Natan Sharansky Named Genesis Prize Laureate for 2020

Former refusenik spent nine years in a Soviet jail, later serving as Jewish Agency chairman. The 'Jewish Nobel' award has been dogged by controversy in recent years

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Natan Sharansky attending a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem in 2017.
Natan Sharansky attending a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem in 2017.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The Genesis Prize Foundation, which likes to refer to itself as the “Jewish Nobel,” announced Tuesday that its 2020 prize will be awarded to former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.

The organizers will be hoping next year's event passes off without controversy following several scandals in recent years.

The 2020 award was in recognition of Sharansky’s “extraordinary lifelong struggle for human rights, political freedom and his service to the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” the foundation said. Sharansky served as chairman of the Jewish Agency for nine years, stepping down in August 2018. Before that he served as a Knesset member and minister in four Israeli governments.

Sharansky is the first recipient of the prize to live in Israel. As Agency chairman, he served as a member of the selection committee. After he left the post last year, he was appointed chairman of the foundation’s advisory board. He recused himself from the process once he learned he had been short-listed. Representatives of the foundation said the advisory board is not involved in selecting the candidates.

Natan Sharansky shaking hands with Ariel Sharon after arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport from Moscow in February 1986.
Natan Sharansky shaking hands with Ariel Sharon after arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport from Moscow in February 1986.Credit: Nati Hernik / GPO

Responding to the announcement, Sharansky said: “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. 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 is very important,” he added. “We need to unite and combat the scourge of anti-Semitism and efforts to delegitimize Israel together, as one people. I intend to speak about this as the Genesis Prize laureate.”

Born in Donetsk in 1948, Sharansky was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1977 after the Soviet authorities found him guilty of collaborating with the CIA. After serving nine years in prison, he was released on February 11, 1986, arriving in Jerusalem the very same day after emigrating to Israel.

The Genesis Prize has been shrouded in controversy in recent years. The 2019 recipient was U.S. billionaire Robert Kraft: Several months after the New England Patriots owner was named as laureate, he was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution in Florida. Prof. Rivka Carmi, the former president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, tendered her resignation from the advisory board in response to the decision to proceed with awarding him the prize after he was charged. Kraft has denied the allegations against him.

He won a big victory in his ongoing case in May, when a Florida judge ruled that prosecutors were prohibited from using secretly recorded videos of Kraft as evidence. The prosecutors are challenging this ruling.

Actress Natalie Portman was picked as the 2018 laureate, but she decided to boycott the awards ceremony so as not to share a stage with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Following the Portman snub, the foundation decided instead to give a special lifetime achievement award to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman (C) receives the 2016 Genesis Prize. Natan Sharansky, then head of the Jewish Agency, and recipient of the 2019 award, is on the right, PM Benjamin Netanyahu on the left, Jerusalem, June 23, 2016
Violinist Itzhak Perlman (C) receives the 2016 Genesis Prize. Natan Sharansky, then head of the Jewish Agency, is on the right, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, left. Jerusalem, June 23, 2016Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The $1 million prize is routinely donated by the recipients — usually quite wealthy in their own right — to charitable causes of their choice.

Kraft, who is known to be a good friend of both U.S. President Donald Trump and Netanyahu, donated his gift to a new campaign aimed at fighting global anti-Semitism. Portman donated hers to various Israeli organizations that work to promote women’s rights.

The prize was launched in 2013 by a group of Russian-Jewish businessmen to recognize Jews “who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields.” Other recipients include Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, violinist Itzhak Perlman, sculptor Anish Kapoor and actor-producer Michael Douglas.

Sharansky will receive the prize at a ceremony in Jerusalem scheduled for June 18.

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