Natan Sharansky at his office in Jerusalem, Sept. 2013 (Photo/JTA-Flash90-Miriam Alster)
Natan Sharansky at his office in Jerusalem, Sept. 2013 (Photo/JTA-Flash90-Miriam Alster)

Q&A: Natan Sharansky — Soviet prisoner and champion of freedom returns to S.F.

No one better embodies the journey from refusenik to Israeli success story than Natan Sharansky, who as the current head of the Jewish Agency helps Jews around the world make the move he himself once longed for — and finally accomplished.

He has worn many hats in his life: rabble-rouser, prisoner, politician, government minister, author. In the 1970s and ’80s his face graced posters brandished at rallies for Soviet Jewry across North America. Through it all, he has been sustained by a deep, unbending commitment first to his own personal freedom and that of the Jews behind the Iron Curtain, and since his aliyah 30 years ago to the flourishing of Jewish identity in Israel and around the world.

Born Anatoly Shcharansky 69 years ago in Donetsk, Ukraine, he was thrust onto the public stage in 1973 when his application to leave the Soviet Union was denied for “security reasons.” He became a leading Jewish refusenik and a founder of the human-rights group Helsinki Watch, serving as an unofficial spokesman for both causes until his 1977 arrest as a spy for the Americans. Sentenced to 13 years, he served nine years in the Siberian gulag before international pressure led to his release on Feb. 11, 1986. He immigrated to Israel that same day.

Feb. 6, 1987 cover of the Jewish Bulletin (now J.) heralded Nathan Sharansky's first visit to the Bay Area.
Feb. 6, 1987 cover of the Jewish Bulletin (now J.) heralded Nathan Sharansky’s first visit to the Bay Area.

In the years that followed, Sharansky turned his attention to freedom for others, starting with his fellow Soviet Jews, a campaign that culminated in a huge rally on Dec. 6, 1987, that brought 250,000 protesters to Washington, D.C., and was considered instrumental in the easing of emigration restrictions and the eventual exodus of more than 2 million Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Then he turned to helping those newly arrived immigrants find their place in Israeli society. In 1996 he founded Yisrael B’Aliyah, the first Israeli political party to represent the Russian-speaking population. It won seven Knesset seats, launching Sharansky on a 10-year political career. He held ministerial roles in four governments, including a stint as deputy prime minister. In 2009 he was elected chairman of the Jewish Agency, where he has revitalized the organization, broadening its focus beyond aliyah toward strengthening diaspora Jews’ connection to Israel.

Sharansky first visited San Francisco in February 1987, when he took part in a protest outside the Soviet Consulate and re-created the famous zigzag walk he’d taken the year before, during his release, across a bridge separating East and West Germany. (His Soviet guards had told him to walk directly to the other side, and in a last gesture of defiance, he did just the opposite.)

J. interviewed him by phone in advance of his upcoming visit to the Bay Area, where he will appear Nov. 16 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and Nov. 17-19 at Limmud FSU in Oakland.

J.: You first visited San Francisco 30 years ago. Have you been back since?

Natan Sharansky: Many times. I remember in 2004, during the second intifada, I traveled to all the universities in the United States. It was the first time I realized what a big problem they were having. I remember one of the toughest was San Francisco State University, one of the most anti-Semitic I saw in America. After that I created a special program in the Jewish Agency to send our shlichim (emissaries) to U.S. campuses.

In the ’70s and ’80s, it was absolutely different. Berkeley was one of the strongest campuses in our struggle for Soviet Jewry. The situation has changed a lot in 30 years. I wouldn’t say it’s now anti-Semitic, but very anti-Israel.

What are your memories of that first visit in 1987?

It was over 30 years ago, and I only visited a couple hundred places! But San Francisco was an important center for the struggle for Soviet Jewry. When I was in Moscow, meeting with “visitors” who were important channels of communication between us and the outside world, the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry was one of the most active branches of the struggle. And later San Francisco became important for two reasons: It was one of the major student centers, groups of young activists at Berkeley and other places. My wife was at UC Berkeley for a rally for Soviet Jews, and she told me Joan Baez was singing there. The second reason is that San Francisco had a Soviet Consulate, which was a good place for demonstrations.

Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987 (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987 (Photo/Tom Wachs)

San Francisco was important to me, personally, as well. After I was arrested — I didn’t know about it at the time, I was in prison — an international tribunal on my behalf, to protest the accusations against me, was held in San Francisco in 1983. Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler were the young human rights lawyers presenting my case [in the mock trial].

After I was released from prison, in 1987 I came to America to call upon American Jewry to hold a massive demonstration in Washington in December during [Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail] Gorbachev’s visit. In the beginning, the Jewish establishment was very unenthusiastic. I was talking about hundreds or thousands of Jews coming to Washington, and they said it’s impossible, they won’t come. I spent three months traveling all over America, speaking about the rally. San Francisco was one of those places. From practically everywhere I spoke, people filled the buses coming to Washington. Maybe from San Francisco they didn’t come on buses. Probably airplanes.

What will you talk about on your trip here?

I can’t say exactly, it depends on what’s going on. But the fact is, in my many jobs I have dealt with the same issue all the time: the relationship between diaspora Jewry and Israel, the need for us to work together on issues of mutual interest. That’s what I talk about wherever I speak.

You are one of the only Israeli leaders to recognize the importance of non-Orthodox Judaism. You support the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel and you criticize Israeli officials who do not, most notably in the struggle for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall and easing the Orthodox control over conversions. Is your position personal, political or something else?

Of course it’s personal. Being involved in our struggle in Moscow, when I was responsible for the connections between different groups and organizations, I learned very well we can succeed only when we are together. Today in Israel I go to one synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue, to pray, but when you speak to the Jewish people, when you call them to action, you have to speak to everybody. You have to understand them all.

Some Jews feel they are less welcome in Israel than others. First of all, that’s absolutely unacceptable to the idea of Zionism. Also it goes against the most important needs of the Jewish people at a time when we all need to be united. It’s essential that with all our differences, all our different understandings of what our Jewishness means to us, that everyone who wants to feel part of this Jewish journey should feel completely at home among the Jewish people and definitely in the State of Israel.

1.Sharansky speaking at the presidential residence in Jerusalem (Photo/Courtesy Mark Neiman-GPO)
Sharansky speaking at the presidential residence in Jerusalem (Photo/Courtesy Mark Neiman-GPO)

How do you feel we can keep the next generation of American Jews connected to Israel?

What can keep them connected is their desire to be part of the Jewish story. As one who was first an assimilated Soviet Jew and then became very Jewishly involved, I know the great difference it can have on the meaning of your life, the intensity of your life, when you are part of this great, unique story of the Jewish people. It can give you a lot of strength to accomplish what you want. And for young people who want to influence the world for the better, they need to know that the only real source of energy and enthusiasm to change the world is to discover your identity, to feel a very deep desire to continue on your unique path.

Today there are two factors that can slow down the assimilation of world Jewry: faith and Zionism, the connection to tradition and the connection to the State of Israel. This connection is in the interest of the State of Israel and in the interest of the Jewish people, but it has to be built from both sides. Israel wants the Jews to be united, they want Israel to be the home of all the world’s Jews. But they need to understand the Jews of the diaspora. And Jews in the diaspora need to understand Israel. This encounter is crucial for both sides.

That was the big change I made at the Jewish Agency. Historically we were focused on the ingathering of the exiles. That’s very important today, too, but now we are in the era of free choice. And when you have aliyah-by-choice, Jews will only come to Israel if they feel a strong sense of their Jewish identity. So those who struggle against assimilation, those who want to preserve and protect Israel, should be very concerned that Jews be deeply connected to their identity.

That’s why we need more and more young Jews coming to Israel. And we need more and more Israelis visiting Jewish communities in the diaspora. That’s our goal at the Jewish Agency: We are developing many different projects that encourage more young Jews to come to Israel. Each year I’ve been at the Jewish Agency we send out more and more shlichim, ambassadors from Israel. We have close to 2,000 now. We also have projects in Third World countries, where young Jews can be involved in the work of tikkun olam. We have people coming for a few weeks, a year of studies, of social activism, of internships, to work in youth movements. Whatever a young Jew is interested in doing, we want to help them do it in Israel, because even a few weeks or months spent in Israel will have a tremendous influence on their life.

And vice-versa. It’s very important for Israelis to be in touch with the Jews of the diaspora, so we can understand each other better. Each of us has parts of our identity that are needed by the other side.

The Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews held daily vigils in front of the Soviet Consulate, like this one in Nov. 1986 (Photos/Tom Wachs)
The Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews held daily vigils in front of the Soviet Consulate, like this one in Nov. 1986 (Photos/Tom Wachs)

When you were a refusenik you dreamed of aliyah. You got out of prison and moved to Israel immediately. Have your views changed since then? Can one be a Zionist and still live in the diaspora?

My views didn’t change. I believe that for those who want to influence the future of the Jewish people, the best place to be is Israel. But on other hand, it’s a very individual decision to make aliyah. I believe we must have enough room for everyone, those who have decided to make aliyah and those who haven’t decided yet.

There is no contradiction between having a strong Israel and strong Jewish communities around the world. We need one another and we have to strengthen one another.

Do I think that my life is much better, much more interesting , much more exciting because I live in Israel? Absolutely. Do I expect everybody to do the same? I don’t believe anyone can make these kinds of decisions for someone else.

That’s why even though, as head of the Jewish Agency I find myself dealing 24 hours a day with questions of aliyah, helping Jews from Iran, Yemen, Venezuela, France, Ukraine, Mexico, Turkey, to make aliyah, I don’t come with a message that every Jew must make aliyah immediately. I believe in aliyah. But a politician who believes in aliyah isn’t going to influence anyone to do it. You have to show people that life in Israel is deep, is meaningful, is interesting, but at the end of the day, it’s a personal decision for each one of us.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].