The Genesis Prize Foundation announced Tuesday that the winner of its $1 million 2020 prize is former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, citing his “lifelong struggle for human rights.”
“The award recognizes Sharansky’s extraordinary lifelong struggle for human rights, political freedom and his service to the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” an announcement said, adding that the award ceremony will take place in Jerusalem on June 18, 2020.
Sharansky 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, which honors individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement and commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish people.
Isaac Herzog, the current head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the head of the prize selection committee, called Sharansky “a true Jewish hero and an outstanding human being.”
Herzog succeeded Sharansky who served two terms as the head of the agency, the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit group.
The prize committee said that following the precedent set by previous winners, Sharansky would donate the $1 million prize to nonprofit organizations.
Sharansky said he was “humbled” by the award and planned to use his time as the prize laureate to speak about the rise in anti-Semitism and efforts to deligitimize Israel.
“Having been raised as an assimilated Jew in the Soviet Union, I discovered my Jewish identity and belonging to the Jewish people thanks to Israel,” he said. “This connection to Israel gave me and other refuseniks the strength to fight for the rights of Jews as well as other people whose essential freedoms had been denied.”
“Today, when anti-Semitism is on the rise, both from the political left and from the right, the unity of the Jewish people and our connection to Israel is very important,” Sharansky said. “We need to unite and combat the scourge of anti-Semitism and efforts to delegitimize Israel together, as one people.”
Sharansky, a famed Soviet prisoner of conscience, was able to immigrate to Israel in 1986 after nine years in labor camps and months of hunger strikes. A child chess prodigy, he kept himself sane in solitary confinement by playing chess in his mind. “I played thousands of games, and I won them all,” he told The New York Times in 1996, the year he also managed to beat chess champion Gary Kasparov.
In Israel he became involved in politics representing the millions of Jews from the former Soviet union who followed him there after the fall of Communism. He has served in the Knesset and in various ministerial roles. Most recently he represented the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2006 before moving to the Jewish Agency.
Sharansky’s recent efforts include trying to secure a compromise for an egalitarian plaza at the Western Wall and calling for wider recognition by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate of conversions done by rabbis outside the Jewish state.
Sharansky has outlined his experiences and ideas in three books that have each made a mark. “Fear No Evil,” his memoir of the fight for Soviet Jewish emigration, his human rights work alongside Andrei Sakharov and his survival in the prison camps, became an international bestseller. “The Case for Democracy,” where he sets out a diplomatic philosophy gleaned from his intimate understanding of totalitarianism, was cited by world leaders. In “Defending Identity,” he explores the tensions between politics and culture that have leaped to the forefront of European politics.
The Genisis prize, which has been dubbed the “Jewish Nobel,” has faced some controversy in recent years.
Two years ago, Israel-born actress Portman, refused to come to Jerusalem and receive the honor because it was to be presented by Netanyahu.
The actress announced that she would not travel to Israel for the award ceremony, which was then canceled, drawing accusations that Portman was supporting the boycott Israel movement. Portman said she did not want to be seen as endorsing Netanyahu.
The Genesis Foundation later decided that the prize money and an additional $1 million matching grant by Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn would still be distributed to women’s empowerment programs, but through the foundation.
The saga was troubling for the Genesis Prize Foundation, which says it works hard to prevent its philanthropy from being politicized.
Last year’s recipient, Robert Kraft, was thought to have been a much safer candidate, but he later became embroiled in a prostitution scandal.
JTA contributed to this report