subject, which reflected a growing ambivalence about Zionism and Israel among fashionable liberal American Jews, shouldn’t be forgotten. His 2005 film “Munich” about efforts to track down the perpetrators of the 1972 Olympic Massacre of Israeli athletes was a travesty of moral equivalence. It made the Israeli intelligence operatives seeking to make the murderers — for which the international community had no interest in punishing — accountable for the slaughter of 11 Jewish athletes and a German policeman seem as bad, if not, worse than the terrorists. To no small extent, it reflected the influence of Tony Kushner, the co-author of the script and a notorious anti-Zionist.
Still, if your goal is to pick a Jewish celebrity who has actually done something Jewish other than complaining about his upbringing or using their identity as a cover for attacking Israel, as so many famous Jews do, you could do a lot worse than the multiple Oscar winner.
But the point here isn’t whether Spielberg is deserving of yet another honor after receiving countless other acknowledgments of his work and achievements. It’s that the Genesis poll reflects the fact that contemporary Jewry no longer honors the attributes that helped preserve the Jewish people over the centuries — namely, scholarship and devotion to nurturing their faith and heritage.
It’s certainly no surprise that the largely secular contemporary Jewish world is detached from the values that would have made someone like Sacks or Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz a superstar in the past, rather than footnotes in a culture that is besotted with celebrity and riches rather than learning. The Hasidic teacher and author Steinsaltz,, with his edition of The Talmud in Modern Hebrew and English translation, brought Jewish wisdom to a new audience in a way that made him among the most significant Jews of the modern era. He, too, passed away last year without ever being considered for a “Jewish Nobel Prize.”
To compare either scholar to a famous film director, actors, singers or billionaires is ridiculous, especially if you are asking ordinary people who may hav had little or no Jewish education — yet watch movies, listen to music or read about celebrity gossip — to be the jury.
Were the Genesis Prize pitched merely as an exercise in celebrity, there would be no reason to criticize it. But it is specifically because it poses as a Nobel-like award — the Swedish prizes in the sciences, if not the arts, are an objective measure of true brilliance — claiming to celebrate achievement, strengthen ties between Israel and the Diaspora, and foster Jewish pride, that its chasing after the rich and famous should draw criticism.
The problem is that by throwing Sacks into the mix, the Genesis committee made it clear that neither they nor their voters are in touch with traditional Jewish values, as well as those that are essential to furthering the goals they claim to care about. If there is anything that has brought the organized Jewish world into disrepute among younger generations, it is the emphasis on lauding prominent wealthy donors at the expense of support for those who actually embody praiseworthy attributes. If we must have a “Jewish Nobel Prize,” then it should go to someone like Sacks, as opposed to the winner of a celebrity popularity contest.
All of which is why this foolish idea should be retired, rather than continue the pretense that its yearly publicity stunt is doing anything other than feeding the egos of those involved and giving journalists something silly to cover. This year more than any other, the Genesis Prize has shown that it is more about what’s wrong with the Jews than what’s right about them.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.