By David M. Herszenhorn, The New York Times
June 26, 2012
A charity founded by Russian Jewish billionaires is establishing a $1 million annual award for excellence in virtually any field, to honor those people who attribute their success to Jewish values. The prize will be administered in partnership with the Israeli government, highlighting the strong ties between Israel and Russia.
The award, called the Genesis Prize, will be financed by an endowment of about $50 million set up by three of Russia’s so-called oligarchs: Mikhail M. Fridman, Pyotr Aven and German Khan, among others. Its creation was announced on Tuesday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, where President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was wrapping up a 24-hour visit, though Mr. Putin did not attend the announcement event.
The award is among a widening number of accolades that come with a seven-figure purse, including the Nobel Prizes; the Templeton Prize, for contributions to religion and spiritual life; and the Shaw Prizes, for astronomy, medicine and mathematics.
But the new prize also sends an inevitable political message, which its originators say is unintended.
Despite differences over how to deal with Iran and Syria, Mr. Putin is viewed as a strong friend of Israel, which has a large Russian immigrant population.
“It’s just one of the signs of the good relations between Israel and Russia in general,” said Dmitry Maryasis, a senior research fellow on Israel at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. “We can say a lot of things about the present-day government, but one thing we can tell for sure is they are not anti-Semites.”
Emphasizing Russia’s good rapport with Israel and Cyprus, which also has a large Russian-speaking diaspora, has become increasingly important to the Kremlin, given its eroding influence elsewhere in the Middle East. That sway is likely to diminish even further should the government of President Bashar al-Assad fall in Syria.
Mr. Fridman, Mr. Aven and Mr. Khan are shareholders in the Alfa Group, a Russian corporate behemoth with interests in banking, oil, gas, insurance, telecommunications, insurance and retail. They are also known for close connections to Mr. Putin and the Russian government.
In 2007, together with two associates, Alexander Knaster and Stan Polovets, they established the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a foundation that promotes Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide.
To underscore that there were no political motives, creators of the Genesis Prize said Mr. Fridman had first raised the idea about three years ago with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and later Israeli politician, who is now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The agency will play a large role in administering the award, with Mr. Sharansky as the nomination committee chairman. The selection committee will be led by the speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, and include two retired Israeli Supreme Court justices. The winner will be announced each year at the residence of the Israeli president.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Sharansky said the award would recognize the role of Jewish identity in encouraging universal achievements.
“All my life I had to prove again and again that there is no contradiction between a desire to contribute to universal values and your desire to be part of your tribe or your identity,” he said. “What gives your life value, what gives you strength to fight for universal values is your identity.”
The Genesis Philanthropy Group’s chief executive, Mr. Polovets, said Mr. Putin’s trip provided a convenient opportunity to schedule the announcement because some of the award’s Russian sponsors were in Israel for the visit.
But, Mr. Polovets said, the prize was developed without political motivations.
“From our perspective, there is no political angle whatsoever,” he said. “All of our activities are strictly focused on educational, cultural issues — as apolitical as you can get.”
Some of Mr. Putin’s own ties to Israel have been personal. His boyhood teacher of German, a language in which Mr. Putin is fluent, is Jewish and left the Soviet Union for Israel, where they were reacquainted in 2005 during Mr. Putin’s first official visit.
Mr. Maryasis, the research fellow in Moscow, said the award would still be seen as underscoring a geopolitical friendship. “It’s an important symbol,” he said, “to say we are O.K. with Israel.”