Natan Sharansky is a hero.
That is a simple truth.
There aren’t any politics that get in the way of that truth, either. That’s not to say that he has not been involved in politics. He is a consummate politician. And, of course, there is nothing mutually contradictory about politics and heroism; it is as foolish to think that there must be as to think that there never is.
In 1986, when Sharansky – then still Anatoly Scharansky – a human rights activist and survivor of nine years of harsh imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag, was released, set free to go first west to freedom and then east to Israel, he was told to walk straight across the bridge leading to his new life. A congenital rebel, possessing a courage that most of us cannot imagine, he instead walked in zigzags. That corkscrew walk, each twist representing another challenge surmounted, and of course another challenge to his temporarily disarmed antagonists, was heroism put to motion. And it had legs – it was broadcast around the world, and many of its viewers never forgot it.
Meeting Sharansky for an interview, then, has built-in magic. What is a hero like?
This hero, to begin with, is very short, maybe five feet tall. He is rumpled and balding, and entirely normal looking, ordinary except for his eyes – light, bright, and piercing, they hold your gaze steadily, focusing on nothing but you. He speaks very quickly, in a thick and purely Russian accent. He is surrounded by a phalanx of people – local officials, handlers, security men. And he is warm without being anything other than businesslike.
He is entirely normal and undeniably charismatic.
Sharansky, who is now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was in the boardroom at the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on Nov. 14 for a long-planned talk, right after the conclusion of the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations, held this year in Baltimore.
The talk was in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Dec. 11, 1987, Freedom Rally on the mall in Washington, the culmination of the Soviet Jewry movement, where a recently freed Sharansky, there with his elderly mother, addressed the crowd. The meeting in Tenafly was co-sponsored by both the exclusively Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and the multi-denominational North Jersey Board of Rabbis, in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Excitement was high.
And then that day rockets from Gaza reached more deeply into Israel, in response to Israel’s targeted killing of Hamas’ Ahmed al-Jabari, itself a response to the missiles from Gaza constantly raining misery on Sderot. And everything changed, even in Tenafly.
We had blocked out half an hour for the interview; part of that time was pre-empted by a phone call between Sharansky and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, which Sharansky took in a corner of the room. It was about real people’s lives. No matter what your politics, you feel it.
Back from his call, Sharansky talked about the important lessons learned from the campaign to free Soviet Jews. “We were united then,” he said. “Soviet Jews discovered their identity, and American Jews felt that there was an opportunity for them to do something for other Jews. That was the power that changed the world.
“In order to strengthen the connection from generation to generation, we always talk about the exodus from Egypt. A big part of our people went out of slavery in the Soviet Union, and the dictatorship fell apart, and that was done through the army of students and housewives.
“We should always remember our power, and the source of that power is our identity.”
And what’s going on now? What about the missiles coming from Gaza? “There are two ways in which they tried to destroy us,” Sharansky said. “In the beginning, in 1948, our enemies believed that because there were so very many Arab states, with such big armies, that they could destroy us physically. It is clear that Israel, with the support of the Jewish people around the world, succeeded very quickly in becoming a very strong state, with a strong economy and a strong army. They can’t destroy us physically.
“So now they try to delegitimize us, by keeping five generations of Palestinians in refugee camps, hoping the world eventually will tire of our problems.
“What is the power of terror?” he asked rhetorically. Israel’s enemies can terrorize, he said. “The freer you are, the more solidarity you feel with all your citizens. One soldier can be worth thousands of prisoners.
“And because Israel is such a small country, the threat of missiles can keep the whole country in shelters. We can afford it for a few days, but it’s damaging for the economy, and it’s demoralizing.
“Almost one million Israelis are in shelters, and that is a challenge of huge proportions for Israel, and for the Jews of the world – how to guarantee the continuation of the State of Israel when there is an attempt to delegitimize it on the one hand and destroy it through terror on the other.
“It is clear that we cannot tolerate it. Everyone – right, left, everyone – was demanding action, so our army took dramatic steps.”
As Israel confronts its external enemies, problems that have been built into its structure continue to press from the inside. Most recently, there was yet another group arrest of six Women of the Wall, this time for wearing tallitot draped across their shoulders as tallitot rather than tossed around their necks like scarves. This was just weeks after the group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, was arrested for saying the Shema in public at the women’s side of the Kotel. These issues tend to peel liberal diaspora Jews away from Israel, something Israel can ill afford.
“We just had a meeting of the board of the Jewish Agency,” Sharansky said. “It is unique because it is the only government agency representing all the streams. We passed by consensus the Woman of the Wall resolution, which demands that the Jewish Agency immediately will start discussing the problem with the government, on the basis of the understanding that every Jew in the world must have access to the Western Wall.
“Israel is a democratic state,” he continued. “We have a Supreme Court. In a democracy you vote and you have the courts and the legislative branch.
“In the future, we hope that the Reform and Conservative movements will be influential enough so that they will be able simply to use the power of the vote, but now, when they are still very small – and for the majority of Israelis it is a nonissue – you have to use the dialogue between all Jews and the government to make sure those interests are taken into consideration.
“In the specific case” – Anat Hoffman’s – “there is consensus on one thing: The police overreached. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever to arrest Hoffman and keep her in prison.
“The practical thing that has to be done now is to make the decisions of the Supreme Court more effective in preventing the increased control of the ultra-Orthodox over the Western Wall. That’s exactly what we’re discussing now.”
As to last summer’s problems in Bet Shemesh, when ultra-Orthodox men attacked small girls going to a modern Orthodox day school on the grounds that their clothing was insufficiently modest, “I propose not taking them out of proportion,” Sharansky said. “This is a small group of extremists, and everyone, including the leading rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox movement, condemn them.”
The underlying challenge, he said, comes back to basic definitions. “Since I was released, three times we had a crisis of who is a Jew. Each time we reached a compromise, which has to include two basic demands. On the one hand, the State of Israel has to be connected to each Jew in the world, and on the other hand it is a state that is unlike any other state in the world, and it has the Law of Return, so there must be a definition of who you are giving citizenship to.
“In the United States, you can have Reform Jews in San Francisco and Chabad in Brooklyn, and they can go to the same demonstration and not interfere with each other.” It doesn’t matter how each group defines Jewishness, he said. That’s not true in Israel.
“In Israel, you have the Law of Return. The definition is up to bureaucrats. The moment it is the decision of a bureaucrat it is the decision of the government, and that is why there is the tendency to become political.
“My theory is that every 12 years or so” – when there is a major fight over defining who is a Jew – “the Jewish people have to recharge their batteries, and then they start over again.
“No doubt this is the process of our moving from simply being Jewish communities of the diaspora to Jewish people who are building our own state. There are no books. There are no instructions. We have to find our own instructions, our own principles.
“Every democracy is built on one man or one woman, one vote, so there always will be some political influence. And it also must be the state of all Jews who live outside the state, so it cannot rely only on the Jews of Israel.
“There are no simple recipes.
“There are many episodes that upset me, but when I hear that because of this episode or that episode world Jewry will desert Israel, I don’t think that there are any episodes that can destroy the bond between us. When people come to Israel they think ‘This is my house,’ and we are trying to improve it.”
In the evening, Sharansky talked to a small group of philanthropists at the major gifts dinner, where he answered questions posed by the evening’s honorary co-chair, Eva Gans of Teaneck, and later still to a large audience at the JCC.
“What is so very amazing about Natan Sharansky is not only that he’s such a wonderful human being, but how very smart he is,” Gans said. “It’s a pleasure watching that.” She has met Sharansky several times and read all his books. “I asked what seemed to be tough questions, and he gave such extraordinary answers to all of them.
“I asked him what kept him going in prison; he said that when they put him into solitary he was cold, he had no food, physically he was in horrible shape, but it was a wonderful opportunity to have no distractions. He could play chess in his head.
“‘I played 900 some odd games, and I won every one of them,'” Gans reported that Sharansky said. “‘I’d play a game as white, and I’d win, and then I’d turn it around for black, so black could win.'”
Gans recalled that Sharansky once had won a game against one of the world’s best chess players, Gary Kasparov. True, it had been a simultaneous game, Kasparov against 25 opponents, but still that was a feat. Sharansky was one of just three of those 25 to prevail, and he was the first.
“He is very personable, very charming,” Jason Shames, JFNNJ’s chief executive officer, said. “He made all of us feel good about all the work we did to support him.
“That’s the key thing for us as philanthropists, and for all of us who lived in America and who went to the rallies in D.C., to the Soviet compound in the Bronx, and to the consulate in Manhattan. He showed a tremendous amount of appreciation. There was genuine warmth, inspiration, and pride. You feel good being around him.
“It shows what power there is in the Jewish community, in terms of Jewish philanthropy, group activism, and social justice. His story brings all of those elements together in a unique way.”