Natan Sharansky

Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky (born in 1948), former Prisoner of Zion, became a symbol of the struggle for human rights and the struggle for Soviet Jewry. He holds a degree in Applied Mathematics from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, served as Minister of Industry and Trade in the 27th Israeli government and Ministry of Interior in the 29th government.

 

When the Soviet Union existed, Sharansky was arrested on political grounds. He was accused of treason and of spying for the United States, and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment. He was ultimately released, partly because of diplomatic pressure by the State of Israel and the United States.

Sharansky is considered to have been a leader of the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the Soviet Union and their principal spokesman.

He documented his experiences during his years of arrest and imprisonment as a Prisoner of Zion in an autobiography written in 1988, Fear No Evil, which was translated into nine languages. He attributed his survival in prison to his ability to see himself, in his own mind, as free.

Zionist

Natan Sharansky was born in the Ukraine in 1948 as Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky. Over the years he began formulating a Zionist world-view, as he recounts:

© Photo: Avi Ohayon. Government Press

“For us, who have come out of the Soviet Union, the crystallization of Israel’s status as the torch bearer of Jewish identity is not merely a theoretical process, but a most tangible, personal experience. We were born into a Judaism that had almost been obliterated by the Soviet steamroller. We knew well the anti-Semitic jokes that we heard around us, but we knew almost nothing of our own roots. That is how it was until 1967. In the months that preceded the war, anti-Semitism and the hatred toward us increased enormously, and suddenly, within six dramatic days, the atmosphere was utterly transformed. The call that was carried from Jerusalem, “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” penetrated the Iron Curtain and joined us, almost mystically, to our people. It was a call from the depths of our past, from the depths of our thousands of years of history. We were no longer cut off, alone. We belonged to something tremendous, even if we didn’t yet know what it was exactly. We stood up straighter. We still suffered anti-Semitic harassment, but we were no longer a cowardly object of scorn. And so, instinctively, without having any real connection with Judaism, we became Zionists. Israel filled the empty vacuum that the Soviet steamroller had left in us.”

(Natan Sharansky, “The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl”, in New Essays on Zionism, Shalem, 2006)

According to what Sharansky writes here, what led to Natan Sharansky’s Zionist world-view and that of other Jews in the Soviet Union?


In 1973 Sharansky applied for an exit visa for Israel, but his application was rejected on “security” grounds. After being unsuccessful in receiving an emigration visa, he began working for the well-known physicist Andrei Sakharov, as a translator from English to Russian.

In 1974 Sharansky married Avital. She came to Israel on July 5, 1974, the day after their wedding, and hoped that he would be able to make aliya soon after her.

Natan Sharansky now lives in Jerusalem, is married to Avital and is the father of two daughters.

Kidnapped

Sharansky joined the human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, headed by Sakharov. This organization was set up in 1976, with its principal aim being to monitor and report on the implementation and breaches of the Helsinki Accords, which the Soviet Union signed in 1975, and which contained an article requiring them to uphold human rights. At that time, Sharansky also became the principal spokesman for Jewish refuseniks, and was a key Zionist activist.

“Half an hour earlier I had tossed down a few drops of cognac, which was a lot for me, as I normally can’t tolerate anything stronger than a light wine. A group of us were meeting in Vladimir Slepak’s apartment for our weekly Hebrew lesson, doing our best to maintain a reasonably normal existence in spite of the drastic accusations in Izvestia and the increasingly brazen behaviour of our tails. Whenever I went out I was followed by two cars and eight men, who formed a human cage around me on the street. Instead of lurking in the shadows, they now came right up to me, as if the KGB wanted to remind me that my days were numbered and resistance was useless.”

Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil, Random House, New York, 1988, p. 4

On March 5, 1977, he was kidnapped by the KGB near his home and arrested, and in 1978 he was charged with treason and with spying for the United States. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment (in fact he served nine years), of which sixteen months was spent in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, often in solitary confinement or in a special torture cell while being interrogated by the KGB. From there he was transferred to one of the notorious forced-labour camps in Siberia (known as the Gulag). During that time, his physical suffering was added to by the mental anguish caused by being told that the world had forgotten him. His imprisonment was part of a general phenomenon known as the “Prisoners of Zion”: under the Communist Regime, Jews were not permitted to emigrate to Israel for political reasons, with Refuseniks who worked openly against these restrictions being arrested and imprisoned by the authorities.

“At the end of June, during an unscheduled search of our cell, the guards confiscated my toothbrush for being slightly sharpened at one end. The previous evening, Timofeev [his cellmate – ed.] had rubbed it against the metal cot so I could cut the sausages and cheese from my monthly food package… On July 4, my third wedding anniversary, Major Stepanov came to the cell. ‘You violated the rules of conduct,’ he snapped. ‘Prepare yourself for punishment.’ I was being sentenced to ten days in the punishment cell for making a sharp weapon. The guards ordered me to remove my clothing. After examining it, they permitted me to put on underpants, a T-shirt and thin socks. They handed me a torn, thin jacket and a pair of pants, and offered me a choice between slippers or huge boot without laces. I chose the boots.”

Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil, Random House, New York, 1988, p. 106

 

During his years of imprisonment Sharansky became a symbol of the struggle for human rights in general, and a symbol of the struggle for Soviet Jewry in particular. Years later, Sharansky explained that his ability to survive under the harsh prison conditions lay in his belief that the State of Israel and the Jewish people were behind him:

“For me, this feeling of connection with Israel was like an anchor and a hope throughout the long years of imprisonment. Even in my darkest hours, I knew without doubt that the Jewish people and the State of Israel would not abandon me, that there is a State that is behind me.”

(Natan Sharansky, “The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl”, in New Essays on Zionism, Shalem, 2006)

 

Something else that helped him hang on under those conditions was the belief in his own mind that he remained free. As he said, the paradox was that when he was a Russian citizen like any other, he was a slave to the system, but from the moment that his movements were restricted and he was imprisoned for his Jewishness, his spirit was free. He expressed this perspective in the following words:

“Your Honor, you believe that you are free! You believe this because, when this trial is over, you will go home, while it is I who will be enslaved, since I will be going to prison for a long time.

But you should know that, of the two of us, it is I who am truly free! Although my body may be held captive, my spirit will remain free; since I will feel that I have not submitted to your decrees and have remained faithful to my beliefs. But you, the judge, have been have been told in advance what to say! Your body may be free, but you are not free to rule according to what you believe. Your spirit is enslaved, and that is much worse."

(From: Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil, Random House, New York, 1988)

Read what Sharansky wrote. Explain it in your own words.

 


British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meeting Anatoly Nathan Sheransky, © Photo: Chanaia Herman. Government Press

Throughout his years of imprisonment, his wife Avital worked for his release. She organized a political and diplomatic lobby that included ministers, senators, Knesset members and many ordinary citizens. Her work was part of a large and world-wide struggle on behalf of the Prisoners of Zion in the Soviet Union.  But the efforts of all of these were unsuccessful until 1986, when, as part of a prisoner exchange between East and West, he was released. Sharansky was not aware of the struggle being waged on his behalf, and when they came to release him he knew nothing about it. He was brought to the border of West Germany (Germany at the time was still divided), where Israel’s Ambassador to Germany waited for him. The Ambassador handed him a new Israeli passport, under the name Natan Sharansky. On February 11, 1986, Sharansky arrived in Israel, where he was met at the airport by senior government officials, including then Prime Minister Shimon Peres. 

Hero

Prisoner of zion Yosef Begun being hugged by Nathan Scharansky and friends after his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. © Photo: Nati Harnik. Government Press Office.

Sharansky received a hero’s welcome. When he met is wife for the first time after 12 years of separation, he said to her in Hebrew, “Forgive me for being a little late.”

Following his release, Sharansky worked to help other Prisoners of Zion. After that he became involved in the absorption of Soviet Jewish immigrants in the State of Israel.

“The night I arrived in Israel I spoke with President Reagan on the telephone. When reporters asked me why I was so calm at that moment, I told them the truth: ‘What could possibly add to my excitement on the day I left prison, saw Avital, and flew with her to Israel?’ I felt that way for months – that never again could I experience that marvelous sense of excitement But then I became a father. […] We called our daughter Rachel. I chose the name because the biblical Jacob worked fourteen years for his Rachel, while Avital and I had waited almost as long for ours. Avital liked the name because in Jewish tradition the matriarch Rachel symbolizes the ingathering of the exiles.”

Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil, Random House, New York, 1988, pp. 422-423

Immigrants from the Soviet Union began arriving in Israel in the early 1970s, when the Soviet Union, under enormous pressure from the Western world, permitted Jews to leave for Israel. By the end of the 1970s, about 140,000 olim had arrived in Israel. But this was only the prelude to the much larger wave of aliya from the Soviet Union, which began in the late 1980s, the final years of the Communist regime, and continued following of the fall of the Communist state. The climax of this aliya from the former Soviet Union was in the years 1990 and 1991, and by the end of the 20th century the total had reached 750,000.

This wave of aliya was called the Russian Aliya, although many of the immigrants were from Ukraine and other countries that had been part of the Soviet Union. The new immigrants had an enormous influence on Israeli society, both demographically (given the numbers of people arriving) and culturally. On the one hand, many of the olim maintained their own language and culture, and did not assimilate into Israeli society, something that led to a wave of unfounded stereotypes. On the other hand, the immigrants were educated people – musicians, artists, doctors and scientists, who contributed greatly to the development of the State of Israel.


Natan Sharansky argued that there were problems in the way the State of Israel managed immigrant absorption, and in 1995 he established a political party named Yisrael BaAliyah, whose purpose was to assist new immigrants in their economic, social and professional integration. In the 1996 elections, his party won 7 Knesset seats, and Sharansky was appointed as Minister of Industry and Trade in the 27th Israeli government. In the 29th government he served as Minister of Construction and Housing.

Opening of the Knesset's winter session © Photo: Avi Ohayon. Government Press Office.

In November 2006 Sharansky resigned from the Knesset, and today he is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. In 2009 Sharansky was elected chairman of the Jewish Agency.

Prisoners of Zion

The concept “Prisoner of Zion” refers to Jews who sought to emigrate to Israel from their countries of origin, but were refused, and even punished by being imprisoned. This term is mainly applied to Zionist activists in Iraq and aliya activists in the Soviet Union. Some say that the concept is based on a poem by Rabbi Yehuda Halevy, the leading Jewish poet in the Middle Ages in Spain. These are the first lines of the poem:

“Zion, thou art doubtless anxious for news of thy captives;
 They ask after thee, they who are the remainder of thy flock”

What is the connection between the poem and the concept "Prisoners of Zion"? Read the the poem in Hebrew and English. Extract used with permission from Zionism and Israel On the Web. The English translation is copyright 2005 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel on the Web.


Yosef Batzri. From Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Matanya.

Prisoners of Zion in Iraq – In the late 1940s and early 1950s, following the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews in Iraq suffered persecution at the hands of the authorities, and were accused of Zionist activity and of spying for Israel. Many were arrested, and in January 1952 two of them – Yosef Batzri and Shalom Ben-Salah – were executed by hanging. Some of the prisoners were released for money, and some were able to cross the border in secret and reach Israel.

For short periods in the 1950s, Iraqi Jews were permitted to leave for Israel, and many of them did so.

Following the Six Day War, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the authorities again increased their pressure, and many of the Jews who remained in Iraq were arrested and accused of collaboration with Zionism. Any show of connection with Judaism, such as wearing a Magen-David pendant, led to imprisonment. Over 1,000 people spent more than half a year in prison, and the families of the prisoners were forced to pay ransom to have their loved ones released. The harsh treatment by the authorities forced the Jews to leave Iraq secretly. Up to 1973 most of the Jews had managed to flee, and since then aliya continued bit by bit. Today there are only a few Jews left in Iraq.

Former Prisoners of Zion demonstrating at the Western Wall, with their prison numbers on their clothes. © Photo: Government Press Office.

Prisoners of Zion in the Soviet Union – During the years in which the Soviet Union was under communist rule, the Jews became estranged from their religion, and their connection with Judaism weakened. In the 1960s there was a national awakening among many of the Soviet Union’s two million Jews, and it was reflected in the study of Hebrew, a return to Jewish tradition, and the desire to emigrate to the State of Israel. The Soviet authorities granted exit visas to a small number of Jews, and even that was as a result of pressure from the western world. However, many Jews were denied the right to leave the Soviet Union. In particular the authorities harassed aliya activists, with the aim of suppressing the Jewish national awakening. The argument against them was that they held State secrets, and by leaving the Soviet Union, they would be endangering its security.

The people became “refuseniks,” and were known as “Prisoners of Zion.” Many of them were dismissed from their places of employment, and hundreds were arrested and spent many years in prison or in labor camps. Among the best known were Ida Nudel, Yosef Mendelevich, Silva Zalmanson, Yosef Begun, and Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky.

Russian immigrants holding a hunger strike near the Western Wall in Jerusalem to demonstrate for free immigration to Israel. © Photo: Fritz Cohen. Government Press Office.

The struggle of the Prisoners of Zion resonated in Israel and throughout the world, and intellectuals, statesmen and artists enlisted in the public struggle for their release. The supporters of the struggle for the Prisoners of Zion exerted strong pressure on the Soviet regime, and supported the prisoners through sending letters of encouragement.

At the end of the 1980’s all of the Prisoners of Zion were released, and were allowed to emigrate to Israel.