Alon - Kaminsky - 8.3.12
Azaria Alon Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Olivier Fitoussi
Rabbi Haim Druckman Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leading religious-Zionist rabbi who until last month headed the Conversion Authority, and Azaria Alon, one of Israel's earliest environmental activists, are the winners of this year's Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar announced yesterday.

The announcement said that Druckman was being honored for "his very important work in the realm of education of religious-Zionist youth ... and who, out of love of the Jewish people, worked to bring different parts of the nation closer together."

Alon, 93, was cited for his unique contribution to nature conservation in Israel, for nurturing and advancing the teaching of Israeli geography and geographic research, and for his contribution to hikers and tourism.

Druckman, 79, was born in Poland and was a Holocaust survivor who came to pre-state Israel alone at age 12 on an illegal immigrant ship. He attended a yeshiva high school, served in the Nahal IDF brigade and received rabbinic ordination from the Mercaz Harav yeshiva.

During the 1950s, he was one of the early advocates of the "hesder" track, under which conscripts combine army service with advanced yeshiva studies. In 1964, he founded the Or Etzion yeshiva in Mercaz Shapira.

During the 1970s and 1980s he was a National Religious Party and later a Morasha MK. While a firm advocate of settlement throughout Greater Israel, he also took national interests into consideration.

When he was quoted as encouraging Israel Defense Forces soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements, he later qualified this by saying that while he did not support insubordination, there were times when a soldier would not be able to execute orders contrary to his conscience.

During the past eight years he confronted numerous challenges as the head of the Conversion Authority, which oversees state-sponsored conversions. His special rabbinical court, which evaluated candidates from both civilian and military conversion programs, converted some 50,000 people, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

His conversions were challenged by ultra-Orthodox elements of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which ruled that his conversions were "fraudulent" because his courts were too lenient in their demand that converts commit to a religious lifestyle. Druckman vehemently defends the state conversions, which he said are a pressing need given the numbers of non-Jews who came to Israel under the Law of Return.

Azaria Alon was born in Ukraine and made aliya in 1925; he joined Kibbutz Beit Hashita in 1938 and still lives there. He was a founder of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the country's first environmental organization, along with Prof. Amotz Zahavi and Prof. Heinrich Mendelssohn. The three fought against the draining of the Hula Lake, one of the first efforts at environmental activism here.

In addition to his work at SPNI, he was known for a radio program he hosted on vistas in Israel, which he began in 1959 and continued for more than 50 years. He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most veteran host of a radio program.

Alon has also written or edited over 50 books on nature and Israeli nature sites, and was the chief editor of the 12-volume Encyclopedia of Plant and Animal Life in Israel.

Alon had previously been cited for the Israel Prize when SPNI won it in 1980. SPNI Director Moshe Packman yesterday called Alon "a symbol and environmental pioneer."