Sharansky: In prison I was freer than my interrogators

Natan Sharansky  credit: Alex Kolomoisky
Natan Sharansky credit: Alex Kolomoisky

Natan Sharansky, a symbol of Jewish national pride, expresses optimism about Israel’s future, but says Netanyahu has held power too long, and is unsparingly critical of divisiveness.

Not many people alive today have done as much for human freedom and the Jewish people as has Natan Sharansky. Sharansky, born in Donetsk, Ukraine, was the spokesman for the human rights movement, a prisoner of Zion, and a leader of the struggle for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. After applying to "make aliya", Sharansky was arrested on charges of treason and espionage. He was convicted in a Soviet court and served nine years in the Gulag. Following massive public campaigns by the State of Israel, world Jewry and leaders of the free world, Sharansky was released in 1986, and emigrated to Israel, on the very day of his release.

In his first years in Israel, Sharansky founded the Zionist Forum to aid Soviet immigrants in their absorption into Israeli society, and, in the 1990s, he founded the Israel Ba’aliyah party to represent the interests of Russian olim. He served in four successive governments, as a minister, and as deputy prime minister.

From 2009 to 2018, he served as chairperson of the Jewish Agency, and upon his retirement, received the Israel Prize for promoting aliya and the ingathering of the exiles. Sharansky also received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1986 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. He is the only living non-American citizen who is the recipient of these two highest American awards.

Clearly, there is almost nothing in the Jewish world and in Israel that Sharansky has not been involved with, in one way or another, in the course of his life. At this challenging time, it seemed appropriate to discuss current events with Sharansky.

These are difficult times for us, as a people, as a country, as a society. How have you felt since October 7?

"Of course, there was a huge failure here of our intelligence, our army, and our politicians. We were deeply invested in incorrect concepts. For me, it all started back with Oslo. I said then, that the idea of our bringing a dictator to the Palestinians who would make peace with us -- because we would make him a dictator by giving him a lot of money - did not make sense. It's just the reverse: the dictator would need us as enemies, and therefore would not make peace with us.

"It continued even with the withdrawal (from the Gaza Strip, A.W.). The idea was that we would be here, and they would be there, and we could control them that way. As (Prime Minister) Arik Sharon explained to me, if they turned militant and tried something, we would go in. I resigned from the government at that time, because of the disengagement."

"We have become a united society"

Sharansky believes it was the spirit of Oslo that caused Israel’s leadership, at all levels, to act incorrectly, and led to the failures of October 7. On the other hand, "This event was a reminder of how good it is that we have the State of Israel. There is a poet who wrote that the proximity of Israeli Memorial Day and Holocaust Day helps us understand the price of the world with a state and without a state. When we were in the Soviet Union and there was a surge of antisemitism, could we could fight, go to court? No! We just had to get by, take refuge in mathematics and physics, perhaps they’d leave us alone. Even after 100,000 people were killed (in pogroms), there was nothing to be done but to run away to America.

"Now, we’re fighting," Sharansky declares proudly. "We have transformed from a most divided society into a united society. We are all sitting in one tank, and our appreciation for the State of Israel has been renewed. And as much as we called the young generation a TikTok one, it turns out this generation is giving us a lesson in true Zionism, in such a noble, such a brave way. So, good things are happening. I am optimistic about the future of the State of Israel, but far less optimistic about what is happening in America and Europe."

Sharansky tries to explain what he thinks is happening nowadays in the West, both in the Jewish context and the wider one. "The Jews feel they are part of the liberal world, and the liberal world thinks the progressives are their partners. For years, I wrote about the fact that the real crisis in the United States is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between liberals and progressives. I said that one day, the liberals would realize they were not partners."

In his various roles, Sharansky met with many Jews in the West. "I asked Jews at universities, in the most elite places, if any of the organizations they had developed relationships with, befriended over the years, expressed any sympathy after October 7. I'm not asking for anything more, just sympathy. They looked and looked, and found one right-leaning organization at Yale that participated in mourning. That's it. This means that all the organizations on the progressive left see the terrible things that happened on October 7 as part of a legitimate struggle. This is a big change; antisemitism came out in a big way."

Sharansky says in the past he had theories about how to prove a connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. "Today we no longer need a theory, we don't need to show anything, it's in everyday life. I hope that the new generation of American Jews will go out in public and fight over this it."

You said you were encouraged by the unity here, but there is a repeat of the tensions we saw before October 7, isn't there?

"There is a comeback, but a group of politicians and a group of journalists are behind it. The masses are not with them today, unlike what happened until October 7 when half the country thought the other half was trying to steal their democracy and the other half thought they were trying to steal their Judaism. Today, the people feel that it is important for everyone that there is a Jewish state, and also a free country, and you can see this with almost every bereaved family of a fallen soldier. Also, we see that, in the moment of truth, suddenly, the real and deep things that unite us still exist. They aren’t lost."

Marxism is back

I spoke not long ago with a researcher named Izabella Tabarovsky who believes that the anti-Zionist rhetoric and progressive left activity stems from the Soviet attitude towards Zionism and Israel. Do you agree with this analysis?

"Yes, of course. I think Izabella is right. There is a large group of people who left he Soviet Union who understand much better than most Americans what exactly happened in America. The whole post-modern ideology that divides the world into oppressed and oppressor is neo-Marxism in its most primitive form. In the studies of critical race theories -- which have become the Koran of the progressives -- if you replace race with class, you get the ideology of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. There, too, the whole war is between one good side and one bad side, between the proletariat and the capitalists. The capitalists are always wrong and should not be given freedom of speech -- aside from those who are considered politically correct. And the capitalist world should be destroyed completely, and a just world will be built on this. It is very sad that Marxism has come back after such a huge failure. It has come back via the academy because it could not come back through politics. It is always like that, the bad ideas always come from the academy.

"When did I first realize that this is what had happened?" Sharansky asks, and immediately answers: "Twenty years ago, I was touring universities in America, and I told Arik Sharon, who was then prime minister, that this was where the most important struggle for Israel’s future was taking place. I saw there for the first time that students were afraid to say what they thought because it would not be good for their careers. And as soon that starts, it starts taking us towards Soviet life."

How do you overcome this madness?

"Liberal students, first of all Jewish students, should enter the arena, stand up, and take a strong position. A position that says we are Jews, we are Zionists, Zionism is part of our identity, and the United States, according to its principles, must protect us. It is already starting; 500 students in Columbia issued a very firm letter, and every day more students are joining, and I believe it will reach more universities. In addition, there are now investigations into how Qatar gives tens of billions of dollars to universities. This must be investigated."

Correspondence with Navalny

In February of this year, American journalist Bari Weiss revealed that during April 2023, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was apparently killed in prison, corresponded with Sharansky. Navalny had written to Sharansky, saying he had read "Fear No Evil," Sharansky’s account of his years of struggle against communist rule. In the letters, he also quoted from the Bible: "That which hath been is that which shall be," and said, among other things, that he "continues to believe we will fix it, and that one day in Russia there will be what has not been."

How did your relationship with Navalny come about ?

"About a year and a half ago, I suddenly received a letter from Navalny through his lawyer."

A physical letter?

"A handwritten letter that was photocopied and sent to my email."

And what did he say?

"He said, we didn't know each other, but he was writing to me as a reader to a writer, because he had read my book and was amazed at how much the situation had gone back to what it was when I was in the Gulag. During my years in prison, I spent 450 days in isolation, Navalny was already almost 300 days in isolation. It is clear from his letter that he is a free man, and of course I wrote that I admired him and his struggle. It was clear this was a very strong man, that he was optimistic, not because of what was happening with him, but that he was optimistic about the victory of his struggle. We had an exchange of letters, and we had a good feeling towards one another".

What was in his last letter to you?

"In the last letter, right before he entered the isolation cell again, he wrote to me: 'I received a letter from you, and I don't know when I will be able to write to you again, so I'm simply writing to you.' What was interesting is that he ended the letter with the words 'Next year in Jerusalem ' in Russian letters - the last words in my book. As if he wanted to join the optimism of Jewish history."

You are one of the personages most identified with the word "freedom." What is freedom to you?

"Freedom is when you can do and say things you believe in. In this respect, in prison I was much freer than those who interrogated me. During the interrogations, I really liked to tell anti-Soviet jokes about Brezhnev. The guards were almost bursting but could not laugh because of the consequences. And I would say to them, 'Well, you want to tell me that I'm in prison? You’re in prison -- you cannot laugh.' For me, freedom is very much related to identity, because we found the strength to fight for our identity only when we became a free people, and vice versa.

"The fact that the West itself has lost its identity is connected to everything we see now. And here Israel has a special role. We are part of the free world, yet still insist on maintaining our identity as a Jewish state."

How did you feel about the judicial overhaul, the conduct of the government, and all the demonstrations?

"I thought both sides were wrong. There was no reason for Netanyahu, who came to power for a four-year term, to try in two months to introduce a law that changes things so significantly. I agreed with most of the elements of the reform except for a few things, but they wanted to do everything immediately. It was a huge mistake. Let's say that in the first week Bibi didn't understand that [Minister of Justice Yariv] Levin was rushing something, okay, but after ten weeks you can already understand it was a mistake.

"On the other hand, the demonstrations shouting to the whole world that this is the end of democracy, that this is a dictatorship, that this is the end of women's freedom -- I think that’s irresponsible. Once one of the organizers of the demonstrations asked me, 'Why don't you come to our demonstrations?' I asked, 'Why do you shout that this is the end of democracy?' He told me, 'Without it, we wouldn’t be able to bring along so many people.' That’s cynical."

Too many years in power

Sharansky has known Benjamin Netanyahu since he was a diplomat. Asked his opinion about Netanyahu and his performance these days, he replies that "Bibi is a great politician, a great leader. It’s not by chance that he has been at the head of this country for so long. When I was in the government, I saw how he fought to liberalize the economy. Thanks to him -- and I was there -- there's the Taglit-Birthright project, not to mention the fact that he was first in the world to understand the Iranian threat. And when he was Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, he began advancing the sanctions. He also took office after the Oslo Accords, when there were many commitments in place, and he managed to moderate them."

Following this praise, Sharansky comes to his problem with Netanyahu: "I think it's not good when a politician stays in power for too long. I told this to Bibi when I left my position at the Jewish Agency. He asked me 'Perhaps you’d like another term?' I answered, 'Bibi, more than two terms isn’t healthy.' He asked, 'Are you telling me that?' and I said, ‘Yes, you too.’ When you’re in a post like that for a long time, you begin to feel that the best thing for the country would be for you to stay in power - and then that becomes the goal. And there is no doubt that he has also contributed to the divisiveness here. The fact that he started using the word 'leftist' as word describing an enemy is very bad.

"He should have finished up, and prepared a new generation to replace him, but he felt that there was no-one who could replace him to save the country, and thought 'I need to stay in power'. And this, I think, is a mistake. But I will emphasize again that his contribution to the country has nonetheless been great."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on June 4, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Natan Sharansky  credit: Alex Kolomoisky
Natan Sharansky credit: Alex Kolomoisky
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