As a Soviet Prisoner of Zion, Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky was repeatedly threatened with death. But he knew that while his body was imprisoned for nine years, he would die as a free man.
“I liked very much during interrogations, to tell [the team of interrogators] anti-Soviet jokes,” recounted the former refusenik now known as Natan Sharansky.
“And they were almost bursting with laughter and they could not. And I said to them, ‘You cannot even laugh when you want to laugh, and you want to tell me that I’m in prison and you’re free?'” said Sharansky to a packed Jerusalem audience at Sunday night’s Times of Israel Presents event.
Upon his release in February 1986, Sharansky immigrated to Israel and rejoined his wife, Avital, who had spearheaded the international effort to win his freedom. There he continued his activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry. By 1995, lacking the political tools to help his compatriots, he cofounded Yisrael Ba’Aliyah with fellow refusenik Yuli Edelstein. Their joking slogan was, “Our leaders first go to prison, and then into politics.”
However, even after garnering seven seats in the 1996 elections and serving in a variety of ministerial positions, by 2006 Sharansky, always a reluctant politician, resigned one last time from the Knesset. (He had resigned in protest from previous governments over policies such as prime minister Ehud Barak’s planned partition of Jerusalem and prime minister Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement plan.)
Explaining how an uncompromising dissident makes for a poor politician Sharansky quipped, “I was in four different governments and I resigned twice. I was in four different prisons, and I never resigned.”
‘I was in four different governments and I resigned twice. I was in four different prisons, and I never resigned’
However, in his current role, he is perhaps most well-known for his ability to bring all segments of the Jewish people to the table. Since June 2009, Sharansky has served as the head of the Jewish Agency where he has controversially reshaped the institution’s focus from immigration to Jewish identity. Although he had announced his retirement for this year, with no successor — and the much-negotiated Western Wall egalitarian prayer pavilion still unimplemented — he was asked by the board to serve an additional year.
With a generous helping of palatable levity, in a wide-ranging on-stage interview with journalist Matthew Kalman, Sharansky delivered a healthy serving of deadly serious political and social analysis.
The following are highlights from Sharansky’s thoughts on the true meaning of freedom, how the Oslo Accords’ fostering of a dictatorship only led to more strife, and the “strange prejudice” Israelis have against 65 percent of American Jewry.
On growing up Jewish under Soviet ‘double speak’
It was life deprived of two things: identity, and I lived in an absolutely assimilated surrounding, where we knew very well that we were Jews because that is what was written in the ID of our parents. All the conversations at home were about discrimination, anti-Semitism and restrictions. And at the same time we didn’t even know the words like Pesah or Hanukkah or bar mitzva or brit milah — the words didn’t even exist in our lives. So to be Jewish was a kind of disease that you had to get used to.
‘To be Jewish was a kind of disease’
And the second thing from which we were deprived of was freedom. From the age of five, from the day that [Soviet dictator Joseph] Stalin died, I remember exactly that moment when Stalin died that my father explained to me that it was very good [he had died] because he was very dangerous for us, for Jews, and for many people. I should remember that a miracle happened — Stalin died when we were in big danger — and that I should not tell it to anybody and I should do what everybody does.
The next day I went to kindergarten and I was crying together with all the children, and I was singing together with all the children about how grateful we all were for the son of all the people, for this happy childhood.
So I was singing, I was crying — and I remembered a miracle happened and I should be very happy. That’s a typical state of mind of a Soviet citizen and that’s how we lived. Without identity, without freedom. And then when we got both of them together, it was a very powerful feeling.
Freedom is a state of mind
Freedom is never theoretical. Or you are free or you are not. I was lucky really to experience the life of a Soviet slave, from the age of five at least till the age of twenty-something when I stopped playing this double life, and I became a free person.
So the fact that physically I was put into the prison under such and such conditions, doesn’t matter. The moment you say a thing that you believe in, and do a thing you believe in, and the moment you decide that from now only I can humiliate myself and I can be ashamed of what I’m doing or not ashamed — and if I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing, if I’m a free person, if I feel myself part of this great historic process, and I am true to the image of God in which we are created — I am a free person.
The moment you feel it, the moment you enjoy it, then nobody can take it from you and it’s not theoretical anymore.
Oslo Agreement as a ‘crime’ against the Palestinian people
You have to try to make peace with the partner you have. But you can’t be deceived: Peace with a dictator can be based only on your power. If the dictator is afraid, you’ll have peace.
With democratic countries it’s different, why? Because democratic countries, the government, the leaders, depend on their people and as a result they have to deliver the goods to their people, and as a result peace is in their own political interest.
‘The challenge of the dictator is to keep his own people under control, and that’s why he needs you as an enemy’
In a dictatorship, the people depend on the dictator, so the challenge of the dictator is to keep his own people under control, and that’s why he needs you as an enemy.
I believe till this day that one of our biggest mistakes — almost crimes — was the Oslo Agreements. Because the Oslo Agreement was all based on the idea, and Yitzhak Rabin z”l expressed in the best possible way, he said how good it is for us that Arafat is the dictator. “Without the Supreme Court, without free press, without human rights organizations, Arafat will fight for us against Hamas much better than we can fight Hamas.”
That’s what was said two weeks after signing the Oslo Agreement, and that’s when I wrote my first article against it. I said, we will do everything so he will be a strong dictator. And he, as a strong dictator, he will do everything so that his people will hate us. There is no other way for a dictator to survive.
The fact that we are ignoring it again and again, not only Israel — America, the free world — again and again we try to find a set of dictators that will bring us peace. It will never happen. If they are dictators, peace will only be brought with the help of our strong army.
What I was told during the Oslo process, when I started speaking about what we have to support, then deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin told me, “Anatoly, you speak about things which will probably take how much? 10-15 years?” I said, “Maybe.” [Beilin said,] “And we’re going to make peace in three years.” That was what he said. That was the Oslo Agreement — “peace in three years and so we cannot lose any time.” And this attempt to make peace in three years continues in every government.
The Israeli prejudice against Reform and Conservative Jewry
I don’t know how successful or less successful [the Reform and Conservative movements] will be [in Israel]. What I do know is that if Israel wants to continue its role as it is declared by its leaders and its leaders believe in it, that we are the home for the all the Jewish people, we cannot say to 65% of American Jewry that you are welcomed in Israel, but not with your community and not with your rabbi. We have to be a place for every community and every movement in the world.
‘So many of us Israelis have such strange prejudices against Reform and Conservative Jews’
What I found out, I was invited to many forums to speak, and I found out that so many of us Israelis have such strange prejudices against Reform and Conservative Jews. I said once, “What you are saying now, it reminds me of what in the Soviet Union people were saying about Jews.” Some secret plot of Reform Jewry to destroy world Jewry by forced assimilation and intermarriage. And now they want to bring intermarriage to Israel and they want to conquer Israeli society by destroying the Jewish character. And you hear it from very normal people who have simply never met Reform Jews.
Just now we had a delegation of eight members of Knesset [to the United States] and one of them is a representative of the most right-wing part of our spectrum. He, for the first time in his life, was in America, in San Francisco in a Reform shul… and I asked him, “So now you’ll vote differently?”
And he said, “No, I have to keep the line of my party. But I tell you, now I understand that they are a part of my people and I have to be in contact with them.”
So only for this it was worth paying the money for his ticket, I have to say.