The mission of his life

Natan Sharansky, the world’s most famous Prisoner of Zion, is reveling in his latest challenge – keeping Jews Jewish

Natan Sharansky 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Natan Sharansky 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Natan Sharansky could live without his job as head of the Jewish Agency. Every other month he is disparaged from all sides – suspected of selling out his principles; charged with abandoning aliyah, the historic raison d’être of the Jewish Agency; and accused of grabbing big bucks for himself and senior staffers running the 83-year-old organization.
He certainly does not need the job to earn a living. When you are a best-selling author, four-time cabinet minister under three prime ministers (resigning under two of them), a former Prisoner of Zion and one-time national idol and icon, the lecture circuit beckons like a never-ending rock concert tour.
Indeed, in Jewish communities around the world, Sharansky is a rock star, a magnet for a certain generation smitten with the person for whose freedom so many of them fought. They simply love him.
“It’s interesting to see how the Americans absolutely get tongue-tied and all silly around him,” Stuart Schrader, a longtime employee of the Jewish Agency who has escorted Sharansky to meetings with fundraising missions from the US, tells The Jerusalem Report. “Snapping his picture, asking for a picture like he’s a superstar. Fascinating.”
Schrader says it’s not unusual to see people choke up while sharing their 25-year-old story of hosting meetings, raising money, and meeting with bigwigs to persuade them to speak out on Sharansky’s behalf.
He was their hero, a dream fulfilled, and they know his story almost as well as he does: walking to freedom on February 11, 1986, holding up his pants while zigzagging over Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge (the new pants his Russian captors gave him to wear were too big; he zigzagged because they told him to walk straight over the bridge – and he still wasn’t taking orders).
“It was a compelling personal story,” says Mark Levin, longtime executive director of the national conference on Soviet Jewry (NCOS). “His wife was living in Israel, a forceful advocate for him outside of the Soviet union. They were separated – he, his mother, his brother.
And he has such a strong personality, willing to challenge a totalitarian state in a way that few others were. And he did it in such an articulate, compassionate way.
You combine all these things together – who wouldn’t be attracted to his story?” the older generation may know Sharansky, but of those under the age of 35, none have heard his story in real time. To them he is a page in a history book, perhaps a paragraph. Walking from East Germany to West Berlin? Jews not allowed to leave the Soviet Union? What world was that? Sharansky is not bothered by his lack of fame among the tweeter generation.
“He’s probably the most comfortable person in his own skin I’ve ever met,” says Ron Dermer, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and co-author, with Sharansky, of the case for democracy. “Some people take themselves seriously, but not the world. Some take both seriously. Natan takes the world seriously, but never himself.”
Nor is Sharansky annoyed that the younger generation knows nothing about his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. how on July 14, 1978, he was sentenced at age 30 to 13 years of forced labor, on trumped-up charges of incitement, promotion of anti-Soviet propaganda, treason, and spying for the united States. How he sat nine of those years, half of it in solitary, including 405 days in a torturous punishing cell, all the while playing chess against himself in his head (see sidebar on p. 7).
“The fact that all these people don’t know my name, so what? Those people who want to live their lives as symbols – it’s a tragedy for them, because all their lives they have to check whether they are still symbols or not,” the 64-year-old icon tells the Jerusalem report, sitting in his modest office in Jerusalem.
But what is important, and what does upset Sharansky is that this generation doesn’t know the bigger story: how the whole Jewish world once united and took to the streets to fight for a cause – the battle for Jewish freedom.
“What i see as a great failure of the Jewish world, is that that this whole struggle for Soviet Jewry – their struggle, not only ours – did not become part of the education of a new generation,” he says.
“American Jewish educators, rabbis, community leaders, are making a big effort to give their children a feeling of pride in being Jewish. They give examples of social justice, and the struggle for civil rights – that’s all ok. But they forgot to tell them about their own struggle, how for 20 years American Jewry was mobilized with this feeling that ‘we are one family, these are our brothers, we have to fight for them.’ And how this struggle defeated the biggest power in the world. Such a great story! They have such a powerful weapon in their hand, and they’re not using it.”
So, today, Sharansky is trying to recreate that feeling, struggling to keep American Jewry Jewish. That is his job as head of the Jewish agency – “dealing with issues I was dealing with all my life, whether I was a Soviet activist, whether I was in prison, whether I was part of the Zionist Forum, or whether I was a minister in the government. I was always dealing with one problem: Israel and the Jewish people, all the time.
That’s really what I was doing.”
Back then Israel and the Jewish people was one problem. Today, the problem is how to bridge the two. Sharansky set out to do just that when he was elected chairman of the executive of the Jewish agency three years ago, “integrating and bringing together the Jews of the Diaspora and the State of Israel. Both sides have their problems.”
American tragedySharansky understands the fundamental predicament: most young American Jews don’t automatically identify with the Jewish people and, by extension, Israel; and that Israel simply isn’t important because being Jewish isn’t important.
Changing that is the beachhead where Sharansky is trying to rebuild that bridge dividing the two Jewish worlds.
“Every day there are three, four, five hundred less Jews in America. That’s a tragedy. We have to deal with this as one big challenge for the Jewish people – how do we keep our family strong? How do we keep our people connected to their roots? “If you want to have more aliyah, if you want to dramatically change things without having another iron curtain fall, you must have more Jews,” he says.
So while the bean counters are busy focusing solely on aliyah numbers, Sharansky dodges the spotlight to concentrate on the big picture, the very big picture: how many Jews are there in the world today, and how many will there be tomorrow? The answer to having more Jews, he says, has been proven. The best way to keep Jews Jewish is to connect them to Israel. He believes in programs aimed at the Facebook and Twitter generation that have proven to be very successful, such as Birthright, Masa, and a new track recently introduced to bring college youth on two- or three-month internships, in all professional fields.
But trying to institute changes within the largest philanthropic organization in Israel brings with it ample derision by critics second-guessing every new innovation at the legendary institution. So when Sharansky speaks of his new strategic plan, and people perceive that aliyah is not the most important thing to him… “No!” comes the interruption. “That is my big problem, my big headache today. Everybody says, ‘you said aliyah is not important.’ You will not find any phase, any moment in my life, when I thought aliyah was not important.”
Nevertheless, that perception persists.
“There are a few things I’m sorry about,” says Ze’ev Bielski, Sharansky’s immediate predecessor at the helm of the Jewish Agency. “For example, aliyah. Aliyah was always the main task of the Jewish Agency, and now - not so much.” But Bielski doesn’t blame his successor. “I don’t think it’s Sharansky’s fault. He is a hero; he is doing the best he can. But the Jewish leaders living in America find other priorities. They don’t invest anymore in bringing people to Israel.”
Sharansky has also been criticized for his salary of $214,000, which is 30 percent more than that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earns $164,000. As if that’s the benchmark. “First of all, the salary of the chairman of the Jewish Agency, my salary, has not changed for the last 15 years, at least. The salaries of the senior people were not changed since 2004,” he says. “Second, the Jewish Agency is not competing with the government - in terms of professionals that you have to hire - but with other Jewish organizations in this field. “We have to be realistic. If you want to have the best, or among the best people working in this field, you have to give them a comparable, or at least to some extent competing, salary.”
So after three years on the job, are things looking up? Is the five-year plan successful? “I hate this [expression], ‘five-year plan,’ it’s so Soviet Union,” he laughs, but nevertheless admits, “We are in the second year - because it took me a year and a half to start implementing it. I do believe that in three years, the results will be seen. If we will be successful, I think it will be a huge change.”