Soviet Dissident Natan Sharansky to Be Awarded the ‘Jewish Nobel Prize’

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Reknowned refusnik and advocate for democracy Natan Sharansky will be awarded the 2020 Genesis Prize, the Genesis Prize Foundation announced Tuesday, Dec. 10.

Dubbed “the Jewish Nobel,” the Genesis Prize was started in 2013 and is financed through a permanent $100 million endowment. The annual award honors “extraordinary individuals for their outstanding professional achievement, contribution to humanity and commitment to Jewish values,” according to the foundation.


Sharansky, who was a leader of the Soviet Jewry emigration movement and also had a career as an Israeli politician, was noted by the Prize’s selection committee for his lifelong struggle for political and religious freedoms.

In 1977, Sharansky was jailed by the communist authorities for his pro-Zionist, pro-democracy efforts and spent nine years in Soviet prison. 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 Garry Kasparov.

Natan Sharansky (Nathan Roi)
Natan Sharansky (Nathan Roi)

Through the efforts of his wife, Avital, who lobbied governments around the world, Sharansky was released in 1986 and immigrated to Israel, where the couple raised two daughters. As a politician and later as the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sharansky advocated for the rights of Israeli immigrants, religious minorities, and women.

“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 1980’s when he took on the totalitarian Soviet regime — and won.”

Previous winners of the prize include New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Michael Bloomberg and Itzak Perlman. In 2018, the Genesis Prize Foundation canceled its ceremony after winner Natalie Portman said she wouldn’t visit Israel due to “distressing” events in the country.

Sharansky will be honored in Jerusalem on June 18, 2020.

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