New Memoir Reveals Natan Sharansky’s Life as a Jewish Activist

September 2, 2020

From Russia came the first pioneers of the Jewish state in modern Israel, including Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Golda Meir, all of whom were born as subjects of the czar. Yet the fall of Imperial Russia in 1917 barred the gates to the millions of Jews who remained behind in the Soviet Union for another seven crucial decades.

One of those who found himself trapped behind the Iron Curtain was Natan Sharansky, whose life story and life’s work are told, compellingly and endearingly, in the newly published memoir “Never Alone,” co-authored by Sharansky and historian Gil Troy (PublicAffairs). It’s a book whose time has come precisely because Sharansky reminds us that what was at stake for the earliest pioneers of the Jewish state — a safe haven for Jewish democracy — is at risk today.

Born in 1948 in the Ukrainian city then called Stalino, Sharansky was a perceptive young man who soon came to understand what it really meant to live in a totalitarian state. He recalls, for example, the day when a letter arrived at his home from the publisher of “The Great Soviet Encyclopedia.” After Joseph Stalin’s death, when Stalino abruptly was renamed Donetsk, the much-feared head of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) had been purged by Nikita Khrushchev. “My father soon received [a] publisher’s letter addressed to every subscriber, instructing him to cut out the three-page article praising [Lavrentiy] Beria in the B volume, destroy it, and replace it with some new B entries sent along to fill the space,” he explains. “Subsequently, as politicians rose or fell out [of] favor, as scientists were exiled or rehabilitated, every reader had to scramble to keep up with the shifting official line.”

One principle of Soviet rule, however, did not change. Both Judaism and Zionism were forbidden to Soviet Jews during Stalin’s lifetime and long after. Sharansky’s parents used Yiddish as “a secret code” but dared not teach it to their children.  “You’re such a good guy,” one of his friends at school told him. “It’s a pity you’re a Jew.” When Meir arrived in the Soviet Union in 1948 as the first ambassador from the new State of Israel, Jewish crowds shouted: “Am Yisrael chai!” If a Soviet Jew applied to emigrate to Israel, however, the application was refused — and those who were denied later came to be known as “refuseniks.”

Looking back on his life’s work, Sharansky accurately sees himself as a bridge-builder.

Denied a Jewish education in the Soviet Union, it was American popular culture that enlightened young Sharansky about the modern history of Israel. Thanks to the underground publications known as samizdat — photocopies of books that were passed from hand to hand — he read “Exodus” by Leon Uris. As for many U.S. readers, Uris’ fictionalized version of the founding of Israel was the starting point of Sharansky’s own commitment to Zionism. “I realized that many Russian Jews from my father’s generation … had shaped the Zionist movement and founded Israel,” he recalls. “I joined a story that harkened back to the exodus from Egypt, took me to Leon Uris’s ‘Exodus,’ and would soon lead to my own exodus.”

READ MORE: A Conversation With Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy

By 1973, Sharansky had become a refusenik. Allied with the dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov, he was an active participant in the human-rights movement in the Soviet Union. He always had been aware of the watchful eyes of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s ubiquitous secret police, but he eventually was arrested on charges of treason and espionage, both punishable by death. Sharansky told the story of his experience in the gulag in “Fear No Evil” in 1988, but he smartly reprises the nine fateful years he spent in Soviet captivity in “Never Alone.”

Sharansky is a world historical figure, but he also allows us to glimpse his charm, his courage and his sly sense of humor in the pages of “Never Alone.” Under constant surveillance by KGB agents before his arrest and imprisonment, he “called KGB headquarters to report one tail for disgracing the state by being too drunk to follow me properly.” The KGB retaliated in kind by tossing the sober, young activist into the drunk tank. “During my activist years, I visited Moscow’s Sobering Station Number 8 regularly.”

As a Jew, Sharansky “[lived] my life backward.” “I was circumcised when I was twenty-five years old, not eight days old. So, unlike most, I could give my consent.  Finally, at the age of sixty-five, I had my bar mitzvah — fifty-two years late.” Appropriately enough, his Torah reading was Parashat Bo, a passage in which Moses tells Pharaoh to “Let my people go” — “those mighty words that became the slogan of our struggle for freedom in the Soviet Union.”

“Never Alone” reminds us of a poignant fact: Unlike the beleaguered Zionist movement in today’s world, the struggle to save Soviet Jewry was a consensus issue, “mobilizing French Communists and British aristocrats, pious rabbis and assimilated lawyers, American patriots and Zionist activists, countercultural hippies and Establishment leaders.” Yet Sharansky also writes with candor about the stress lines in the movement to free the Soviet Jews, both within the Jewish community in the Soviet Union and in Israel. When the Soviet Union finally acceded to the demand to let Jews emigrate, half of them chose to go to the United States or elsewhere in the Diaspora rather than Israel. As “unapologetic Zionists fighting for our right to go to Israel,” he explains, “we believed that Israel’s role was to welcome Jews home, not block them from going elsewhere.”

Sharansky returned to the Soviet Union Perm-35 labor camp for the documentary “From Slavery to Freedom.”
Photo courtesy of Go2Films

His memoir is a who’s who of leaders, both Jews and non-Jews, but it’s an especially intimate one. He describes how his beloved wife, Avital, was invited to meet President Ronald Reagan. White House personnel admonished her to shake his hand and move on. Her Orthodox faith instructed her to not shake his hand at all. “Ignoring the handlers, and relying on the Jewish permission to break religious law when lives are at stake, Avital grasped Reagan’s hand and wouldn’t release it, saying, ‘I have to speak with you.’”

By 1985, the weight of diplomacy and world public opinion finally prompted Sharansky’s release from prison. Reunited with Avital, he quipped in Hebrew: “Sorry I’m a little late.” When he arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, he was greeted by Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Foreign Affairs Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the two chief rabbis of Israel. “A day that had started in the hands of my captors ended at the Western Wall in the hands of thousands of dancing, cheering, singing Jews celebrating our reunion.”

READ MORE: When Natan Sharansky Met Nelson Mandela

Much of “Never Alone” is devoted to Sharansky’s life and work after finally making aliyah. Rather than a kippah, he took to wearing an Israeli military cap that had been given to him long ago in Moscow by a visiting American. “It remains affixed to this day,” he reports. His goal in encouraging Soviet Jews to join him in Israel was 400,000 souls; 1 million actually arrived, “an aliyah one-fifth the size of its current population.” Sharansky observes: “Almost overnight, the number of Israel’s doctors, engineers, musicians and chess players doubled.” Sharansky himself organized a political party, Yisrael B’Aliyah, and earned a seat in the Knesset with the governing coalition under Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. Riding for the first time in a government car, he mused that “the Volvo was nice, but the job was daunting.”

His job as a government minister included responsibility for “Aliyah and Absorption,” an urgent need for Israel’s new arrivals from Russia. “In the beginning I found myself oddly nostalgic for the simplicity and clarity of prison life,” he writes in a characteristically wry turn-of-phrase. “Serving in the government and the Knesset, in the heart of the political struggle, you are a prisoner to everyone else’s agendas, demands and timetables.” But he proved himself to be adept at the famously complex politics of Israel, as when he addressed the heartbreaking problem of Jewish cemeteries that refused the burial of Soviet Jews who were “Halachically non-Jewish.” The Ashkenazi chief rabbi refused to permit such burials. So Sharansky turned to the Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who came up with the idea of “hiving off” a section, where “anyone who wanted a Kaddish said” could be buried. Thus did he address the dilemma of Russian-born Israel Defense Forces veterans who served in defense of the Jewish state but couldn’t be lawfully buried in a Jewish cemetery.

“Can I convert to Sephardi?” Sharansky joked. “They seem to have more fun.”

Denied a Jewish education in the Soviet Union, it was American popular culture that enlightened young Sharansky about the modern history of Israel.

Sharansky is an idealist and a pragmatist, a paradox that shines on every page. “I no longer had the dissident’s purity,” he writes of his life in Israel. “I had to be a politician.” In 2005, he collaborated with Ron Dermer, who now serves as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, on the bestselling “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror,” but he learned that the contest between democracy and totalitarianism required a tougher approach. “Your theories are good for the dungeons of the KGB,” Ariel Sharon admonished him, “but not the sands of the Middle East.”

His current collaborator, Gil Troy, is a Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University and the author of nine books of his own, including two books on Zionism: “Why I Am a Zionist” and “The Zionist Ideas.” Sharansky reveals that [e]very English sentence in this book was written by Gil,” and yet “we weighted and played with every word and every idea, again and again, sometimes in Hebrew, usually in English, with occasional lapses of Natan into Russian and Gil into professor-speak.” The finished book, Sharansky explains, “can teach us what Natan learned during nine years in prison and Gil learned when marching on the streets of New York and Boston to free him.” Troy allows Sharansky’s unique voice and personality to shine even as he brings a historian’s sensibility to the events Sharansky describes in detail.

Sharansky opposed the Oslo Accords even though “I wanted the Palestinians to have all the rights I had, individually and collectively, as long as they could not use those rights to destroy us.” As he writes in “Never Alone,” he regarded Oslo as “reckless, shortsighted, and stupid” because of the role assigned to Yasser Arafat.  Installing “a terrorist as dictator,” he concluded, “contradicted everything I had learned about the nature of dictatorships.” And he readily acknowledges his “seemingly right-wing positions made me unpopular with many Israeli and American opinion-makers,” including those he calls his “natural allies” — “the liberals who had fought with [me] against Soviet totalitarianism.”

Yet, Sharansky also enjoyed “a warm personal relationship” with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a political adversary. “Israel has suffered many tragedies since I arrived in 1986,” he muses. “But this murder of our prime minister by one of our own may have been the worst moment I witnessed, and one of the most dreadful incidents in Israeli history. When I first heard the bad news, I felt our entire Zionist enterprise was crashing.”

“Enjoying a free, meaningful life in accordance with our identities, while letting others do the same, should be our shared aim in the common pursuit of happiness.”
— Natan Sharansky

Looking back on his life’s work, Sharansky accurately sees himself as a bridge-builder. “I did spend a lot of time defending Israel to Diaspora Jews and defending Diaspora Jews to Israelis,” he writes about his service at the head of the Jewish Agency, an organization that has worked for more than a century to bring Jews to the Jewish state. But if there is a single passage that sums up Sharansky’s credo and the lesson he teaches by example and in the book, it is that identity politics — the great curse of American democracy — offers a false choice.

“I was challenged again and again to choose between these two impulses: Is my first loyalty to my people or to my universal ideals of freedom? Today, the whole world seems divided between those who choose their identity first and those who choose their freedom first. That’s a false choice. Enjoying a free, meaningful life in accordance with our identities, while letting others do the same, should be our shared aim in the common pursuit of happiness.”

Sharansky has given us a gift of the greatest value — an eyewitness account of Jewish history by someone with firsthand knowledge of what it really means to be a Jew. When we praise those who deserve to be called the makers of the Jewish homeland — Weizmann, Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, Meir and many others — surely Natan Sharansky must be counted among them.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Journal.

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