From Prisoner of Zion to Guardian of Zion
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Letter from Israel

From Prisoner of Zion to Guardian of Zion

Guardian of Zion Natan Sharansky, center, and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, right, join former Soviet refuseniks and their families. (Photos by Yoni Reif)
Guardian of Zion Natan Sharansky, center, and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, right, join former Soviet refuseniks and their families. (Photos by Yoni Reif)

The evening began with fine wine, itty-bitty hors d’oeuvres, and two religious women playing harp and flute on the back patio of Jerusalem’s legendary King David Hotel.

Below us, hotel guests swam languid laps in a cool blue pool, surrounded by lush lawns.

Crunching on crudités, I scanned the gathering crowd for the guest of honor, Natan Sharansky, and his wife, Avital, two of my personal heroes. Warm and unassuming as ever, the Sharanskys circulated around the patio, greeting one and all. Even those guests, like us, whom they barely knew.

My invitation to this gala event, in celebration of Mr. Sharansky receiving the 2019 Guardian of Zion Award from Bar-Ilan University’s Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies, was bestowed as a press privilege.

What can anyone write about the Sharanskys that hasn’t been written before? I was struck most by the contrasts.

The contrast between the Soviet prison cells where Anatoly Sharansky endured nearly nine years of mental and physical suffering and the opulent landmark hotel where about 300 people, including Mayor Moshe Lion and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein — a fellow former refusenik — came to honor Natan Sharansky while enjoying gourmet kosher cuisine beneath glittering chandeliers.

The contrast between that moment when Mr. Sharansky crossed the Glienicke Bridge on February 11, 1986, walking to freedom and to the embrace of the shy bride who had left for Israel the day after their wedding in 1974 and spent almost 12 years moving heaven and earth to effect his release and this moment, when the singularly modest Avital watched her husband accept the latest in a string of well-deserved prizes for having devoted himself to serving the State of Israel and the people of Israel everywhere.

And, yes, even the contrast between this year’s honoree and former recipients of the Guardian of Zion Award, given annually since 1997 to a person showing remarkable dedication to the perpetuation and strengthening of Jerusalem.

It’s not just Mr. Sharansky’s diminutive stature and Russian accent that make him stand out from previous recipients, including Ronald S. Lauder, Senator Joe Lieberman, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Cynthia Ozick, Malcolm Hoenlein, Herman Wouk, and Elie Wiesel. He stands out for the simple reason that he is one of the few Guardian of Zion awardees who live in the city that is the focus of the prize.

From left, Professor Joshua Schwartz, the director of the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies; Natan Sharansky; Ingeborg Rennert, founder of the Ingeborg Rennert Center; and Bar-Ilan University president Professor Arie Zaban.

Jerusalem is not only where Mr. Sharansky and his wife raised their two daughters, and it is not only where he served in the Knesset for many years as a legislator and minister. It is the city whose reunification during the Six-Day War inspired him, and many others behind the Iron Curtain, to dig up their long-buried Jewish heritage, to learn Hebrew even though they risked arrest for that study, and to dare to demand the right to emigrate to their ancestral homeland.

“On the 14th of July, 1978, when the judge asked me what I wanted to say” — before being sentenced to 13 years of hard labor for the supposed crimes of treason and spying — “I made the shortest speech of my life,” this most famous refusenik related in his Distinguished Rennert Lecture, dedicated to the memory of his recently deceased friend Hillel Butman, founder of the first Zionist youth movement in Leningrad.

“I knew these were the last words I’d be permitted to say before disappearing for many years — maybe for my whole life,” Mr. Sharansky continued. “So I said, ‘For 2,000 years, our people, the Jewish people, were spread all over the world, without any hope and without any reason to say to one another, “L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim,” “Next year in Jerusalem.” And today I say to my people and my wife, “Next year in Jerusalem!”’

“Why did I have to use these words when there were so many other great slogans like ‘Let my people go’ and ‘Never again’? Well, because our discovery of Judaism started from Jerusalem. The first time we felt Jewish was when we saw the picture of the soldiers at the Kotel in 1967.”

He was then 19, the same age as those paratroopers who recaptured the Western Wall — the Kotel. “We started reading about ourselves and suddenly discovered we have an unbelievable story,” he said.

“Jerusalem is the center of our story.… And we wanted to be part of it.”

The Kotel would figure prominently in Mr. Sharansky’s tenure as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel from June 2009 through August 2018. He led three and a half years of intense negotiations to craft a compromise — ultimately shelved — “to reimagine our people’s holiest site in a way that would be inclusive and respectful of all” by means of a separately administered, egalitarian prayer space alongside the traditional one, united by a single entrance.

He touched on this topic in his speech. “I was so happy when the government accepted this compromise, and I was so upset when the decision was made to freeze it,” he said.

I recently read that Mr. Sharansky is upset about something else, too: the failure of both American and Israeli Jews to teach the next generation about what the Prisoners of Zion endured and the remarkable movement for Soviet Jewry that secured their freedom.

So please take your kids to see the 2007 documentary “Refusenik” or the new documentary “From Slavery To Freedom,” which follows the Sharanskys on a trip back to the Moscow prison and the Glienicke Bridge.

And please take them to Jerusalem, the city that is the center of the whole story.

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