Natan Sharansky was a childhood hero of mine. Though his struggle was not in my generation, I grew up on the stories my US-born father told of the activism and demonstrations for Soviet Jewry. In 1977, when the campaign to free Soviet Jewry was gaining momentum, my father was sent to Russia to make contact with Soviet Jews and offer them both material and emotional help.
As new immigrants to Israel, my parents traveled by bus from Jerusalem to Ben-Gurion Airport to stand in the crowd to welcome Sharansky just hours after he was released from prison, on the historic February 11, 1986, night he landed in Israel – the place he had fought so hard to reach.
Thirty-three years later, I found myself sitting in a classroom at Shalem College in Jerusalem, listening to Sharansky deliver a riveting course of lectures.
The former prisoner of Zion presented his unbelievable personal history, highlighting the important moments. Very quickly, my fellow students and I realized that he was not just telling his story, but a doctrine born of the Russian prison cells where he sat in solitary confinement, as an inspirational struggle for the freedom of the Jewish people and all of humanity.
It is a deeply philosophical and well-thought out doctrine whose main premise is based on two concepts: freedom and identity. Sharansky believes these two ideas are the most essential and important values to which human beings should strive. He showed us how he applied them in a variety of scenarios, from the fight of dissidents in the former Soviet Union to his work as a minister in the Israeli government.
Sharansky is convinced that these concepts apply to people around the world, particularly those who have no freedom. Most importantly is how they apply to democracy, the form of government Sharansky passionately supports and advocates. Sharansky challenged us to see how European and Western civilization are giving up their identity, while other civilizations in the Middle East, which surround the State of Israel, have given up on freedom. He argues that it is a universal struggle to achieve both of these values, and he thinks that the miracle of Israel brings both these concepts together in one nation state.
On June 11, the prisoner of Zion became a Guardian of Zion, the 23rd annual recipient of the prestigious prize from Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Jewish Studies and the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies.
Born in Donetsk, Ukraine, the 71-year-old was a leader in the struggle to free Soviet Jews and in the human rights movement, and served nine years in prison on trumped-up charges of high treason. He was released following massive public campaigns led by his wife, Avital, and political leaders in the West, and made aliyah on the day he was freed.
In Israel, he was a founding editor of The Jerusalem Report in 1990, and formed a political party called Yisrael B’Aliyah in 1996, delving into politics for nine years and serving as a minister in four Israeli governments.
Later he served as chairman of the Jewish Agency from 2009 to 2018, seeking to bridge the growing rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry and negotiating the famous “Kotel deal” for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall that was ultimately frozen by the government.
He wrote three seminal books – Fear No Evil, The Case for Democracy with Ambassador Ron Dermer, and Defending Identity – and was awarded the United States’ two highest civilian honors, the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as the Israel Prize.
“Mr. Sharansky was awarded the Israel Prize Lifetime Achievement Award for promoting aliyah and the ingathering of exiles,” the Guardian of Zion Award committee noted. “He remains a champion of the right of all people to live in freedom.”
His acceptance speech covered many topics, among them his love and connection to the Land of Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, where he and Avital raised their two daughters, Rachel and Hannah, who are now married with their own children.
In his speech, “How to Make Sure that Jerusalem Unites Us as Israelis and as Jews, and Doesn’t Divide Us,” Sharansky said that Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora, and now that it belongs to the Jewish people after 2,000 years in exile, it must never be relinquished again.
He recalled that on July 14, 1978, he told the Soviet court before being sentenced, “For more than 2,000 years, the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now, when I am further than ever from my people, facing arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’”
He believes that every Jew should feel at home in a democratic and free Israel, especially in Jerusalem, which should be a unifying rather than a divisive factor among the Jewish people.
He also spoke of the rising threat of antisemitism.
“Our enemies who hate us as Jews or Israelis are very dangerous,” he noted at the Guardian of Zion dinner at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. “The hate comes from both left and the right. Jews must face the threat together or our disagreements will become so big that we are blind to antisemitism.”
Upon receiving the award, Sharansky graciously agreed to an interview with The Report. Having headed the Jewish Agency for nine years, he is well versed in the relationship between the Jewish state and the Diaspora Jewish community, and was happy to share his take on this relationship as well as other issues. In his typical modest way, we met for the intimate interview in a small office in the Jewish Agency.
Recognizing that both communities are complex and have a variety of opinions and internal differences, can you pinpoint the differences between young Jews in Israel and young Jews in the Diaspora? What are their similarities and how do they differ?
First of all, we both have the sippur (the story). This defines the unbreakable connections between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. That’s why the Six Day War was such a powerful point of meeting for Russian Jews. The picture of the three soldiers near the Kotel (David Rubinger’s iconic picture of the paratroopers at the Western Wall) was when we (in Russia) started looking into our history. I realized how powerful it was, and that was why my last words at my sentencing in Russia were, “Next year in Jerusalem.” There is something that connects you to the thousands of years of history. That is this unbelievable sippur; this is the common denominator of these communities.
The message of a common story is what Sharansky gave to the many emissaries the Jewish Agency sends to countries around the world: to remind Jews everywhere that what binds our people and defines our most basic ethnic background is that there is a story common to both.
Relating to the differences between the communities in Israel and the Diaspora, Sharansky says the Israeli Jew is the only Jew who doesn’t suffer from “double thinking” – he will never be pointed out as a “Jew”; his “Jewishness” will never be under scrutiny like that of Diaspora Jews; and he will always be freer to express his opinions and identity. In that sense, the Israeli Jew is the freest Jew in the world.
I have met young Jews throughout the world – some affiliated with organizations such as “If Not Now,” “Students for Justice for Palestine” and just ordinary progressive Jews – who feel that the Jewish State is a threat to their Judaism. How do you respond to that?
Those who say this need to ask themselves, “What is this, Judaism?” To many of them the answer is tikkun olam (fixing the world) – “I fear for the people of Africa, therefore I am a practicing Jew.” The moment someone says that, I always answer, “I have no problem with tikkun olam, I support it. But if any of you want there to be people who will take care of Africa in 20 years, you must make sure that there will be Jews in 20 years.” We must be honest: Judaism that is not linked to tradition or having Israel in its heart, in all likelihood, will not produce Jewish grandchildren.
These Jews want to enjoy the fruits of Judaism, but if there isn’t a physical basis for that Judaism, there can be no survival. That physical base is Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people. In the long term, there won’t be any Judaism without Israel, and therefore there will be no tikkun olam from within a Jewish context.
That’s why the dialogue must continue. We have the task to remind them that you cannot separate body and spirit. In order for the spirit of the Jewish people to thrive, it must have a body and that body is the Nation-State that cares for the physical well-being and survival of the Jewish people. Those who say that Israel is the problem with their Judaism are like an old man who says he has a problem with his body. And as with your body, you must write the spirit of the Jewish people.
One of our most important projects in the Jewish Agency was sending emissaries to college campuses, as that is where the biggest identity crisis is happening. That is where we hear of distancing yourself from Israel. These are the messages that should be conveyed within the framework of that dialogue.
Do you believe one can have a Jewish identity without Israel being part of it?
First of all, it is a fact that there was such a Judaism that survived and built itself up and sometimes thrived for a very long time. However, its physical survival was always in doubt and under constant attack. The Holocaust proved once and for all that a physical survival of Judaism in the Diaspora is simply impossible.
In Israel, the terms “Jew” and “Israeli” are inseparable. The State of Israel in many ways enables the confidence of Diaspora Jews in their cultural identity. The fact is that the majority of young Jews today live in Israel. Therefore Jews of the Diaspora have a duty to either be connected to tradition or Israel. It is hard to see a Judaism that is not connected to at least one of them surviving the complexity of our time.
Looking at world trends such as intersectionality on college campuses and identity politics that has taken control of almost all debate on campus, what do you see as Israel’s role to assure that in our political strategy, we don’t widen the gap that is at times created between Israel and Jews at large?
Israel has a double responsibility. First of all, the main responsibility of Israel is to build Israel. That’s what changed Jewish history. Israel is correct in feeling she is on the right side of Jewish history by building in Jerusalem, something Jews could not do for thousands of years. In addition, Israel’s mission is to be the home for all the Jews of the world. Masa program students found that no matter what their political view, they would find someone in Israel who supports it. So while some are critical that Israel is not a Jewish state, others criticize that it is a halachic state. Some criticize us, saying that Israelis are failing as guardians of the land of Israel, whereas others feel Israel doesn’t care about peace.
With all this criticism, everyone understands that Israel is a tremendous treasure. Israelis are those who are creating, keeping and defending this treasure. If we decide that we are only for the people who live here, then we are simply colonialists. We are no different than the white people in South Africa. Viewing ourselves as having a historical right to the land, we must make it a home for all the Jewish people. We can’t say to people, “We welcome you, but not your community, synagogue or prayer.” It has nothing to do with the Chief Rabbinate or Halacha, but Israel as a state has to be open to all these communities, to all Jews, and to people of other religions too.
You have said that the way to differentiate legitimate criticism of Israel from classic antisemitism is the “3D test” (delegitimization of Israel, demonization of Israel, and subjecting Israel to double-standards). Can you discuss criticism of Israel today – whether the situation has worsened, or has Israel’s strategic place in the world improved?
Israel is much more self-confident. This is important because we can explain why they are wrong. The ideal national state was negative for post nationalism, post-modernism and multiculturalism. It was only a matter of time until Israel became a target. Our enemies use this against us. Antisemitism has new platforms and opportunities to reach new circles that were never antisemitic in the past, and to use them in their fight for the destruction of Israel. That is where our challenge is. They are trying to encourage, for example, liberals of Europe. They were the closest friends of Jews. How are they becoming such strong critics of Israel? Because it was natural for them to be critical of the country with the strong identity. Antisemitism is much more sophisticated and has adjusted itself.
You are one of the strongest advocates of freedom and democracy in the world. Do you believe it is in decline?
The desire to be free is permanent. Everything is developing in spirals because of the two deep desires of mankind: to be free and to belong. In every generation in history there are those who believe that identity is so important that they must erase democracy, or alternatively, some believe that freedom is so important that identity must be erased. I think that Jewish Israel is the best example of maintaining both.
Sharansky defines himself as a dissident – he was one in Soviet Russia, and continued to be one as a politician. Toward the end of the interview I asked, “Since you spent nine years in prison, nine in the Israeli government and nine as the head of the Jewish Agency, can you tell me which period was the most difficult?” I believe he was serious when he replied that “politics was certainly the hardest.” As a man used to living by pure ideology, he could not reconcile himself to the need to compromise his ideology in order to achieve a political goal.
As we wrapped up, I thought of one moment that epitomizes this special man. In the last class of his course at Shalem College, the students handed him a thank you letter and said what an honor it was to study with him.
He was visibly moved and said he planned to show the letter to Avital. The man who had received decorations from presidents and prime ministers and now from Bar-Ilan University is still excited by small moments in life, and direct contact with the future generation of Israel.
Natan Sharansky is a hero of my parents’ generation, and a symbol for my generation as he leads us through the complex path of freedom and identity. Matan Dansker, 26, is an international lecturer and serves as a content consultant on behalf of “SpeakUp,” a company he founded. He writes for The Jerusalem Report and The Jerusalem Post, as well as Maariv and Makor Rishon in Hebrew
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