Struggle for freedom was also struggle for identity

From politics to persona

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky remembers with clarity the day the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago. "It was like watching magic," says the former dissident, who spent more than 10 years in a Soviet prison after campaigning for his right to leave the Communist regime and emigrate to Israel. "I remember feeling ecstatic - it was a great victory and it was a powerful feeling." He adds, "For me, the day the Berlin Wall fell marked the victory of two simultaneous world wars - the Cold War between East and West and the war between dictatorship and freedom." Sharansky also says that the fall of the wall was a pivotal event in allowing Jews in the Former Soviet Union to freely practice their religious beliefs. "As well as a war for democracy, it was also a battle for the identity of Soviet Jewry," comments Sharansky, who in the 1980s championed the Refusenik movement for Jewish freedom. "Some people told me I had to choose between universal values or nationalistic ones," he says. "But I refused. I wanted to fight for both because I felt them very closely connected. "The Soviets tried to erase people's identities because they thought these identities would be dangerous to the regime, but fighting for the right to have these identities was exactly the same as fighting for freedom." After years of struggle, to the point of embarrassing the Soviet government, Sharansky become one of the first Jews to leave the Communist bloc and make aliya. In 1986, he was released to East Germany and led across the Glienicke Bridge to West Berlin, where he was exchanged for a pair of Soviet spies. Sharansky was told upon his release to walk straight toward his freedom but in an act of final defiance he walked in a zigzag. It took several more years for Communism to fall completely, he points out, adding that Eastern Europe's separation from Soviet-dominated dogma has been a long and complicated process. "Even after the Berlin Wall came down, it was not easy for the countries to move forward," observes Sharansky. "Institutions of freedom are not built in one day. People had been living in total fear for decades and there were still five million people working for the KGB." Sharansky, who has served for the past decade in various governmental roles, says he strongly disagrees with comparisons made between the Berlin Wall and Israel's controversial separation barrier. "The Berlin Wall was the division between freedom and human rights on one side and those who were not free to think for themselves on the other," he counters. "Israel's anti-terrorist barrier is to divide between those who want to live and those who want to kill. This barrier can be crossed every day by thousands of people as long as they don't have explosives on their bodies." - R.E.