Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky will be awarded the Israel Prize for Aliya and the Ingathering of the Exiles, Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced on Sunday.
“Sharansky is the story of Israel,” Bennett said in a video announcing the award.
“Anatoly Sharansky sat as a prisoner of Zion in a Soviet jail for almost a decade. He became a symbol for all those in prison wanting to live as free and proud Jews and for their hope to make aliya to Israel,” he said, referring to Sharansky by his Russian name.
Sharansky was born in 1948 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Upon completing his studies in computer science in Moscow, he applied for a visa to Israel, which was denied for “security reasons.”
In 1977, he was imprisoned by the Soviet Union for his struggle for Jewish life and the right for Jewish immigration to Israel. He was released in 1986 and immigrated to Israel.
His wife, Avital, immigrated to Israel prior to his arrest and fought during his time in prison for his release. Bennett noted that Avital is also a symbol “for Jewish sacrifice and heroism.”
“This is a great honor and a great responsibility,” Sharansky said of the award. “When it comes to kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles, this prize also goes to Avital and to all the aliya 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 added: “The ingathering of the exiles continues – aliya today is an aliya 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.”
Following the announcement, Sharansky received an outpouring of congratulations for the award.
President Reuven Rivlin said: “Natan has traveled a long and moving journey, from a prisoner of Zion and a symbol of the struggle of Soviet Jewry to immigrate to Israel, through becoming a member of the Knesset and a senior minister in the government and to his current position as chairman of the Jewish Agency.”
“Dear Natan, after years of meaningful activity, which has given voice to the immigrants from the Soviet Union and immigrants everywhere, we are blessed with you as the recipient of the Israel Prize,” he said.
Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, also a former prisoner of Zion, spoke with Sharansky and congratulated him on his win, saying there was “no one more fitting for the Israel Prize.”
“Natan, who paid a heavy price in order to reach the Land of Israel, acted for and served the country in a variety of positions in which he promoted and brought immigrants and Jews of the world to the Land of Israel, and the Land of Israel to immigrants and Jews of the world,” he said.
Gideon Sa’ar, who will be speaking at the Jerusalem Post
New York Conference on April 29, said Natan was “one of the greatest Jews and Zionists living among us who symbolized and symbolizes the struggle for freedom, willpower and determination to the vision of the return to Zion.”
Yaakov Hagoel, the vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, also congratulated Sharansky and called him “a role model for all the people of Israel.”
“No one is more deserving to win the prize for life’s work regarding immigration to the Land of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles,” he said. “As a person who fought every inch of his life in order to immigrate to Israel with dedication until his ninth year in prison, we must learn daily about his efforts to bring many Jews to Israel from the former Soviet Union.”
The Israel Prize is largely regarded as the state’s highest honor. It is presented annually on Independence Day in a state ceremony in Jerusalem in the presence of the president, the prime minister, the Knesset speaker and the Supreme Court president.
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