Natan Sharansky 521.
(photo credit: Reuters)
On December 6, 1987, on the eve of the summit between Soviet premier Mikhail
Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan, newly released refusenik Natan
Sharansky addressed 250,000 demonstrators in the National Mall in Washington,
calling for the release of Soviet Jewry. It was a critical point in the opening
of Soviet borders to emigration to Israel and the subsequent exodus of over one
million Soviet Jews.
A quarter of a century later, Sharansky, now the
head of the Jewish Agency, says the lessons of that march and the events that
led up to it continue to hold true: In the struggle for freedom, don’t wait for
the opportune moment; stick to what you believe in and hold firm.
have to stick to your principles and then you can succeed,” Sharansky says, his
eyes burning with unquenchable intensity.
“If every time you try and
figure out whether it’s the right time to stick to your principles, then nothing
Sharansky had to push against skepticism that American
Jewry could mobilize such numbers. He was told that it would not be possible to
bring in hundreds of thousands of people to DC and that he would go back to
Israel, where he had moved after his release in a dramatic spy swap in February
1986, leaving the Jewish organizations putting on the march looking like fools
for publicly stating they could achieve such a huge turnout.
of one of the major organizations told him that they couldn’t deliver hundreds
of thousands, but they could bring in 100 senators. A student leader said to
him: “Look, we cannot deliver hundreds of thousands, but we can deliver 100
rabbis who will be arrested in front of the Soviet Embassy. They’ll chain
themselves or something.
So let’s think in these terms.”
was not what he had in mind.
Sharansky says that he believed it was
important to show Gorbachev that this was not just political lobbying; that it
was the will of the American people and would not be changed.
another obstacle that had to be overcome on the way: the fear that with America
ready to embrace Gorbachev and his reformist agenda, the Jews would be seen as
going against the US.
Sharansky managed to get a meeting with Reagan, who
had maintained contact with Sharansky’s wife, Avital, while he was imprisoned in
a Soviet labor camp. In their conversation, Sharansky didn’t ask for Reagan’s
blessing – as, he says, if he hadn’t given it, the march would have proceeded
regardless – but he explained that it should not be seen as a criticism of the
president’s policies. Reagan stopped him in his tracks: “You do everything that
you want to do,” the president said. “And I’ll do what I have to do to bring
When Reagan met with Gorbachev, a 250,000-strong army of
students and housewives had marched on DC for Freedom Sunday. The president told
his Soviet counterpart, “We cannot build our friendship while you keep people in
Today, says Sharansky, everyone agrees that this was the last
step in the struggle to release Soviet Jewry. Within two years, the gates had
opened and one million Jews were on their way to Israel. Four years later, the
Soviet Union ceased to exist.
SO WHAT has changed in the interim in which
Sharansky has gone from refusenik to Israeli politician and minister, serving
over two decades in the Knesset, to his current job as chairman of the Jewish
Agency? While there are still Jews in some countries who need rescuing, says
Sharansky, today 94 percent of world Jewry lives in the free world and the
challenge boils down to one of identity.
Combating assimilation and the
delegitimization of Israel, which he describes as the two main challenges facing
the Jewish people today, comes down to creating a sense of identity. The way to
create that identity, Sharansky says, is to create a connection with Israel
through programs such as Birthright and Masa, which bring Jewish youth to the
country – Birthright on 10-day tours and Masa for as long as a
World Jewry needs Israel for its identity, says Sharansky, and
world Jewry is Israel’s best ally. The relationship between the two has evolved,
he explains. If in the past the relationship was one of mutual dependence,
today, he says, it is one of mutual interdependence.
understand that they need each other. World Jewry understands that even if they
don’t want to make aliya, if they want their children to be Jewish, they need
Israel. And Israel understands that in our struggle for our right to be Jewish,
we need Jewish people on our side.”
Sharansky rejects criticism that he
has moved the focus of the agency away from aliya. He says this is a
“It’s true that I say that identity is the core, but that
doesn’t mean that I’m saying aliya is not important. I strongly believe in
aliya. I fought all my life for my aliya and the aliya of other people. But I
say that in today’s free world, aliya is not a question of being rescued; aliya
is a question of free choice.”
The way to bring people to make aliya,
insists Sharansky, is by strengthening their connection with Israel, with
community and with Jewish roots. Israel and the Jewish Agency, he says, should
see their obligation as being in strengthening that connection.
people will not make aliya, but will become very active in their community; some
people will become active in defending Israel and some people will do nothing,
but they will make sure their children grow up Jewish. It’s all one process,” he
says. Of course, he adds, once someone decides to make aliya, they need to
receive help. There are also Jewish communities that are in danger, and the
agency and Israel need to be prepared and ready to rescue them.
Sharansky says, this is a very small group of people and it would be a mistake
to focus solely on them. That, he warns, could lead Israel to miss the 95% of
world Jewry that is in danger of assimilation.
“If you simply come to
people and say ‘make aliya, make aliya,’ it will not bring one additional Jew
from the free world, and at the same time we are missing a much bigger point –
how to bring them closer to us.”
While aliya figures remain steady at
around 18,000 a year, Sharansky is optimistic about the impact of identity
programs such as Birthright and Masa. “The percentage of young people who are
deciding to make aliya after their Israeli experience is growing,” he
With Knesset elections around the corner, I ask Sharansky if he is
considering a return to politics. “Oh, no,” he replies, “that’s one thing I can
tell you with certainty that I won’t do. As I said to Bibi [Netanyahu] four
years ago when he asked if I was interested in going back into the Knesset with
him, ‘I was in prison nine years and nine years in the Israeli government, I
think it’s enough.’”