Zionist icon Sharansky marks 30 years of freedom from Soviet prison

Sharansky was regarded at the time as a symbol by everyone — the political left and right, religious and secular.

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February 11, 2016 03:27
4 minute read.
Sharansky

THEN PRIME MINISTER Shimon Peres greets newly released Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky at Ben-Gurion Airport where he was flown from Germany after being freed from a Soviet prison, exactly 30 years ago on Thursday or February 11, 1986.. (photo credit: GPO)

 
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Thursday marks 30 years since Jewish Agency chairman and world famous Soviet refusenik Natan “Anatoly” Sharansky won his freedom from a Soviet prison as part of an East-West spy swap and made his way to Israel, after years of international efforts to secure his release.

Sharansky, 68, has most recently been active in helping to bridge gaps between Diaspora and Israeli Jews, such as a compromise he helped broker last month to resolve disputes over Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox prayers held at the Western Wall.

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He made aliya in 1986 and following the subsequent mass immigration of Soviet Jews, founded the Yisrael B’Aliya party (which later merged with the Likud) to represent his countrymen in a new land. He also served in several ministerial positions, including Diaspora affairs.

Sharansky’s intellectual influence both within Israel and abroad has spread further thanks to the publication of his book “The Case for Democracy,” which he co-wrote with the current ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and won endorsement by former US president George W. Bush.

The book called for a foreign policy based on the promotion of democracy, and his “3Ds” definition of anti-Semitism has become the standard test among Jews for determining appropriateness for critiques of their state.

The Ukrainian native was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki dissident group in Moscow and a leading figures in the fight to allow Soviet Jews to make aliya. His own application was denied for “security reasons” and in 1977 he was accused by state papers of working for American intelligence, leading to his arrest and imprisonment.

In a statement after his sentencing, Sharansky famously stated that “to the court I have nothing to say – to my wife and the Jewish people I say “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

He was sentenced to 13 years but was freed after nine as part of a wider swap deal involving Soviet bloc countries and the United States, after a worldwide campaign on his behalf led by his wife, Avital Sharansky. He was flown right away to a hero’s welcome in Israel.

Sharansky was regarded at the time as a symbol by everyone — the political left and right, religious and secular.

He later recalled that for days and weeks after his arrival he was not able to sleep at night, fearing his newfound freedom was only a dream.

“I was afraid I would fall asleep and then wake up and be back in my cell,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2006.

Sharansky later came to advocate more right-wing politics, and resigned from the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government over a 2005 Gaza withdrawal.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom winner has also been involved in the promotion of aliya, and has served as JA chairman since 2009, overseeing a reorganization there. Under his leadership, the agency’s aliya department ceased to exist as a standalone unit and merged with other departments.

The agency has also shifted much of its focus to promoting Jewish identity abroad – a prerequisite for aliya from the West, Sharansky believes.

His high standing among Jews of various political and religious streams, both in Israel and abroad, led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint him as mediator of a dispute over non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall. In 2013, Sharansky suggested building an additional egalitarian section at the site, a proposal which the sides have lately agreed to pursue.

In his endeavors to bring Diaspora and Israeli Jews closer together he has held talks with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Federations of North America to establish a government-funded initiative to promote Jewish identity abroad.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post in 2014, Sharansky decried the mutual “paternalism” he believes both sides have shown toward each other. He thought it was “very important and in the interests of Israel to have a strong Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”

Bar Ilan University history professor Dr. Anna Geifman, a specialist on Soviet Jews, said Sharansky served as an example to both Jews within the communist empire and around the world due to the way in which he stood up for his beliefs.

Because of him people “knew that it was possible to beat the system,” Geifman said.

“He remained who he was and free even under the most non-free of circumstances- he remained himself. The way he did it was that he was not prepared to compromise on anything,” she said, recalling how he went on a hunger strike when his jailers took away Book of Psalms.

“What people learned from this was that physical freedom is a great thing and important but its not all. [A person] can be free in so many different ways and long as he or she remains him or herself.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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