Natan Sharansky: From Prisoner of Zion to Guardian of Zion

June 12, 2019

6 min read

When Anatoly Shcharansky – a “Prisoner of Zion” who struggled for the freedom of Soviet Jews to go to Israel – was sentenced in 1978 by a Moscow to 13 years’ imprisonment on trumped-up charges of high treason, espionage and anti-government activity, he thought about what to say to the judges in his defense.

He was sure he would be jailed for many years, tortured and maybe even never to be heard of again. In fact, he was about to serve nine years in a Soviet forced-labor camp, including many years in solitary confinement and 405 days in punishment cells. His words of protest at his trial would be disseminated by friends – who stored in their memories for several days what he said because they could not record them – until they could make contact with the Western media.

“I knew I had to be very short, said Natan Sharansky (his Hebrew name for the last 33 years) in Jerusalem this week. “ I could have repeated famous words such ‘Let my people go!’ or ‘Never Again.’ But I said: “For 2,000 years, my people – spread all over the world – were saying: ‘Leshana haba’a Biyerushalayim, Next Year in Jerusalem. And today I say, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’ ”

The longtime Prisoner of Zion has become a “Guardian of Zion,” the 23rd annual recipient of a distinguished prize from the Faculty of Jewish Studies and the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

Former Soviet refusenik and prisoner, Israeli politician, human rights activist and author Natan Sharansky with his wife Avital after his release from prison in the Soviet Union. He landed in Israel on February 11, 1986. Photo by Moshe Shai/FLASH90.

Standing this week in Jerusalem’s dazzling King David Hotel overlooking the Old City among other former Prisoners of Zion, he looked with love and appreciation at his wife Avital. They had been married in a friend’s apartment in a religious ceremony not recognized by the government, as the USSR recognized only civil marriages. Avital had to leave the Soviet Union the night after their wedding in 1974, just before her exit visa expired.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she defied her shyness and led an extended public campaign to free him, meeting with prominent government leaders in the US and around the world. In 1979, she published a book on the couple’s struggle entitled Next Year in Jerusalem.

Former Soviet refusenik and prisoner, Israeli politician, human rights activist and author Natan Sharansky with Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon after his release from prison in the Soviet Union. He landed in Israel on February 11, 1986. Photo by Moshe Shai/FLASH90

Sharansky was the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev due to intense political pressure from Ronald Reagan, freed from Soviet incarceration as part of a prisoner exchange that took place in freezing winter weather on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin. Sharansky was reunited with his devoted wife in Jerusalem in 1986, and they became the parents of two girls, Rachel and Hannah, who have since bestowed upon them several grandchildren.

Also present at the dinner was Bar-Ilan University president Prof. Arie Zaban, former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Prisoner of Zion and now-Knesset Speaker Yoel (Yuli) Edelstein and other previous recipients of the Rennert award. Warm greetings were sent by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin (who is in mourning for his wife Nechama, who died of a lung disease a day before her 74th birthday last week).

Sharansky, who spoke spontaneously in English, dedicated his words to Hillel Butman, the founder of the first Zionist youth movement in Leningrad in 1966 who had hoped to attend the dinner but died just two weeks ago in Israel; he was a pioneer, as it was only in 1967, as a result of the Six Day War, that Soviet Jews became aware of their heritage.

Butman, who was expelled from the Leningrad police force for associating with pro-Israeli Jews, joined in the formation in 1966 of an underground Zionist organization aimed at “awakening the consciousness of Soviet Jews.” With other members, he secretly taught Hebrew and circulated Jewish literature. The group also conceived a daring plan, code-named Operation Wedding, to hijack a plane to Israel to dramatize the desire of Soviet Jews to emigrate to the Jewish homeland. The jet heist was aborted in 1970, but Butman was arrested by the KGB, charged with treason and sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag forced-labor camp. After serving nine years, Butman was deported to Israel; his daughter Geula was born here and gave him grandchildren.

Sharansky and Butman were imprisoned for a time in adjacent cells but unable to speak to each other. They communicated by tapping Morse code on the pipes connected to their toilets and even managed to play virtual chess games without pieces by using the code.

“I want to express my awe, my feeling of humility,” said Sharansky in still-heavily-accented English at the dinner. “It is so difficult to speak about something so great as Jerusalem.” Born in the anti-religion and anti-Semitic Soviet Union in 1945, Sharansky had no circumcision and did not celebrate any of the Jewish holidays.

But his national feelings were aroused when he saw soldiers with tears in their eyes at the Western Wall after they recaptured it in 1967. “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” He heard on the radio the joyous words of Colonel Mordechai Gur, who commanded the brigade that penetrated the Old City of Jerusalem, The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

Other human rights activists asked him: “How did you Jews do it in only a few days?” He didn’t even know what the Temple Mount was, Sharansky recalled. “Then I started reading about my people. I discovered that we could be free and started to say publicly that we want to be part of the story of the Jewish People and get our freedom.

Once in Israel, he established a political party, Yisrael Ba’Aliya, with Edelstein, that would appeal to immigrants of former Soviet Jews and promote their absorption into Israeli society. The party won seven Knesset seats in 1996 and six seats in 1999. Sharansky served as a minister in Israeli governments three times, but he resigned in 2000 in response to suggestions that then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s negotiations with the Palestinians would result in a division of Jerusalem.

After Ariel Sharon won a special election for Prime Minister in 2001, the party joined his new government and was again given two ministerial posts. When, in the 2003 elections, his party was reduced to just two seats, Sharansky resigned from the Knesset, to be replaced by Edelstein. After his party merged with the Likud, he again became a minister but resigned in April 2005 to protest against plans to withdraw from Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. In June 2009, Sharansky was elected chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, where he served until his retirement last year.

“Today, our enemies who hate us as Jews or Israelis are very dangerous. The hate comes from both left and the right,” he noted at the Guardian of Zion dinner. “Jews must face the threat together or our disagreements will become so big that we are blind to antisemitism.”

Jewish intellectuals abroad “view Israel as problematic and are concerned with the Palestinians. They say they are not anti-Semites but only oppose Israeli policies. Jewish students on campuses in the West are under tremendous pressure. Those on the right include some great supporters of Israel but there are also anti-Semites.”

Sharansky concluded by urging pro-Israeli organizations and individuals on the right to speak out against antisemitism on that end of the political spectrum, and those on the left to speak out against hate on the other end.

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