Eternal lessons

25 years after the march for Russian Jewry in Washington, Natan Sharansky's message hasn't changed.

Natan Sharansky 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Natan Sharansky 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
On December 6, 1987, on the eve of the summit between Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan, newly released refusenik Natan Sharansky addressed 250,000 demonstrators in the National Mall in Washington, calling for the release of Soviet Jewry. It was a critical point in the opening of Soviet borders to emigration to Israel and the subsequent exodus of over one million Soviet Jews.
A quarter of a century later, Sharansky, now the head of the Jewish Agency, says the lessons of that march and the events that led up to it continue to hold true: In the struggle for freedom, don’t wait for the opportune moment; stick to what you believe in and hold firm.
“You have to stick to your principles and then you can succeed,” Sharansky says, his eyes burning with unquenchable intensity.
“If every time you try and figure out whether it’s the right time to stick to your principles, then nothing will happen.”
Sharansky had to push against skepticism that American Jewry could mobilize such numbers. He was told that it would not be possible to bring in hundreds of thousands of people to DC and that he would go back to Israel, where he had moved after his release in a dramatic spy swap in February 1986, leaving the Jewish organizations putting on the march looking like fools for publicly stating they could achieve such a huge turnout.
The leader of one of the major organizations told him that they couldn’t deliver hundreds of thousands, but they could bring in 100 senators. A student leader said to him: “Look, we cannot deliver hundreds of thousands, but we can deliver 100 rabbis who will be arrested in front of the Soviet Embassy. They’ll chain themselves or something.
So let’s think in these terms.”
But that was not what he had in mind.
Sharansky says that he believed it was important to show Gorbachev that this was not just political lobbying; that it was the will of the American people and would not be changed.
There was another obstacle that had to be overcome on the way: the fear that with America ready to embrace Gorbachev and his reformist agenda, the Jews would be seen as going against the US.
Sharansky managed to get a meeting with Reagan, who had maintained contact with Sharansky’s wife, Avital, while he was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp. In their conversation, Sharansky didn’t ask for Reagan’s blessing – as, he says, if he hadn’t given it, the march would have proceeded regardless – but he explained that it should not be seen as a criticism of the president’s policies. Reagan stopped him in his tracks: “You do everything that you want to do,” the president said. “And I’ll do what I have to do to bring freedom.”
When Reagan met with Gorbachev, a 250,000-strong army of students and housewives had marched on DC for Freedom Sunday. The president told his Soviet counterpart, “We cannot build our friendship while you keep people in prison.”
Today, says Sharansky, everyone agrees that this was the last step in the struggle to release Soviet Jewry. Within two years, the gates had opened and one million Jews were on their way to Israel. Four years later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
SO WHAT has changed in the interim in which Sharansky has gone from refusenik to Israeli politician and minister, serving over two decades in the Knesset, to his current job as chairman of the Jewish Agency? While there are still Jews in some countries who need rescuing, says Sharansky, today 94 percent of world Jewry lives in the free world and the challenge boils down to one of identity.
Combating assimilation and the delegitimization of Israel, which he describes as the two main challenges facing the Jewish people today, comes down to creating a sense of identity. The way to create that identity, Sharansky says, is to create a connection with Israel through programs such as Birthright and Masa, which bring Jewish youth to the country – Birthright on 10-day tours and Masa for as long as a year.
World Jewry needs Israel for its identity, says Sharansky, and world Jewry is Israel’s best ally. The relationship between the two has evolved, he explains. If in the past the relationship was one of mutual dependence, today, he says, it is one of mutual interdependence.
“Both sides understand that they need each other. World Jewry understands that even if they don’t want to make aliya, if they want their children to be Jewish, they need Israel. And Israel understands that in our struggle for our right to be Jewish, we need Jewish people on our side.”
Sharansky rejects criticism that he has moved the focus of the agency away from aliya. He says this is a misconception.
“It’s true that I say that identity is the core, but that doesn’t mean that I’m saying aliya is not important. I strongly believe in aliya. I fought all my life for my aliya and the aliya of other people. But I say that in today’s free world, aliya is not a question of being rescued; aliya is a question of free choice.”
The way to bring people to make aliya, insists Sharansky, is by strengthening their connection with Israel, with community and with Jewish roots. Israel and the Jewish Agency, he says, should see their obligation as being in strengthening that connection.
“Some people will not make aliya, but will become very active in their community; some people will become active in defending Israel and some people will do nothing, but they will make sure their children grow up Jewish. It’s all one process,” he says. Of course, he adds, once someone decides to make aliya, they need to receive help. There are also Jewish communities that are in danger, and the agency and Israel need to be prepared and ready to rescue them.
However, Sharansky says, this is a very small group of people and it would be a mistake to focus solely on them. That, he warns, could lead Israel to miss the 95% of world Jewry that is in danger of assimilation.
“If you simply come to people and say ‘make aliya, make aliya,’ it will not bring one additional Jew from the free world, and at the same time we are missing a much bigger point – how to bring them closer to us.”
While aliya figures remain steady at around 18,000 a year, Sharansky is optimistic about the impact of identity programs such as Birthright and Masa. “The percentage of young people who are deciding to make aliya after their Israeli experience is growing,” he says.
With Knesset elections around the corner, I ask Sharansky if he is considering a return to politics. “Oh, no,” he replies, “that’s one thing I can tell you with certainty that I won’t do. As I said to Bibi [Netanyahu] four years ago when he asked if I was interested in going back into the Knesset with him, ‘I was in prison nine years and nine years in the Israeli government, I think it’s enough.’”