2020 Genesis Prize Laureate Natan Sharansky speaking at the "Freedom Sunday" march for Soviet Jews that was held on December 6, 1987 in Washington, D.C.

The impact of Sharansky’s human rights work reaches far beyond the Jewish world. As a member of the Helsinki Group, he advocated on behalf of all oppressed ethnicities, religions and individuals. When challenged by some Jewish activists, who suggested his fight for Jewish emigration would be more effective if he gave up his “non-Jewish” political work, Sharansky said he saw no difference or conflict between these causes. Nor did he believe that freedom for Soviet Jews was possible without general political freedom.

Sharansky’s strength of conviction, his refusal to think as ordered proved toxic to the regime: even in prison, he remained mentally free, and therefore dangerous.

Sharansky’s release in 1986 proved to be the first crack in the seemingly impenetrable Soviet monolith; soon to follow was the end of the Communist grasp on power, and a rapid, chaotic demise of the Soviet colossus. Sharansky, together with other dissidents, played a key role in bringing about this demise by depriving the Soviet system of its moral authority, defying its thought control, and ratcheting up international pressure on the USSR.  

Sharansky published three books detailing his political philosophy, forged in his experience as a human rights activist and tested by years of imprisonment.

He is an ardent proponent of political freedom and the author of the Sharansky Town Square Test: “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a "fear society" has finally won their freedom…”

Sharansky also emphasizes the importance of a strong sense of personal identity. A sense of belonging to the Jewish people and connection to his Jewish roots gave him strength to overcome oppression, and retain inner freedom even in Soviet prison. A similar sense of identity, belonging to something larger than the self, argues Sharansky, is just as necessary for people living in a free political system: to belong is to have meaning.

“Identity without democracy is totalitarian; democracy without identity is weak and self-betraying. Rather than being implacably opposed to each other, identity and democracy demand each other.”

Like David who stood up to Goliath, Sharansky remains for all who cherish freedom of thought, speech and conscience. He is a living example of how inner freedom and strength of conviction renders impotent an oppressive system.