Former Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky and history Prof. Gil Troy are admittedly “a very unlikely duo,” said Troy on a recent Behind the Headlines video interview with The Times of Israel. But ideologically, he said, the pair of optimistic Zionists are on the same page. On over 450 pages, actually, the length of their newly published book, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People.”
“Never Alone” is what Troy tongue-in-cheekily calls a “memoirfesto.” It is part Sharansky memoir — recounting the three main periods of his life: prison, politics, and as head of the Jewish Agency — and part manifesto. Through the framework of Sharansky’s nine years in Soviet prisons, nine years in the Knesset, and nine years in the Jewish Agency, it’s also a rallying cry to every Jew to get personally involved in the Jewish story and push for unity.
“Never Alone” is a book of gratitude and great expectations. But it’s also an inside look at top Israeli, US and Russian leaders that portrays them as the flawed individuals they are. Readers gain not only Sharansky’s gulag anecdotes and behind-the-scenes insight into the Knesset, but also reap US historian and author Troy’s rich knowledge of the historical and personal context of the presidents who aided and abetted Sharansky in finding freedom for himself, and Israel.
It is the story of an immigrant who faced sabra disdain and changed a system, but also warns against rising anti-Semitism and broken communications among the Jewish peoples, especially on campuses. And finally, it’s a story of an undying love of democracy and an optimism that peace will prevail.
The Times of Israel spoke with Troy and Sharansky as part of the ongoing Behind the Headlines series. The interview was streamed exclusively for The Times of Israel Community earlier this week. (To join the ToI Community and to catch future video interviews as they happen, please click here.)
Both authors are based in Jerusalem and while Sharansky is enjoying his so-called retirement (by speaking internationally and writing prolifically), Troy, who was formerly based at McGill University in Canada, is still teaching at a variety of institutions in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Before speaking about “Never Alone,” which was completed in April and includes the beginnings of the coronavirus crisis, The Times of Israel asked the pair about the recent peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Sharansky hailed the agreement as Israel’s first true peace process with its neighbors.
We are dealing with something that is changing a paradigm of 50 or 60 years
This treaty is, Sharansky said, “the first real agreement about normalization which doesn’t include any concessions to any dictator. It simply says that it is in our interest to co-exist, to co-operate, and to help one another. I believe the meaning of it is huge. It is much bigger than the size of Abu Dhabi and Israel.
“I’m very optimistic about it. I think it’s a huge achievement… Here we are dealing with something that is changing a paradigm of 50 or 60 years,” said Sharansky.
As depicted in “Never Alone,” ahead of his arrest and imprisonment in the gulag, Sharansky was regularly under surveillance by the KGB. The Times of Israel asked Sharansky whether the current use of cellphone surveillance and COVID-19 tracking is, in his opinion, an infringement upon citizens’ privacy.
The coronavirus, said Sharansky, did not give birth to telephone surveillance technology: it has been in use for over a decade, he said.
“Because of corona, some of the new methods of monitoring, watching after people, which already existed, became legitimate,” he said. “The fact that now that it is general knowledge that you can be watched because of your mobile phone, I think it’s a good thing.”
He said that while nondemocratic countries are surely using the technology in place of, or in addition to, the informants of his era, it is the job of all Israeli citizens and the government to place legal restrictions on the technology and stop a slippery slope of infringement upon citizens’ rights.
“The people say that it is bad that now that it is openly used, I say in fact it is good that now we and members of the Knesset know what is the potential… Now that we know about it, I’d hope that the law would put very strict restrictions on its use. It should not be used in a normal situation to invade our lives,” he said.
Providing historical context, Troy said that over 100 years ago, the great Jewish American judge and legal scholar Louis Brandeis wrote an essay about privacy that couldn’t be more resonant today.
“You read it and it’s unbelievable. He saw that if you don’t respect privacy you have a serious problem in democracy. He set up the tension between the power of the technology to violate the individual’s privacy and be used by the state and the need to be vigilant to protect the individual. And so it’s a constant balance,” said Troy.
Building a bridge in 3-D
At its heart, the conceit of “Never Alone” is the vehicle of the three segments of Sharansky’s life in order to build a “3-D” approach to conceiving of the Jewish people.
“If you want to see a subject, you have to look at it from three different perspectives,” said Sharansky. “In this book… we tried to show the arguments from both sides, so it’s not the fight of enemies, but the fight of people who are concerned how we are rebuilding the Jewish state and have different points.”
While in prison, Sharansky imagined a nation supporting his struggle — which was indeed the reality. Later, as a politician traveling to US campuses, he learned that not every Jew supports the Jewish state. And finally, as a statesman in the role of the head of the Jewish Agency, he attempted to be a bridge builder between the two largest Jewish communities of Israel and the United States.
We have to talk in a much more deep intimate way than we talk if you want to continue to be one family
To illustrate the essential differences currently facing the two communities, the authors coin the concept of the lineages of David versus Isaiah. Israelis are “davidic” and are most preoccupied with the existential existence of the Jewish state. The Diaspora communities are more likely to be of the house of Isaiah and are concerned with building tolerant communities in which they can flourish.
“We have to understand that we are living in different environments and we have a different set of priorities, but we have something mutual in common, let us discuss, let us talk. We have to talk in a much more deep intimate way than we talk if you want to continue to be one family,” said Sharansky.
“I would say that’s the main message of our book: We will stay being different, but because our desire to continue our journey in history is so strong, through talking, through discussions, through cooperating, we can build it,” he said.
The two schools of thought often come into conflict, however, such as over the rights of Liberal Jews to the pray at the Western Wall or what types of conversions — and by which rabbis — are accepted by the Israeli chief rabbinate.
There are no books written on how you are ingathering exiles after thousands of years and how you recognize them as citizens
“There are no books written on how you are ingathering exiles after thousands of years and how you recognize them as citizens,” said Sharansky, implying that while perhaps the Israeli governments have not always been sensitive to US Jewry’s desires, they are traveling in uncharted territory.
“We’ll solve these problems, with the Kotel and liberal approach to conversion, we’ll solve them — but better sooner than later,” said Sharansky.
The rise of Soviet-style doublethink in the free world
Among the problems Diaspora communities face today is the rise of “doublethink” in which societal or career pressures don’t allow them to speak freely for fear of cancel culture. This is not only a Jewish problem, emphasize the authors, but it is one that may have roots 20 years ago during the Second Intifada when young Jews on campus were suddenly ashamed of the Jewish state.
As a politician at the time, Sharansky no longer embodied the pure Prisoners of Zion movement, rather the “Goliath” IDF responding to Palestinian suicide bombers’ terrorist attacks. He was accused of being an accomplice to the genocide of Palestinians and told that it would have been better had Israel not existed at all.
“I have no remorse, no second thoughts moving from the life where everybody says you’re such an inspiration to the life where everybody says you’re such a disappointment,” said Sharansky. But this transition did cause him to open his eyes to a new existential threat to Israel.
“Suddenly you understand the danger — not for our physical survival because we can fight with the help of our army — but for the unity of the Jewish people, that we can lose a big number of our Jewish people simply because our enemies are so successful in hijacking the language of human rights from us and presenting us as the last ugly colonial project,” said Sharansky.
“So the challenge became: how to make these students proud to be part of the struggle of the Jewish people and not being ashamed of it,” said Sharansky.
We can lose a big number of our Jewish people simply because our enemies are so successful in hijacking the language of human rights from us
Troy, a longtime campus professor, said that in the past academics thought this dissatisfaction with Israel among youth was “a passing fancy.” But now, he said, it has evolved into the idea of a “social justice warrior,” which has become mainstream, even in banks and corporations.
“Once upon a time it was a thing in the universities, now the extremists are running the conversation and they’re bullying people, not just on Twitter, but also in the corporation called Twitter. Not just on Facebook, but in the corporation called Facebook. And from there it’s going even into banks,” he said.
Troy relates that to him, one of the saddest incidents recounted in the book was when Sharansky visited campuses and found that even though students may support Israel, they are afraid to voice their opinions.
“What was really terrifying, what was really heartbreaking was to hear this man from the Soviet Union see these double-thinkers at Harvard University, at Columbia University, at Rutgers University. People at the best universities in the United States of America, at the freest country in the world, in the world that had always set the standard for the freedom, and he sees in their eyes, ‘I think one thing, I feel one thing, but I have to say a different thing in order to be accepted.’
“And it started in the 2000s over Israel and now we’re starting to see it in 2020 over the United States of America, over race questions, over veganism, over all kinds of things,” said Troy.
Sharansky said that a very dangerous phenomenon of doublethink is entering the free world, but it can still be stopped by every citizen making a decision to be free.
“I’m optimistic. It is the nature of people to want to be free and there is no totalitarian regime which will turn people into non-free. But even the small concessions here, individual concessions, are dangerous. We are simply warning,” he said.
“I was optimistic in prison and I am definitely optimistic in Jerusalem,” said Sharansky.
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