It has already been called the Jewish Nobel Prize. That is flattering but inaccurate. This is not about creating another celebrity award and making it distinct by sticking on a “Jews-only” tag. Nor is it a political project.
The purpose of this award is to distinguish and celebrate people who have reached excellence in their field – be it science, arts, business or politics – by relying on the Jewish traditions and values which have evolved during our history. We hope that our laureates will serve as role models for young Jews scattered around the world who often are barely conscious of their Jewishness.
This is particularly important today when the questions of who is a Jew and what it means have become more pressing than ever. Answering these questions in a new and, one hopes, inclusive way is one of the main tasks faced by Israel and Jews worldwide. How to be Jewish not by segregation but by embracing the world.
Over the centuries our identity was all too often defined by the legacy of persecution.
Wherever Jews lived, the state – be it a Roman, a German or a Soviet one – never let us forget who we were. One of the most powerful passages in world literature – a mother’s farewell letter written from a Nazi camp in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is a striking illustration of this. I quote: “I never used to feel I was a Jew: As a child my circle of friends were all Russian, my favorite poets were Pushkin and Nekrasov... But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with maternal tenderness towards the Jewish people. I never knew this love before. It reminds me of my love for you, my dearest son.”
But while anti-Semitism is never far away, today Jews are also faced with a different challenge – undoubtedly, better than the challenge of persecution, but no less real for that. It is the challenge of retaining Jewish identity in a world which, on the whole, has become more tolerant of the Jews than at any previous point in our history. Hundreds of thousands of Jews whose only Jewish experience in the past was one of state anti-Semitism today are comfortably assimilated in Germany, Britain or the US. Many are no longer sure what being Jewish really means.
Their Jewishness has become dormant.
The aim of this prize is to awaken it by demonstrating that being Jewish is not just an accident of birth, not just a name, but a huge gift, a competitive advantage and a path to success trodden by generations of our ancestors.
We are a lucky people. In some countries ancestors leave you land, castles and titles. Our forbearers left us something far more valuable.
They left us the Word, the Book and a set of values and rules, which, if understood correctly and applied diligently, can give you the ultimate prize in life – a sense of fulfillment and self-actualization.
These recipes have been tried and tested for millennia. And this year’s laureate and those who will receive this prize in the future are the best proof that they work. Many of these values have evolved in the face of hostility. Our aim is to perpetuate and strengthen them in the time of peace.
WHAT ARE those values? Striving for education and knowledge – assets that stay inside one’s head and therefore can only be taken away along with it. This hunger for education comes from reverence for the Book, but it also has long been part of our survival strategy. Any Jewish mother, mine included, explains to her child from an early age that you have to study extra hard if you want to make it in life. An inquisitive mind and an ability to learn fast have certainly helped us adapt to the often hostile environment.
Jews have had to be flexible and inventive.
Think of the way in which Jacob receives his blessing from Isaac. The question is what purpose this inventiveness serves. Jacob wrestled with God and with humans and, above all, with himself. This nudging, sometimes almost obsessive striving for improvement and for perfection is familiar to all of us and recognized by others.
In the words of Goethe, “Every Jew, no matter how insignificant, is engaged in some decisive and immediate pursuit of a goal... It is the most perpetual people of the earth...”
Jews have always kept moving, always trying to be at the center of civic activity and the edge of knowledge: key industrialists in the age of industrial revolution, nuclear physicists at the time of atomic energy, leading financiers and entrepreneurs during the era of capitalism, founders of workers unions when the labor movement was born, and hi-tech entrepreneurs when hi-tech was born.
Fighting our way through gave us a sense of freedom. Nothing was predetermined and everything depended on our free will. Life was what we made of it. Yet, this self-determination is not an end in itself but a means for defending certain unshakable values and beliefs that cannot be surrendered under any circumstances.
This combination of flexibility and a diamond- like strength allowed Jews to survive assimilation. The ability to live among others, respect their culture and yet retain our own identity, our way of life and our traditions is one of the main Jewish qualities. Joseph Stalin stigmatized Jews in the Soviet Union as rootless cosmopolitans.
The Jewish ability to transcend border and remain our own people has always been a threat to dictators who hated diversity and who kept borders locked.
I grew up in Lvov, a cosmopolitan city in western Ukraine – then part of the Soviet Union, which once boasted one of the biggest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Although there was not a single working synagogue during my childhood, I lived in a small Jewish microcosm of my family and my friends. I took my Jewishness for granted – just as any Jewish child growing up in Israel today does.
It was only when I moved to Russia that I became really conscious of my Jewishness – not because of my surname or anti-Semitism but because of the way I saw the world and could reflect on it. The values which my parents impressed onto me served me well. In the late 1980s, when I started in business, there were no institutions, laws and rules; the very words “business” and “capitalism” were swear words.
We were quick to adapt to the changing reality – such as it was – and we often cut corners and took our chances. But while there were no external barriers, I fell back on the rules which Jews, who were historically unable to rely on the law of the state for justice, have developed for themselves.
I did not go to business school – it was my Jewish mother who taught me from a tender age that one should always repay debts and keep one’s word whether it is written in a contract or not. This is the main reason why my partners and I, who started with washing windows in 1980s, are still working together today.
I believe that the flexible Jewish mind along with our core values will serve us again to preserve and strengthen the Jewish identity. Today’s competition is tougher than it has ever been. It is not just a competition in the business or political arena, but a competition between values, ideas and beliefs. Coming from the world of business, I know that the surest way to win a competition is by having the best ideas, believing in them, and persevering even in the most challenging of times.
Jewishness can, of course, mean many things to many people. I was a grown-up person when I was suddenly struck by what being Jewish meant to me. I realized that I am a link in a very long chain; that my ancestors – those who were burnt in furnaces and those who suffered and struggled over many generations – did not give up their Jewish identity, no matter the price they had to pay for holding on to it. I don’t know how Jewishness needs to be defined today, but one thing I do know is that this chain must not end with our generation.
The Genesis Prize is a small contribution to making the chain stronger, longer and shine ever brighter.
The writer is cofounder of the Genesis Philanthropy Group and chairman of the Supervisory board of Alfa Consortium. This op-ed is based on his speech given at the Genesis Prize Award Ceremony last night.