When he crossed the Glienicke Bridge in East Berlin in February 1986, Natan Sharansky might have hoped that his long campaign for Jewish freedom was over. Instead, the day that he woke up in a Soviet prison and went to sleep in Jerusalem was just the start of a much longer journey.
After nine years in Soviet labor camps and months of hunger strikes, Sharansky had hardly a moment’s rest to rekindle his fairytale love affair with his wife Avital and celebrate the birth of their two daughters before he was thrust into the whirlpool of public life.
Conscious that his worldwide celebrity would quickly fade, he embarked on a punishing round of global lobbying. Few believed his prophetic insistence that the Soviet Union was destined to collapse, heralding the arrival in Israel of a million new immigrants for which the Jewish state needed to immediately prepare.
But he was right. The Soviet Jewish immigration of the early 1990s transformed Israel’s demography and economy and helped thrust him into politics, where he spearheaded efforts to create housing and jobs to absorb the influx of new citizens.
But Sharansky’s experience — and the lessons learned by Avital in her long campaign — convinced him of the need to secure Israel’s future within the context of the entire Jewish world. That vision led him to the leadership of the Jewish Agency, an aging, sprawling organization of dubious value, which he has spent the past eight years reshaping for the 21st century.
Sharansky’s Jewish Agency has attempted to shed the bloated bureaucracy of its previous incarnation, refocusing its mission on enhancing Israeli-Disapora ties and Jewish education.
The passion he once invested in helping to liberate the Jews of the Soviet Union has been turned to broader issues affecting the Jewish future. Almost uniquely among Israeli leaders, he recognizes the importance of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and has blasted the ignorance of world Jewry which he encounters among Israeli religious leaders and around the cabinet table.
He had planned to step down in June after two terms as Jewish Agency chairman, but bowed to intense pressure to remain. He says his priority is to end the problems faced in Israel by non-Orthodox converts and to create a non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall — a simmering dispute that has come to symbolize the growing rift between Israel and Diaspora Jews over religious issues.
Sharansky has outlined his experiences and ideas in three books that have each made a mark. “Fear No Evil,” his memoir of the fight for Soviet Jewish emigration, his human rights work alongside Andrei Sakharov and his survival in the prison camps, became an international bestseller. “The Case for Democracy,” where he sets out a diplomatic philosophy gleaned from his intimate understanding of totalitarianism, was cited by world leaders. In “Defending Identity,” he explores the tensions between politics and culture that have leaped to the forefront of European politics.
This reporter will be asking Sharansky about all these issues and more in an English-language interview live on stage in Jerusalem on Sunday, May 7, in an event co-produced with Nefesh B’Nefesh. There will also be the opportunity to buy signed copies of his books, courtesy of Katamon Books. Join us for what promises to be an evening to remember.
Natan Sharansky in Conversation
May 7 at 8:00 p.m., Hirsch Theater
Beit Shmuel, 6 Eliyahu Shama Street, Jerusalem
Tickets: NIS 60. Advance tickets: NIS 50, HERE
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