Still Sharansky

Natan Sharansky in Jerusalem on May 31, 2019 (Jay Nordlinger)
A visit with the dissident-hero, and politician-activist, Natan Sharansky

Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded version of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.

With Gil Troy, the American historian, Natan Sharansky has written a new memoir: Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People. He was working on the book when I talked with him in Jerusalem last year. He said he wanted to call it “Nine, Nine, Nine.” With a smile, I told him about Herman Cain.

The late Mr. Cain, when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, had a tax plan that he termed “9-9-9.” He wanted to replace current taxes with a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent federal sales tax, and a 9 percent corporate tax. My colleague Kevin D. Williamson wrote a piece in opposition to this scheme, titled “Nein! Nein! Nein!”

By “Nine, Nine, Nine,” Sharansky meant nine years in the Soviet gulag; nine years in Israeli politics and government; and nine years as head of the Jewish Agency (the organization that serves as a kind of liaison between Israel and the world’s Jews). The symmetry of the numbers appealed to him as a mathematician. But his publishers didn’t go for it, for a variety of reasons. So “Never Alone” it was, and is.

He never felt alone in the Gulag, he tells me, even though the KGB tried to convince him that he had been abandoned. “Only if you cooperate with us,” they said, “can you save your life.” But Sharansky knew they were lying. He knew that there were many people behind him — even when he was deep in the isolation cell.

It was more difficult, he says, not to feel alone in the world of politics! There, you’re always “competing” with everybody else, as he puts it. You’re buffeted by Left and Right.

I ask him whether it was pleasant to relive his experiences, or unpleasant — or some combination. It’s always pleasant to return to the years of struggle in the Soviet Union, he says — “because of the result.” It ended grandly. Less pleasant was to relive the years of politics.

Sharansky is particularly distressed by lessons unlearned. For example, people think it useful to make one-sided concessions to terrorists, in the belief or hope that this will enhance stability. Sharansky regards Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 as a terrible mistake. (Indeed, he quit the government over it.) As he sees it, the withdrawal has given terrorists a launching pad.

Natan Sharansky — actually, Anatoly Shcharansky, in those days — was born in Stalino in January 1948. This was four months before the modern Israel. Stalin had five more years to live, and rule.

Young Sharansky was a math and chess whiz. He went to the “Soviet MIT,” i.e., the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. I ask him a funny question. Does he feel that his destiny as a mathematician or scientist was somehow diverted? Diverted by politics, the struggle for human rights, and the quest to go to Israel?

He explains that he grew up an assimilated Jew, “deprived of freedom and identity.” He learned from his parents that, if you’re Jewish, you have to be the best, in math, chess, music, or what have you. Professional perfection was the way for Jews to survive.

Math, for Sharansky, was “a kind of ivory tower,” he says, into which he could retreat and be safe. But he soon understood that “if you want to be a free person, and a person who belongs, you have to fight for it.” There was something more important than mathematics — or any other professional or intellectual pursuit — namely “inner freedom,” he says. “That is why, instead of being the best mathematician, I became the best as a prisoner.”

Andrei Sakharov was probably the leading scientist in the whole Soviet Union — a genius physicist (and the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb). Sharansky says he and his classmates knew Sakharov’s name when it was “half secret.” In May 1968, Sakharov published his pivotal, historic essay, “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.” Overnight, says Sharansky, Sakharov went from being “the No. 1 scientist” to being “the No. 1 dissident.”

This shook up Sharansky’s life. Sakharov had thrown down a gauntlet before him (and others). How do you want to spend your days? What is the purpose of life?

In due course, the young mathematician Sharansky became an activist and dissident. He also became an aide to Sakharov. The closer you get to most great men, Sharansky observes, the smaller they seem. “With Sakharov, it was the opposite.” The closer you got to him, the bigger he appeared. He was kind, modest, and noble.

“I would like to call him my rabbi,” says Sharansky, “but he’s not Jewish, so I say he was my teacher.”

Sharansky married Avital in 1974. The next day, she left for Israel, before her exit visa expired. (The groom had been denied one — refused one, making him a “refusenik.”) “The biggest mistake the KGB made was letting Avital out,” says Sharansky. She was a tremendous advocate in his behalf.

He was arrested in 1977 and imprisoned until 1986. Charles Krauthammer once remarked to me that, despite the horrors of the Gulag, Sharansky emerged unscathed — in amazing mental and emotional balance. “It was like he had gone to the Caribbean to lie on the beach for nine years,” said Krauthammer. Last year, I brought this up with another great Soviet dissident, and veteran of the Gulag, Vladimir Bukovsky (who has since died). “It’s very simple,” he said. “If you are not broken, you are unscathed. They failed to break him, therefore he is unscathed. It’s very personal.”

When Sharansky stepped off the plane in Israel, he was a hero, to one and all. But he entered politics, which entails taking positions and incurring the displeasure of roughly half the population. What does Sharansky have to say about this?

“You know, it’s very boring to be a hero, especially when you’re young and still have a life in front of you. You listen to all these compliments, enjoy them, and so what? Life is full of interesting challenges.”

Sharansky wanted to help the other political prisoners — his fellow zeks, left behind in the Soviet Union (Jewish and Israel-seeking or not). When the USSR collapsed, he wanted to help the one million Jews coming to Israel feel at home, and feel like citizens — full-fledged ones. “Absorption” was a big challenge.

You quickly find out, says Sharansky, that if a refusal to compromise is your weapon against the KGB, it cannot be your weapon in democratic politics — because such politics requires many compromises. At the same time, there are some things you feel you can’t compromise on. “That is why I was in four governments but resigned twice,” says Sharansky.

He continues, “When Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] wanted me to continue my political career, I said, ‘Bibi, I was in four governments and resigned twice, and I was in four prisons and never resigned. So something is wrong with me in politics.’”

Sharansky has enjoyed his time “in the arena,” trying to influence things for the better. “That is really what gives meaning to your life,” he says, “and not the titles — like the title ‘Oh, you’re a real hero.’ You know, I exchanged the title ‘You’re a real hero and inspiration’ for the title ‘What a disappointment you are’ very willingly, because that meant you were in a real fight,” bearing “real ideas that you believe in.”

Some of us are fascinated by Israeli political leaders, from Ben-Gurion down through Netanyahu. I ask you, readers: Have you ever read The Prime Ministers, by Yehuda Avner? (He served four of them.) If you like Israeli politics, it’s delicious, like a box of candy.

Talking with Sharansky, I nose around for stories about Menachem Begin. Here is one: The phone company went to Prime Minister Begin to say that Avital was making many overseas phone calls, in her campaign for her imprisoned husband. She was late in paying her bills. Could the government pay them? No, said Begin, that would be improper — but he himself would pay them, which he did.

How about Ariel Sharon? Sharansky had a long relationship with him, and has many things to say about him. He loved him. He cites a long list of merits and accomplishments: personal, military, and political. But Gaza — unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip — was Sharon’s policy, and they broke sharply — painfully — over that.

How about Netanyahu? Has he stayed too long? (Many think so, including me.) The prime minister and Sharansky have been friends for more than 30 years. Sharansky loves Netanyahu, and surely it’s mutual. Again, Sharansky cites a long list of merits and accomplishments. He does concede, though, that there’s such a thing as staying too long, and such a thing as allowing younger people to rise.

Sharansky was head of the Jewish Agency for two terms — eight years. Netanyahu and others wanted him to have a third term. Sharansky declined, however, saying that new people with new ideas should come in. He agreed to serve one more year, however — liking the symmetry of nine.

You could not have had a book titled — you could not even have entertained the title — “Nine, Nine, Eight.”

I want to throw at Sharansky a question I have long explored: Which is more radical, more intransigent? The Palestinian leadership or the people themselves, the “street”? Or are the two inseparable?

Sharansky says that “the problem is first of all with us” — the leaders of Israel. In the Oslo process, more than 25 years ago, they brought back Yasser Arafat from Tunis, telling Palestinians, This is it. Arafat will be your leader now, your dictator. And Israelis told themselves, It’s good that Arafat will be a dictator, because he’ll be able to make peace and fight Hamas without the burdens of a free press, independent courts, human-rights organizations, and all that.

Often, democrats like to deal with dictators.

From the start — 1993 — Sharansky warned that, if you imposed Arafat on Palestinians as dictator, Arafat would do everything he could to make Palestinians hate Israel more and more, because dictators need an external enemy to keep the people in line, and what better enemy is there than Israel?

So, blame the Palestinian leadership, sure, and the street, too — but Israelis should accept that Oslo was a colossal mistake, says Sharansky (with Gaza a further and related blunder). They should abandon an illusory peace process and begin a real one, which depends on democratization for Palestinians: the development of civil society, a free economy, and the rest.

In 2004, Sharansky wrote The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. One critic of the book was the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who told the author, “Your theories may be good for the basement of the KGB, but they make no sense in the Middle East.”

If it was necessary to make the case for democracy in 2004, it is all the more necessary today, with a preference for strongmen all around. At least that is what I think. Sharansky is inclined to agree. In 2004, he says, people remembered the Soviet Union, and the awful destructiveness of Communism. But memories fade (and new people are born). Today, Marxism, along with other isms, is making a comeback. People are once more talking the language of “class struggle,” etc.

A good 20 years ago, Sharansky noticed that pro-Israel students on American campuses were afraid to speak out. Now, according to polls, people on both left and right are afraid to express their political views — anywhere, not just on campus — which is alarming in a free society, says Sharansky.

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask him what he’s up to these days (aside from memoir-writing and discussion). There is Zooming, of course. “You don’t have to travel, and you can talk to people in Alaska and Australia simultaneously.” He says that the pandemic should remind people that “there are enemies we can defeat only together.”

And he is spending time with his grandchildren — the seven of them. All grandparents love their grandchildren, of course, but this is a little different, or it has a twist, let’s say.

It was no sure thing that Natan and Avital would have children (or that Natan would survive the Gulag). As it turned out, they were separated for the first twelve years of their marriage. When their first child was born — a daughter — Natan’s mother, Ida, sent a picture of her to the head of the KGB prison. For her, the picture, and the girl, were a great symbol of triumph over evil.

“So, yes,” says Sharansky, “I am spending a lot of time with my grandchildren, not forgetting to fight against anti-Semitism and to support the struggle for human rights and democracy all over the world.”

One last thing. I always ask Sharansky — I can’t help it — “Do you have your Psalm book on you?” He had it in the Gulag, and had to fight to keep it. His leading verse was, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.” So, where is it? Where is that little, historic book? “In the left pocket of my shirt,” as usual, says Sharansky. “It is always with me, it is always giving me strength.”

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