The Genesis Prize Foundation announced on Tuesday that it has awarded its 2020 Genesis Prize, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel,” to Natan Sharansky, a Jewish refusenik, leader in the Soviet Jewry emigration movement, former Israeli politician and former head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The Genesis Prize selection committee noted Sharansky’s “extraordinary lifelong struggle for political and religious freedoms, emphasizing the relevance of his work in today’s world,” the foundation said in a statement on its website.
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Sharansky was jailed by communist authorities in 1977 for his efforts to promote Zionism and democracy. After nine years in labor camps and an international pressure campaign, Sharansky was released and was able to immigrate to Israel in 1986. He was a child chess prodigy and told the New York Times in 1996 that he kept himself sane in solitary confinement by playing chess in his mind.
Sharansky wrote three best-selling books, including his first “Fear No Evil” of survival in prison, his human rights work, and the fight for Soviet Jewish emigration. He first entered Israeli politics in 1995 and served in a number of ministerial posts before resigning from the Knesset in 2006. He is the former chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, a post he left just last year.
“Natan Sharansky is one of the great human rights advocates of our lifetime. At great personal sacrifice, he fought for the rights and dignity of all ethnicities, religions, and nationalities. Today, as we witness democratic principles being challenged and human rights, along with freedoms of thought and expression, denied to so many, Natan’s example is an inspiration to all those struggling for democracy,” said Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation. “While this is particularly true in parts of the world under authoritarian rule, even in democracies our freedoms cannot be taken for granted. Natan’s ideals and vision are as relevant today as they were in the 1980s when he took on the totalitarian Soviet regime – and won.”
Sharansky said in a statement that he was “humbled” by the honor and thanked the Genesis Prize Foundation for recognizing his work to promote democracy, rule of law, and human rights.
“As my personal hero President Ronald Reagan said, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not passed to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like to live when men were free,” Sharansky added.
He is the recipient of a number of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed on him in 2006 by then-president George W. Bush, and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 2008.
The Genesis Prize, established in 2012, recognizes individuals “who have attained excellence and international renown in their fields, and whose actions and achievements express a commitment to Jewish values, the Jewish community and the State of Israel.” Recipients of the prize are given $1 million for the award.
In a precedent set by past winners, Sharansky will donate the funds in his honor to nonprofit organizations.
Sharansky, who was chosen from a list of 250 nominees, according to the foundation, joins philanthropist Robert Kraft, actress Natalie Portman, artist Anish Kapoor, violinist Itzhak Perlman, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and actor-director Michael Douglas as a recipient of the prize.
Sharansky is the first Genesis Prize recipient who currently lives in Israel.
The Genesis Prize award ceremony will take place in Jerusalem on June 18, 2020.