HU profs among those just awarded ‘Israel’s Nobel Prize’



The Jerusalem Post header - EMET Prize to be awarded: ‘Israel’s Nobel Prize’ goes to 11 winners - Ilana Ashkenazi, director of the EMET Prize, adds, “The EMET Prize illustrates how academic and professional excellence can improve the human condition, in all areas of life.”

Hebrew University's Prof. Avner De Shalit, Political Science and Strategy

Hebrew University’s Prof. Avner De Shalit, Political Science and Strategy

Israel’s EMET prize, sponsored by the A.M.N. Foundation for the Advancement of Science, Art and Culture in Israel will be awarded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, December 9, at the Jerusalem Theater.

The award, known as the “Israeli Nobel Prize,” has been awarded annually since 2002 to Israeli citizens, in recognition of “academic or professional excellence and achievements that have made a special contribution to society and have had a far-reaching impact in the field in which the award was given.” The award is given in five different areas: culture and art, exact sciences, life sciences, humanities, and social sciences.

Arie Dobson, CEO of the A.M.N. Foundation, which supports academic and research institutions in Israel and sponsors the award, says: “The goal of the EMET Foundation is to recognize those who have chosen excellence as a way of life and the realization of human potential as essential to creating a better world for future generations.”

Ilana Ashkenazi, director of the EMET Prize, adds, “The EMET Prize illustrates how academic and professional excellence can improve the human condition, in all areas of life.”

“When I said that the immune system maintains the vitality of the brain, its function, and helps it heal – they thought I was delusional,” says trailblazing researcher Prof. Michal Schwartz. “It was thought that the brain and the immune system were two systems that were mutually exclusive.” Then came the discoveries that changed the attitude of the scientific community.

In 1998, Schwartz’s first discovery showed functional improvement, following central nervous system injury, through immune system cells. In 2006, she showed how the brain’s functional flexibility – including its cognitive abilities – depends on the immune system, and three years ago she illustrated how cognitive abilities that are impaired by Alzheimer’s disease can be restored by activating the immune system.

Her approach to treating neurodegenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia has brought Schwartz to the forefront of global research. Her work, which may change the treatment approach for neurodegenerative brain diseases, led the EMET Award Committee to declare her as one of the winners of the prestigious award.

Out-of-the-box thinking characterizes the award winners this year. Prof. Yair Reisner of the Weizmann Institute of Science, who won the Life Sciences Award, has made breakthroughs that have translated into clinical achievements. He managed to overcome the body’s tendency to reject implanted bone marrow and found ways to force the immune system to accept the implanted bone marrow and prevent bone marrow cells from attacking patients.

“Thinking outside the box is an important trait for scientists. Without it, we could not innovate,” he explains.

Reisner has experienced special moments in his career, such as saving “bubble children,” children with severe combined immunodeficiency. As a result of his pioneering research, hospitals all over the world are now using the procedure he has developed, and hundreds of “bubble children” have been saved.

“It was one of the most exciting and important moments of my life,” he admits. He adds, “There is still a long way to go. In medicine, it takes time from when an idea is developed until its clinical application.”

Hebrew University's Prof. Yinon Ben-Neriah

Hebrew University’s Prof. Yinon Ben-Neriah

This year, the $1 million prize will be awarded to 11 winners, including Prof. Yinon Ben-Neriah of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, winner of the Life Sciences category for his “important scientific contribution to understanding immune signaling processes and decoding abnormal signal transmission mechanisms in cancer cells.” His innovative research has led to a different approach in the treatment of leukemia, using goal-directed biological drugs.

“Until 20 years ago, we fought cancer by providing chemotherapy that worked on nonspecific killing of rapidly dividing cells,” he explains. “We tested the manner in which cancer cells transmit signals. Unacceptable or unconventional signals come into the cell, or they are incorrectly interpreted by the cell, resulting in uncontrolled cell growth or invasion of cells to places that they should not be. It became clear that if we understood the field, we could intervene and curb the cancerous process that is conditioned by these signals.”

While Ben-Neriah was delighted to learn of the prize, he says: “Our reward comes not from the awards, but from the achievements. It is a blessing if one can take a serious illness like leukemia and make it a treatable disease.”

Hebrew University's Prof. Tsvi Piran

Hebrew University’s Prof. Tsvi Piran

Equally trailblazing work has led Prof. Tsvi Piran of Hebrew University to be one of the EMET recipients for 2019 in the exact science category. Piran deals with high-energy astrophysics and investigated the origin of gamma rays discovered in space in the 1960s.

This issue has been debated in the scientific community for nearly 30 years, and Piran was one of the few to swim against the current, stating that the explosions of the gamma rays, the strongest natural explosions in the universe, come from distant sources.

“It was my opinion that one of the extinction events of life on Earth 500 million years ago resulted from such an explosion. When I introduced this theory, people thought me strange,” Piran reveals. “Even when a satellite sent by the United States to space provided evidence to support my theory, it took seven years for the scientific community to accept it.”

His ideas have shaped the understanding of the mechanism of physical processes. “Sometimes you think outside the box and go too far,” he clarifies. “But scientists are the opposite of chess players. In chess, you pay dearly for every little mistake, but science is more forgiving.”

Prof. Mordechai Segev of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won the EMET Award for his groundbreaking achievements in the field of nonlinear optics and his discoveries on light waves in topological insulators. Initially, his articles received criticism.

“For a long time, people simply did not believe, despite the fact that we had published a number of theoretical and experimental articles in leading journals,” he told the scientific website Hayadan. “It is very difficult to change ways of thinking.” Segev succeeded in breaking the conceptual fixation of an entire scientific community.

The discovery of new phenomena is very gratifying to Segev, but he is even more gratified to see his students succeed. “It is wonderful to see our young generation on the front lines of research. We all hope that they will exceed our accomplishments, and we are encouraged by their success.”

IT IS not only in the field of exact sciences that researchers show extraordinary daring, but also in the humanities. Of Prof. Mechal Sobel of the University of Haifa, recipient of the 2019 EMET Prize in General History, the judges wrote that she was awarded the prize “for the extraordinary intellectual daring she brought to historical research in Israel through her wide-ranging studies in understanding the worlds of black Americans in the post-slavery era, and for her restoration of voices that over generations had been suppressed or barred from the mainstream historical narrative.”

Hebrew University's Prof. Ze'ev Kedar

Hebrew University’s Prof. Ze’ev Kedar

Another winner in general history is Prof. Ze’ev Kedar of Hebrew University. His contribution to the study of the Crusader period and the Mediterranean world in the Middle Ages, and the original insights into past and present intercultural encounters and his studies of comparative history, Jewish history, and the fostering of Land of Israel studies brought him this award.

“It’s wonderful to receive an award,” he says, “but the really important things are the historical works you write and the research you do, the students you guide, and most of all the discoveries you make. These are the great moments of my life as a historian – discovering texts no one has ever seen and offering solutions to problems no one has ever thought of before.”

In the field of political science and strategy, the EMET Prize will be awarded to two researchers – Prof. Azar Gat and Prof. Avner de Shalit.

Gat, of Tel Aviv University, studied the phenomenon of war, strategy and military thought. “I argue that nationalism and national sentiment are very old, not something created in modern times,” he says. Gat’s research is universal and does not deal specifically with Israel. “But I’m an interested citizen,” he adds with a smile.

De Shalit, of Hebrew University, won the award for his in-depth research addressing the challenges of poverty and inequality. “We found that although liberal and social democracies invest huge fortunes, poverty levels did not go down, and even increased. We discovered that poor people have low self-esteem, which carries through to their abilities in every field. When a group of social workers in one of Belgium’s cities implemented our recommendations, the results were amazing: 67% of the unemployed started working, as opposed to none from the control group.”

De Shalit will donate most of his prize money for scholarships. “The award also belongs to my colleagues and my department,” he says. “The model of the trailblazing, brilliant researcher who works alone is incorrect – we all work together.”

In the Culture and Arts category, the EMET Prize will be awarded to Dr. Hanna Amit Kochavi, whose primary work has been in the area of Arabic to Hebrew translations, and Dr. David Weinfeld, who has translated Polish works into Hebrew.

The judges said that Kochavi “has turned the vocation of translation into a combination of mission and creation by translating a local world rich with textual memories, and creating a thorough acquaintance between Hebrew readers and modern Arabic poetry and drama, alongside her translations of classics in other languages.”

Weinfeld translates the works of the most important writers and poets from Polish. “I wanted to translate these writers into Hebrew so that young Israeli poets will read and understand and appreciate their material and style,” he explains. “I think the clarity of their work has influenced Israeli poetry.”