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Natan Sharansky gives to Weizmann COVID-19 research

Former Soviet refusenik donates his Genesis Prize money to pandemic needs worldwide.



Date: June 17, 2020

Israel’s legendary human rights activist and former Soviety refusnik Natan Sharansky has donated his $1 million prize money from the Genesis Prize to alleviate suffering from the coronavirus, a portion of which he has donated to drug and vaccine research at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The annual prize, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel” by TIME Magazine, honors extraordinary individuals for their outstanding professional achievements, contribution to humanity, and commitment to Jewish values. The Genesis Prize committee announced its decision to award the prize to Sharanksy last December.

The gift to the Weizmann Institute will go to Dr. Ron Diskin, who is advancing research on coronavirus and is an expert on other lethal animal-borne viruses. While the beneficiaries of his philanthropy around coronavirus include organizations in various countries, Sharansky says he wanted funds for research specifically “to be allocated to projects in Israel that have a high chance of success.” Furthermore, he adds, “I like the idea of giving to Weizmann not only because of the quality of the research but because it is connected to the history of Zionism.”

Sharansky was involved in the development of the idea of the prize when he was head of the Jewish Agency, and the idea was that the expectation is that the recipients would give away some of the prize money. Previous recipients include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Hollywood actor Michael Douglas.

Tips on surviving isolation

“During corona-time, I’m connecting with Jewish communities all over the world as I always have kept in touch with them,” he says, adding jokingly: “Now, I’m giving them tips on how to survive in isolation.”

Sharansky is considered a hero among world Jewry for his nine years spent in Soviet prisons as a refusnik in the 1970s and 1980s. He served as Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency from 2009 to 2018, and is currently the Chairman of the Institute of the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.

“I was born in the Soviet Union and grew up with zero Jewish identity. I knew I was Jewish only because I felt the anti-Semitism; being Jewish was like a disease that we had to learn to live with,” he says. But, he adds, there was an expectation that Jews would excel in science or math, or in music. His pursuit was math. “Before I became a Zionist, math was the ivory tower in which I planned to hide.”

Sharansky was deeply influenced by Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet nuclear physicist who became a dissident and human rights and peace activist who was against nuclear proliferation, and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. In particular, Sharansky was moved by the physicist’s 1968 essay that he sent to Soviet leadership, (“Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom”) on the value of intellectual freedom, saying without freedom of thought the country would never be a scientific superpower.

Another pivotal moment came during a visit of Israeli scientists to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It was then that Sharanksy and other refusniks met Prof. Aryeh Dvoretsky, who was President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities at the time. He later went on to become the President of the Weizmann Institute, from 1985 to 1988. At this meeting, Prof. Dvoretsky gave a lecture about the role of Israeli scientists in developing desert agriculture in Israel, and nuclear research.

Recalls Sharanksy: “Israel was not yet a start-up nation, but it was important for us as scientists-refusniks to know that Israel was connected to science, because science was our first motherland. Then Zionism became our motherland.”

Fast-forward to today. Sharansky says that while he’s concerned about the connection of Diaspora Jews to Israel in general, and the cancellation of many programs bringing Diaspora Jews to Israel, he believes that at the same time the pandemic “reminds people of the value of identity, in a very strong way.” Meanwhile, he adds, with all the criticism of Israel’s political system, Israel is largely doing well by its people in this crisis.

The gift to the Weizmann Institute is administered by Matan-United Way.