The Genesis Prize has been around since 2014, when it gave its first million-dollar award to Michael Bloomberg, whose net worth is currently in excess of $47 billion. Since then it has been given to actor Michael Douglas, musician Itzhak Perelman, artist Anish Kapoor, and—just yesterday—to actress Natalie Portman.
It is safe to say that not a single one of these individuals requires this money; indeed, each and every recipient has—presumably voluntarily—chosen to donate the proceeds towards a worthy philanthropic cause. Each of these wealthy individuals is already involved in philanthropic endeavors, so the Genesis Prize amounts to the curious situation in which money is awarded to people who don’t need it, for something that they were probably going to do anyway—but now filtered through the overhead costs of running the Genesis Prize Foundation, which are presumably quite a bit north of zero.
Why go to all this trouble? According to the foundation’s website, “The Genesis Prize honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.” Recognition of such individuals is no doubt warranted—but the giant check is not.
Top-tier prizes come in all sizes and shapes and their relationships with money vary with their intended goals. The MacArthur Genius Grant gives $625,000, but the Pulitzer Prize comes with just $10,000 and the Fields Medal with under $12,000. Olympic medallists, as you might guess, simply receive medals, and the Academy Award is nothing but a golden trophy. When cash is not given, it is often because it is not necessary; for early-career or mid-career awards, the natural boost to one’s life trajectory—through job opportunities, advertising deals, or increased book sales—can be just as valuable as a large lump sum.
Against these prizes stands the Nobel, whose awarding of large prizes to individuals with well-established legacies has been explicitly taken up by the Genesis Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, and others, all of whom explicitly style themselves as the Nobel of X or Y. Ironically, the Nobel’s dollar value has largely become meaningless; it could fall to zero tomorrow and Nobel would lose not one iota of fame.
The desire to piggyback off the Nobel’s fame is understandable, but—in the case of the Genesis Foundation—the effect is a complete undermining of the prize itself. By needlessly and prominently awarding large amounts of money to the wealthy—even if that money ultimately goes to charity—the Foundation signals that it knows of no way to get our attention other than the ham-fisted method of tying itself to an eye-catching award. Indeed, the notion that such sums are necessary projects a deep cynicism about the prize itself; it suggests a lack of confidence in its own meaning.
Right now, something just isn’t working. When a Nobel laureate is announced, full write-ups of their work and its significance follow within days. After five years, however, the Genesis Prize seems to have failed to garner from the media much more that glorified press releases. For the prize to succeed, one of two things must change.
First: you could keep the prize but drop the money. Without money, the prize could claim a nobility which has heretofore been lacking. Furthermore, it would be possible to expand the prize, such that multiple people could be honored each year without breaking the bank. (Let’s call this the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” approach.) Alternatively, you could keep the money but drop the famous people. Instead of being a Jewish Nobel, Genesis could be a Jewish MacArthur, endowing—without strings attached—the kind of Jews that who, with the right boost, could become the next Michael Douglas or Itzhak Perlman, whatever that means. The first model would allow the prize to create a kind of canon of America Jewry; the second would allow it to invest in the future. Either method would be preferable to the current situation.
There are many ways of recognizing greatness. Being grouped with other greats is one of them. Being widely lauded in the press is another. Being honored by heads of state or well-respected individuals is a third. But money should not be given as a prize unless it will do good efficiently. In a world of shrinking Jewish funding sources, giving large sums of money to those whose talent has already reaped dividends for them is an inefficient use of resources. Money should not be the way to establish that the Genesis Prize is worth winning.