Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky named 2020 Genesis Prize recipient

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Genesis Prize Foundation has announced that Natan Sharansky, a Jewish refusenik, prolific leader in the Soviet Jewry emigration movement and former Israeli politician, will be awarded the 2020 Genesis Prize.

The Genesis Prize, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel,” 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.”

Sharansky was selected to honor “his extraordinary lifelong struggle for political and religious freedoms, emphasizing the relevance of his work in today’s world,” the Genesis Prize Foundation said in a news release.

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 TheNew York Times in 1996, the year he also managed to beat chess champion Garry Kasparov.

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.

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.

“Even in democracies our freedoms cannot be taken for granted,” said Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the foundation. “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 will be honored  in Jerusalem on June 18.