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Natan Sharansky: Dialogue Between Jews and Israelis Is Needed Right Now

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avatar by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy


Israeli police fire water cannon at protestors outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem. Photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

“Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People,” by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy, featuring a special foreword by the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog (Hachette, 2023)

In 1977, Natan Sharansky, a leading activist in the democratic dissident movement in the Soviet Union and the movement for free Jewish emigration, was arrested by the KGB. He spent nine years as a political prisoner, convicted of treason against the state. Every day, Sharansky fought for individual freedom in the face of overt tyranny, a struggle that would come to define the rest of his life. 

“Never Alone” reveals how Sharansky’s years in prison, many spent in harsh solitary confinement, prepared him for a very public life after his release. As an Israeli politician and the head of the Jewish Agency, Sharansky brought extraordinary moral clarity and uncompromising, often uncomfortable, honesty. His story is suffused with reflections from his time as a political prisoner, from his seat at the table as history unfolded in Israel and the Middle East, and from his passionate efforts to unite the Jewish people. Written with frankness, affection, and humor, the book offers us profound insights from a man who embraced the essential human struggle: to find his own voice, his own faith, and the people to whom he could belong.

Below is an excerpt from the book:

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After living my life backward, the usual sequence seems overrated. Whenever I hear of friends separating after decades of marriage, I wonder, “Maybe they did it in the wrong order.” My wife, Avital, and I were separated one day after we married. We didn’t see each other for twelve years, then lived happily ever after.

I was circumcised when I was twenty-five years old, not eight days old. So, unlike most, I could give my consent. And, two days later, when I joined yet another Refusenik protest, the KGB imprisoned me for fifteen days. Thus, the Soviet secret police enabled me to commune quietly with Abraham, the first Jew, who circumcised himself at the age of ninety-nine, and soon hosted angels in his tent.

Years later, after some other freed Refuseniks and I founded an Israeli political party, we thought up a fitting slogan. Promising that “we are a different type of party, we go to prison first,” we won more seats than expected.

Finally, at the age of sixty-five, I had my bar mitzvah — fifty-two years late. The traditional Jewish rite of passage for boys is at thirteen. My belated ceremony was cost-efficient: I now had a squad of grandchildren to pick up the candy the guests would throw at me in celebration, so everything stayed in the family.

A year earlier, when I was sixty-four, one of my sons-in-law had been reminiscing about his bar mitzvah. I asked him what my Torah reading would have been. He looked it up, based on my birth date. I thought he was teasing when he answered a few minutes later: “It’s Parashat Bo,” at the beginning of Exodus.

Parashat Bo? When Moses tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” uttering those mighty words that became the slogan of our struggle for freedom in the Soviet Union?

“This cannot be a coincidence,” I thought. “I will have to have a bar mitzvah.” Sixty-five seemed like a perfectly good age — five times thirteen.

On the appointed day, I read the first two parts of the Torah portion, with the proper trope, the traditional cantillation. Fortunately, my two sons-in-law stepped in and read the other five parts and the accompanying Biblical passage from Jeremiah 43 — the Haftorah — which envisions the Jews being redeemed.

Yet the ordeal wasn’t over after the candies had been pelted and my young cleanup crew had arrived. I still had to make a speech. I analyzed Exodus 10:1 through Exodus 13:16, which peaks with the tenth plague, killing the firstborn Egyptians.

I asked, “What makes this plague different from all the other plagues the Egyptians endured?”

The first nine plagues seem like a Greek drama starring three protagonists: God, Moses, and Pharaoh. Aaron is a supporting player. The mass of Jewish slaves have no individuality. Their voices merge into one Greek chorus.

But for the big one, the tenth plague, every Israelite must act individually. Every adult in the community must take a stand. Each Israelite first must decide to be free, then act free. Each one rejects the Egyptian gods by slaughtering a lamb, an animal Egyptians worshiped. Then the Israelites publicly proclaim they no longer wish to live there, marking their doorposts with the lambs’ blood.

I explained that only by defying Egypt publicly, could those slaves become free. And only through each individual declaration of independence could they join together in the national exodus. Real change occurs when each person stops being controlled by fear, and starts acting independently.

All this paralleled the Refuseniks’ struggle against the Soviet system. Like Egyptian slavery, the Communist regime was designed to intimidate, to crush. Every Jew hoping to emigrate had to overcome overwhelming fear by soliciting an invitation from Israel, a Soviet enemy. Applying for a visa required seeking permission from each Soviet school and workplace that defined your life. Essentially, you shouted publicly, “I don’t accept your gods. I want to leave this country.”

And what was the payoff? In Exodus, God offers the Jewish people  … the Jewish people. The Jews leave Egypt and seven weeks later, receive the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, accepting identity and freedom as a package deal. This would become one of our people’s main missions: balancing our right to belong and to be free.

Thirty-five hundred years later, I got the great payoff by joining that journey. Once I hopped aboard, I was never alone.

Admittedly, our book Never Alone reads like an autobiography coauthored with the American historian and Zionist activist Gil Troy. We trace my journey from nine years in Soviet prisons to nine years in Israeli politics, then nine years in Jewish communal leadership. But this book is not exactly a memoir. Immediately after my release from the Soviet Gulag in 1986, I wrote my prison memoir, Fear No Evil. As for my life in freedom, in Israel, I believe I am still too young to sum it all up. After all, I was only bar mitzvahed ten years ago.

This book tells the story of the most important conversation of my life: the ongoing dialogue between Israel and the Jewish people. I first backed into it on the streets of Moscow, when I joined the movement for Jewish emigration. It is an eternal, global, meaningful, and sometimes shrill conversation that saved my life decades ago. Today, it enriches both authors’ lives, as well as many others’, by confronting questions about the meaning of faith, community, identity, and freedom. We believe that only through this dialogue can we continue our journey together. And that’s why we believe it is a dialogue worth defending.

My technical drafting teacher in high school taught us that if you view any object from three dimensions — the front, top, and side — you can see its exterior fully and draw it accurately. Zeroing in from each angle highlights specific aspects of the spatial relationship. Having watched the relationship between Israel and other Jewish communities from three perspectives, I hope I can draw it accurately.

I first joined this dialogue from behind the Iron Curtain. I continued it behind prison bars. My contacts were restricted, my involvement sometimes purely imagined, but this dialogue always fortified me. Participating in it, I exercised my newly developed muscles — my newfound commitments to my people specifically and to freedom for all.

Later, as a member of the Israeli cabinet, I represented the Israeli side of the dialogue and saw Diaspora Jews as the Jewish state’s cherished partners. While enjoying that bridge-building work, I did find the adjustment from dissident prisoner to party politician frustrating.

Most recently, as the head of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish world’s largest nongovernmental organization, I switched perspectives again. I looked to Israel not only as the center of the Jewish world but as a tool for strengthening Jews across the globe.

When things worked well — or when we were under attack — we saw how much we had in common. But I spent a lot of time defending Israel to Diaspora Jews and defending Diaspora Jewry to Israelis. These days, I often find myself defending the very idea of the need for the dialogue itself.

Dialogue is easy to call for but hard to pull off. To start listening and talking to one another, we don’t all need a full-blown, three-dimensional perspective. But we do need to see that the sum of our common concerns is greater than the sum of our many divisions.

The classic Jewish argument is a particular kind of clash. It’s over issues that people take personally and will shout about vehemently. It respects few boundaries. It has zero tolerance for the hypocrisy of doublethink or the sensitivities of political correctness. And it pivots on the dialectic, the clash between opposing views that requires each person to understand the other side — to annihilate the counterarguments while partially absorbing them.

The modern Zionist idea, and eventually the state of Israel, emerged from a deep, decades-long Talmudic debate, starting in the late 1700s, about the Jewish people’s future in the modern world. Over the years, as various movements formed in response to this crisis, Reformers yelled at Orthodox Jews who yelled at Conservative Jews who yelled at socialists, who yelled at Bundists, who yelled at Zionists. Even as Zionism developed, the clashes between Theodor Herzl’s Political Zionists, Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionists, Abraham Isaac Kook’s Religious Zionists, Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists, and David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir’s Labor Zionists were often bitter and nearly paralyzing but ultimately productive.

Today, we are still yelling at one another. But too many Jews — in Israel and in America — believing our divisions are too intense, are starting to give up on the dialogue. That’s why we are excited to release our updated and abridged paperback edition now — to make the case that we need this dialogue to continue, just as we need to continue balancing identity and freedom.

Natan Sharansky was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union and a minister in four Israeli governments. Gil Troy is a presidential historian at McGill University and a Zionist activist. Excerpted from “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People” by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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