Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People

Natan Sharansky's memoir explores his struggles within the USSR, and during his Israeli political career.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky (second from right) and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein with actor Michael Douglas, receiving the 2015 Genesis Prize in Jerusalem. (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky (second from right) and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein with actor Michael Douglas, receiving the 2015 Genesis Prize in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
Born in 1948 in Donetsk, an industrial city in Ukraine, Anatoly Sharansky often encountered the phrase “he has a fifth-line problem” by the time he entered high school. Defining nationality on Soviet identity papers, the fifth line confirmed an individual as a Jew, implying he or she was unassimilable, disloyal and perhaps traitorous. Inspired by Leon Uris’ novel Exodus, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, and Andrei Sakharov’s manifesto on intellectual freedom, Sharansky became a refusenik and Soviet dissident. In 1977, he was arrested by the KGB and convicted of treason against the state.
In Never Alone, Sharansky and Gil Troy – a professor of history at McGill University, founder of the Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Program, and author, among other books, of Why I Am A Zionist and Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism As Racism – review and reflect on Sharansky’s extraordinary life.
Trained as a mathematician and enamored with symmetry, Sharansky divides the narrative into three nine-year periods: in the Gulag; in politics, including the establishment of Yisrael B’Aliyah and four stints as a cabinet minister; and as chairman of the Jewish Agency. With characteristic humor and candor, Sharansky confesses that he isn’t sure “where he suffered most.”
Never Alone provides a compelling explanation of Sharansky’s core principles. To belong and to be free, he maintains, are central to happiness, fulfillment and justice. To that end, according to Sharansky, the most pressing priorities for the Jews of Israel are building the state and engaging Jews in the Diaspora. Along with democrats around the world, Jews must tap the best of liberalism and nationalism and beat back their excesses (which these days are “powerful tides sweeping the world”) by engaging “more Zionists on the Left and more human rights liberals on the Right.”
Sharansky’s years in the Gulag constitute a profile in combativeness, conviction and courage. He communicated with other prisoners by emptying toilet bowls, sticking his head in them, and tapping out Morse code; endured solitary confinement; and staged a 110-day hunger strike. Refusing to acknowledge his “crimes” or request a pardon, he was unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Soviet regime by signing a request that he be released because of poor health. Freed in 1986, Sharansky contravened orders that he walk straight to his airplane and stay out of camera view by zigzagging across the tarmac.
Sharansky describes himself as a “bad politician.” Although he claims he laughs off most attacks on him as a right-winger, Sharansky acknowledges that he has “excellent credentials to fit the stereotype.” His list includes: criticism of the Oslo agreement, which put Palestinians at the mercy of Yasser Arafat, a corrupt dictator, instead of tying negotiations to the cultivation of democracy, a civil society and dissent; resignation from Ehud Barak’s government to oppose sacrificing Jerusalem “for a peace that was not going to come”; and resignation from Ariel Sharon’s government to challenge unilateral disengagement from Gaza, “which was destined to bring rocket fire to our homes.”
Appeals to equality, social justice and human rights, according to Sharansky, have duped Western liberals into considering peace as the highest value, to be achieved at “almost any price.” It’s worth noting that in Never Alone, Sharansky does not address allegations that Israel’s occupation of and settlements on disputed territories are obstacles to peace, except to declare that the prospect of “expelling 8,500 fellow Israelis from the homes the state had encouraged them to build, so that Palestinian leaders could establish the world’s largest missile launching pad there, was too much.... On that I could not compromise.” And Sharansky’s blast against “postmodernism” comes right out of the right-wing playbook.
Bridging the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews and promoting a greater understanding between Israeli and Diasporic Jews may well be the initiatives that best reflect Sharansky’s principles. He tried to broker a compromise on legislation defining the criteria for acceptable conversions to Judaism. He spent years negotiating an agreement on access to the Western Wall, only to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (his political ally) cave in to religious party pressure to save his governing coalition.
Only two sets of brakes, faith and Zionism, Sharansky insists, can counter assimilation (and a thinning Jewish identity in the United States and Western Europe). To that end, the Jewish Agency expanded Birthright to a $100-million program, bringing 45,000 young Jews to Israel each year. Masa and Onward Israel offer more than 200 choices for Diaspora Jews willing to spend extended periods of time in Israel. Partnership2Gether arranges cross-Atlantic collaborations on projects in welfare and medicine, and seminars on Jewish identity, past, present and future. Israel Fellows defend the Jewish state on many college campuses in the United States, in collaboration with local Hillel organizations.
These efforts, Sharansky writes, reflect “the great wisdom of uniting by talking.” Whether or not you agree with his politics, he is an exemplary model of the importance of finding your own voice, acting with integrity, speaking truth to power, and figuring out “how to be connected enough to defend your freedom and free enough to protect your identity.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People
By Natan Sharansky
and Gil Troy
Public Affairs
468 pages; $30