Natan Sharansky, the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency and a famed Soviet dissident and human rights activist, will receive the Israel Prize for promoting immigration and working with Diaspora Jewry.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett released a video on Sunday announcing the award and praising Sharansky.
“Sharansky is the story of Israel. Anatoly Sharansky was a prisoner of Zion in a Soviet jail for almost a decade,” Bennett said, referring to Sharansky by his Russian name. “He became a symbol for all those in prison for wanting to live as free and proud Jews and for their hope to live in Israel.”
Sharansky was born in 1948 in Donetsk, Ukraine. In 1973 he was denied an exit visa to Israel and became an activist for the human rights movement in the USSR. In 1977 he was accused of collaborating with the CIA and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor. He was released in 1986 on a wave of international pressure and immigrated to Israel.
From 1996 until 2005 Sharansky served as a lawmaker and minister in several governments. In 2009 he became the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a position he is to leave in three months. Earlier this month he was honored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former US president George W. Bush for his service “to the Jewish people, [for] democracy, for the Jewish State.”
Bennett spoke of how Sharansky found inspiration in the biblical book of Psalms while he was in a Soviet prison.
“Before he was locked away, his wife Avital gave him a book of Psalms. It was confiscated when he was jailed,” said Bennett. “He recalls that when the Soviets were about to release him and refused to give him back the book, he lay down in the snow and refused to board the plane until they returned it to him. Natan tells of the hope and inspiration he drew from those Psalms in the darkest of days.”
Sharansky said in a statement that the prize was not only for him but also for his wife and all the prisoners of Zion and those who worked to free them.
“This is a great honor and a great responsibility,” he said. “This prize also goes to Avital and to all the aliyah activists and prisoners of Zion in the Soviet Union who fought valiantly for the right to immigrate to Israel. It also goes to the entire Jewish people, which supported the refuseniks’ struggle for freedom.”
He also praised the State of Israel and its place as a home for all Jews.
“The ingathering of the exiles continues – aliyah today is an aliyah of free choice: Israel is the best place for self-actualization as a Jew and for impacting the future of the Jewish people,” he said. “We must do everything to ensure that Israel remains a home to every Jew in the world.”
Lawmakers from across the political spectrum congratulated Sharansky on the prize, including a fellow former prisoner of Zion, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
President Reuven Rivlin said that Israel was blessed to have Sharansky.
“Congratulations to Israel Prize laureate, my dear friend Natan Sharansky,” he tweeted. “You have traveled a long and moving journey, from Prisoner of Zion, a symbol of the struggle for freedom, then MK & senior minister, now chairman of the Jewish Agency. Dear Nathan, we are blessed to have you.”
Sharansky joins this year’s other prizewinners, former foreign minister David Levy (lifetime achievement), educator Miriam Peretz (strengthening the Jewish-Israeli spirit); founders of Ormat Industries Yehuda and Yehudit Bronicki Iindustry); Gil Shwed, the CEO of Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point Software Technologies (technology and innovation), David Grossman (literature); Sergiu Hart (economics); Shlomo Havlin (physics); Alex Lubotzky (mathematics and computer science); Yitzhak Schlesinger (psychology); Ron Ben-Yishai (journalism); Elisha Qimron (Jewish studies) and Edwin Seroussi (music).
Sharansky and the others will be officially awarded the Israel Prize during this year’s 70th Independence Day celebrations on April 19.