Saving Face

In 2012 five Russian philanthropists created something called the Genesis Prize in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel. The award, which has been referred to as the Jewish Nobel, “celebrates Jewish talent and achievement, honoring individuals for their accomplishments and commitment to Jewish values, inspiring Jews to connect to their heritage and to Israel.” Over the years I have often been puzzled by the choices the committee has made. While I appreciate Michael Douglas as an actor, he hasn’t really been associated with the Jewish community over the years. Other recipients have been controversial as well. 

Natalie Portman caused a stir when she refused to attend the award ceremony after being named the winner. Robert Kraft embarrassed the organization when he was involved in a solicitation investigation, even though the charges were later dropped. The most perplexing aspect of the Genesis Prize, however, is not the people who receive it, but its very existence. The initial $100 million donation the five philanthropists made is a lot of money. Surely it could have been put to better use than given away in $1 million increments to fabulously wealthy celebrities. 

I happen to be on the mailing list of the Genesis Prize and last week I received an email from the organization announcing that the founders had donated $10 million for “humanitarian assistance to Jews in Ukraine”. While admirable, the gift was about more than mere generosity. Russian oligarchs, including prominent Jewish donors like the founders of the Genesis Prize, could potentially face sanctions in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Could it be that the $10 million gift, and the attendant fanfare around it, was part of an effort to stay in the good graces of Western governments? 

Russian oligarchs walk a fine line between appealing to the West, where they often live and play, and staying on Vladimir Putin’s good side in Russia, where their wealth is generated. Tellingly, the email from the Genesis Prize expressed sympathy for “Jews in Ukraine, who, along with all other innocent civilians in Ukraine, are suffering deeply from this war.” There is no mention in the message that it is Russia who started the conflict by invading its neighbor without justifiable provocation. 

Philanthropy is a tool for the wealthy to scrub their image. Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea football club, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and the organization has been criticized for reports that it has lobbied for Abramovich to not be sanctioned. This week however, the memorial severed its ties to the oligarch. As an institution committed to remembering the brutality of that last great war in Europe, they simply cannot be associated with someone who may be an enabler of the next great war. 

The rich have been using their wealth to buy acceptance for generations. The robber barons of the Gilded Age helped found some of the great institutions of the arts that we still appreciate. Indeed, the Genesis Prize shares one thing in common with the Nobel Prize. Alfred Nobel established his foundation and awards because he did not want to be known only for inventing dynamite, a weapon of war and destruction. But as much as cultural organizations need funding, there is a limit to what philanthropy can do for someone’s reputation. Large donations are nice, but even better would be oligarchs getting together and using their influence to pressure Putin to stop this brutal and senseless war. 

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