Ex-cabinet minister, human rights activist, author and outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky won the 2018 Israel Prize for his lifetime achievement and exceptional contribution to the State of Israel in the field of Aliyah and ingathering of the exiles, it was announced Sunday by Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Bennett congratulated the former refusnik (a term used for people who were refused permission to emigrate to Israel from the Soviet Union), saying he "symbolizes the fulfillment of the Zionist dream, from the darkness of a Soviet prison to the light of freedom as the leader of the Jewish Agency."
In a statement issued following the announcement, Sharansky called the award "a great honor and a great responsibility."
"When it comes to kibbutz galuyot, ingathering the exiles, this prize also goes to (my wife) 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 wrote.
“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. We must do everything to ensure that Israel remains a home to every Jew in the world.”
In its reasoning for awarding the prize to Sharansky, the Israel Prize committee wrote, "Mr. Sharansky's activity is an activity for the Jewish people and the State of Israel and constitutes an absolute engrossment that has even led to a violation of his freedom.
"The story of his life is a sign and a symbol of the struggle for the right of the Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel, to settle there and to be absorbed in it with dignity."
Lawmakers from across the political spectrum congratulated Sharansky on the award.
In a Twitter post directly addressing him, President Reuven Rivlin said Sharansky has "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," adding that Israel is "blessed to have you."
From the gulag to the Knesset
Born in 1948 in the former Soviet Union as Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky, Sharansky was denied permission to immigrate to Israel by the government in 1973 for alleged information he was given which was vital to Soviet national security.
He then became a human rights activist, working as a spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of Russia's leading human rights organizations, and a leader for the rights of refuseniks.
In 1977, Sharansky was arrested on multiple fabricated charges including high treason for spying for the Americans and sentenced the following year to 13 years of forced labor.
When given his sentencing, Sharansky famously stated that "to the court I have nothing to say—to my wife and the Jewish people I say 'Next Year in Jerusalem.'"
He spent nine years in a Siberian prison. Half of that was spent in solitary confinement, where his health deteriorated to the point of endangering his life. Sharansky, a chess prodigy, later said that he managed to keep himself sane by playing chess with himself, in his head.
After nine years in prison, thanks to considerable international pressure and a campaign led by his wife, Avital Sharansky, Mr. Sharansky was released on February 11, 1986. That same day, he immigrated to Israel and arrived in Jerusalem, where he continued to fight for the rights of refuseniks.
In 1995 Sharansky and Speaker of the Knesset and fellow Prisoner of Zion Yoel Edelstein founded the Yisrael BaAliyah party (a play of words, since "aliya" also means "rise," thus the party name means "People of Israel are immigrating to the State of Israel" as well as "Israel on the rise").
From 1996 to 2000 he served as Minister of Industry and Trade and then as Minister of Internal Affairs, leaving the government when it was suggested that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's negotiations with the Palestinians would result in a division of Jerusalem.
Sharansky remained the chairman of the party, which was later merged into the Likud. He later served in the government in 2001–2003 as Deputy Prime Minister and Ministry of Construction and Housing, and in 2003–2005 as Minister of Jerusalem Affairs.
In 2009, Sharansky was elected Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, remaining in the position until 2018. Both former US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended his farewell gala, thanking him for his service.
For his activism, Sharansky was awarded the two highest civilian awards in the United States, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1986 and 2006 respectively, and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 2008.
He continued to lead human rights initiatives both through his writings and through his public activism. His memoir, "Fear No Evil," was published in the United States in 1988 and translated into nine languages. His best-seller, "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," which starred in the New York Times best-seller list, attracted considerable attention for its prescience.
Sharansky, along with other laureates of the award, will be officially awarded the Israel Prize during this year’s 70th Independence Day celebrations, set to take place on April 19.