It is difficult to think of an individual who better embodies the arc of Jewish history over the past 75 years than Natan Sharansky.
Born on January 20, 1948, in a Jewish home in Ukraine in which Jewishness centered on experiences of antisemitism and a drive to excel, Sharansky discovered what he calls his dual desires “to be free and to belong” as he became more keenly aware of Israel during the Six Day War.
It was his human rights activism, as well as his desire to immigrate to Israel, that got him thrown into a Soviet prison on charges of high treason. His name became a rallying cry for the movement to free Soviet Jewry, and his image appeared on placards, banners and buttons, as Jews and their allies around the world called for his release. In 1986, he was finally freed as part of a prisoner exchange and he immediately flew to Israel, where he was reunited with his wife, Avital.
Sharansky became an activist for Soviet aliyah and soon entered Israeli politics, establishing a political party and joining the Knesset. He held several senior ministerial posts and served as deputy prime minister under prime minister Ariel Sharon. In 2009, Sharansky was elected chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, a position he held for nine years. Today, Natan and Avital Sharansky live in Jerusalem. They have two daughters – Rachel and Hannah – and eight grandchildren.
I came to know Sharansky upon joining The Jewish Agency as a bright-eyed young staffer in 2011. As my supervisor was going through the list of people I ought to meet on my first day, he mentioned “Natan,” and I assumed he was referring to someone in our department. Imagine my surprise when he escorted me down the hall and into the office that once belonged to David Ben-Gurion to meet a personal and national hero. In time, I became Sharansky’s spokesperson, accompanying him on visits throughout Israel and around the world and witnessing his interactions with all manner of people, from prime ministers and Jewish communal leaders to new olim (immigrants) and gap year students. What I saw was a man of tremendous integrity, whose values and convictions inform everything he does and whose deep humility is often at odds with his towering stature in the Jewish world.
As we considered who would best reflect on Israel’s 75 years, the choice was clear – and not only because he and Israel are the same age. Sharansky’s personal journey reflects that of the Jewish people, and the centrality of Israel in his life and Jewish identity mirrors the experiences of so many Jews around the world. The personal and collective are interwoven throughout this interview, as they are in his life, and his insights on this pivotal moment in Israel’s history are marked by his distinctly Israeli mix of concern and hope.
Israel is 75, and you’re 75. Tell me what it feels like to be 75 and how you view Israel at this age.
You know what? During my mother’s time, it was very, very difficult for Soviet Jews. Stalinists campaigned against Jews. [Russian Yiddish actor Solomon] Mikhoels was killed a week before I was born [on January 13], and then I was born. My mother said the first encouraging thing was that I was born because there was a lot of fear.
She knew very little about Israel. She could only guess that Mikhoels was brutally killed and not involved in a car accident. Her feelings were very strong, and she was right.
Her baby was born in her bedroom and now, 75 years later, I don’t compare because we have many things that irritate us – like all this polarization; but if you think about the most encouraging things that give you confidence in your future and the future of the world, it’s the existence of the State of Israel. I can understand better, with every year, the feelings of my mother.
You have spoken quite a bit about how you discovered your Jewish identity and desire for freedom in tandem. How do you feel that Israel has contributed to that sense of freedom and identity since you discovered it?
The existence of Israel and, in a way, the existence of the Jewish people is the best demonstration of the importance of these two basic desires of people – to be free and to belong – and shows how they can empower one another. The Jewish people got their identity and their freedom at the same time, when they left Egypt. In Exodus, the first time they are mentioned as a people, with a very clear identity as a nation, was when they left Egypt. It was Pharaoh who first called them “Am” [a people], and they also got freedom and a clear identity at Mount Sinai.
And for a thousand years, what were we fighting for? For our right to live freely in accordance with our identity. And then Israel was established. It could not be created as a non-Jewish state and it would never have succeeded in gathering all the Jews if not for its freedom. And I believe that all our internal fights are around how to keep a balance between our freedom and our identity. If you look at this current period, it seems very problematic; but if you look from the perspective of someone 75 years ago or 2,000 years ago, we have every reason to be optimistic.
There is no other nation or any other state which embodies the strength of this connection. And if you look at history and compare us with Israel 50 years ago, we have much more freedom and much more identity. We have far more of a Jewish and democratic state, so that’s the direction we’re heading in. Unfortunately, today there are so many fights between those who say that because of our identity and the importance of the Jewish state, we have to undermine the principles of democracy and vice versa. It’s only an illusion. Our history and our triumphs are the best proof of how important it is for these two things to go together.
You often discuss how a connection to Israel is one of the most important elements of contemporary Jewish identity, particularly for younger people. Can you speak about why that is? How did you come to that realization and what does that look like today?
Well, first of all, it came from my own experience. I grew up having zero connection with anything Jewish except through antisemitism. So all your desires to succeed professionally and personally in spite of being a Jew mean there’s no way you’re ready to fight. You know that there is no freedom and you live under permanent self-censorship and it was very uncomfortable. But the question is ‘Will you fight for it?’
It was Israel that came in a very powerful way to the center of our life, from the Six-Day War, and it allowed us to discover our identity, that we have a history, we are a people and we have a state. That gave us the strength to fight for our Jewish rights and for a better world.
I have had a lot of conversations with young people. I have visited more than 100 universities globally. I said 20-something years ago to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon that the most important battle for the future of the Jewish people is on the campuses of American universities.
Everybody wants tikkun olam [repairing the world]. If you don’t want tikkun olam, you’re probably not Jewish. But when people simply want tikkun olam without any identity, and you have no power and your life is decadent, your life is very shallow. Look at how all these Birthright kids – whose bar mitzvah was the last time they’ve had a connection to being Jewish – suddenly discover that it’s cool and even interesting to live inside history. It makes their struggle for the world very different. Suddenly, they have energy, meaning and understanding.
All my experience shows that in our age of assimilation, the good, successful life of Jews in modern society contributes to assimilation and the strength of the united force of antisemitism from Left and Right also contributes to assimilation. In this age, there is no better way to quickly give Jews a brief injection of the importance and meaning of discovering their Jewish identity than coming to Israel.
The same can be said about the Jews of Israel, who very often lose the importance of being Jewish and say, ‘We are Israeli.’ They can also benefit from encounters with world Jewry. It humbles them. That’s why, when I was the head of The Jewish Agency, I always believed that the most important things were Israel Experience programs [for Diaspora Jewry] and our shlichim [emissaries] abroad.
When you look at Israel today, what worries you?
What worries me is that we’re starting to speak less and less to one another. There are a few factors behind this phenomenon. First of all, there was post-modernism, which made it clear that there was no absolute, no morality and so to unite a nation around some absolute truth was very problematic – some people deny their identity. And so a counter to this was the rise of populism and populist parties, which claim ‘We are right and they are wrong.’
Then, of course, there is the Internet, where everybody has their own Facebook account and people say, ‘Don’t look at my Facebook and I won’t look at yours.’ Now we have this progressive Woke movement, where every nation is divided into oppressors and oppressed and where people say, ‘Don’t tell me we’re one nation.’
All of this together has brought polarization all over the world, especially in America and Europe. As always, it comes later to Israel because we have a much stronger, healthier society, but two, three or five years after it becomes the world’s problem, it becomes ours too.
For Israel, it’s much more dangerous because we’re a young nation, which means there are no books teaching how to bring people together from 150 different nations after 3,000 years, during which some of us didn’t even talk to one another, and how to turn us into one nation. Ben-Gurion was skeptical about the melting pot process, but Herzl happened to be right.
He spoke of the importance of Moses’ mosaic, which means we’re all different but together we can form a nation. That’s why here when different parts of the mosaic stop talking to one another, the process of dismantling can accelerate. That’s why we make decisions together. Of course, the army helped a lot to have this kind of melting pot because we could not afford a real melting pot and we have to remain a mosaic.
That’s why, of course, I’m concerned about the situation today. Someone posted on social media that whether the government’s legal reforms will be fully implemented – which I hope will not happen – or whether the reforms will be fully denied – which I hope will not happen either – both of these problems are much less prominent than the real issue of us not talking to one another, not knowing how to find a compromise with one another.
A few days ago, I had a really inspiring experience. There is an initiative started by a mother who lost her two children and said she really wanted people to start a dialogue and have meetings with one another. One of my daughters was involved.
They planned meetings with a lot of people who participated in different demonstrations, for and against the reforms. In all of these demonstrations, everybody carries the Israeli flag, so you simply can’t tell one apart from another. I found out there is something very powerful when 20 to 25 people, among them the organizers of demonstrations against and organizers of demonstrations for reforms, people living in Beit El and people living in northern Tel Aviv, come together.
There was a lot of tension and a lot of pain and people felt insulted, but in the end, when we finished at midnight, nobody wanted to leave. I don’t think that people changed their beliefs, but everybody understood that they don’t have a monopoly on pain and on fear.
And I believe that if all of our people go through this process – talking it out and understanding that the other side also feels real pain and the other side is afraid of you just as you’re afraid of them – it can help a lot. After all, we have such a great state and when we’re all trying to enjoy and live deep, meaningful lives, talking to one another and not shouting at one another is when we will be strongest.
That’s one point of hope. What else makes you hopeful about Israel’s future?
The external factors prove my point about freedom and identity. Israeli families – Arab families and Jewish families – are bringing more children into this world, far more than any part of the Free World, and that cannot be an accident. Because practically every study in the last 15 years, I think, finds that Israelis believe tomorrow will be better than today. No study says tomorrow will be worse than today.
Israelis are very optimistic people, and that optimism doesn’t come from nowhere. I believe that the basis of this optimism is that people here have three basic desires: to be something bigger than yourself, to live with your identity, and to live in freedom.
It’s very difficult to have that in the Free World today, but we do have it in Israel. Our economy is doing better than practically any other economy. Of course, we are undermining this great achievement by not listening to one another. I have many criticisms of how they’re doing these reforms, but people go too far when they are ready to call Israel a dictatorship and compare us to Turkey or Russia or even the Nazis, saying things like ‘Hitler also came in a democratic way and look what he did and now they’re trying to do it in Israel.’
The struggle is legitimate, but delegitimizing Israel in this way is awful. That’s why I say that if the reforms are fully implemented, there are a few points that are dangerous; and if the reforms are not implemented at all, that’s also dangerous. Judges electing judges is problematic. But with all these dangers, the biggest danger is that we’ve stopped speaking to each other. That’s what is undermining our unique success in our economy and our unique success in defending ourselves.
[Senior Israeli officials] met recently with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky and I have close relations with Ukraine’s leaders because of the war, the memorial at Babyn Yar and other things. Even in a moment of tension, because they’re unhappy that Israel is not helping them by giving them weapons, they still say that they have to learn from Israel and live like Israel.
For so many years, from the very beginning, we have lived among those who want to destroy us and we’re very successful with our army, and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has done a lot of good, especially with the economy. That’s why it is so sad to see that we, including our leaders, are undermining this great heritage by simply not taking into account what the other side thinks and instead seeking to make broad compromises and reach a consensus.
Our readers know about your history – they know about your activism, your being a refusenik, your time in prison, in politics, in government and at The Jewish Agency. What are you doing now?
I have so many chairmanships! At this moment, as chairman of the Combat Antisemitism Movement board of advisers, I’m dealing with global antisemitism, which is something that’s very continuous. Combating antisemitism is not confined to any organization but is rather a movement that is trying to get the entire world to accept an international definition of antisemitism. This is a key for success and it’s very important because it’s dealing specifically with the academic side, which is where so much of this originates.
A seminal part of this is the shlichim [emissaries] of The Jewish Agency to the campuses and the Israel Fellows, a program I created after my first trip to the campuses and which, when I was head of The Jewish Agency, I expanded from just a few people to dozens at more than 100 universities.
I’m also chairman of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. Babyn Yar was the symbol of the Holocaust, the biggest graveyard of the Holocaust. Now we’re trying to turn it into the biggest Yad Vashem of Europe. It was very ambitious and not simple back then before the war and it’s even much more difficult today. It’s something I spend a lot of time on that gives me a lot of satisfaction.
In addition to this and the many other things I have today, I have eight grandchildren and that’s a very important success and I want to continue taking care of them. That is probably in the first place, not the last place.
And I understand you’re a marathon runner now.
I ran the family marathon in the last Jerusalem Marathon, which is two kilometers, for the first time. I ran with all my grandchildren – one of them is in a baby carriage – and both of my daughters, so it was really nice and I found it not so difficult.
But near us were people running the full 42.2 kilometers and we shouted out “Kol hakavod!” [Well done!] to them.
I thought, ‘What do I have to do to run 42 km.?’ So I made a plan: I will continue for two kilometers every day – it’s not so bad – and once a month, I’ll add 75 meters – also easy. I’ll make the full marathon exactly at the age of 120. So now I have a goal!
As we said at the beginning, Israel is 75 and you’re 75. What do you wish Israel on its birthday?
That we’ll run the marathon better than the rest of the world: 3,000 years, one people and there’s no end to this. That we’ll continue to be as successful as we want and that we’ll have enough air and enough strength in our muscles. We cannot let ourselves be number two – we always have to be number one. And I think we can do it.■