Natan Sharansky, chief of the Jewish Agency, told Israel Radio in 2012 that fears of a war with Iran are causing many would-be immigrants to Israel to delay their plans to make aliyah.
Despite Jewish Agency figures which had revealed a two percent increase in aliyah in the first six months of 2012, Sharansky argued, “For months now, we’ve had dozens of instances in which potential immigrants have been postponing their aliyah; people who had already finalized their aliyah plans informing us that they’re postponing their arrival by a number of months.”
In instances such as this, Sharansky is often portrayed in the media as the face of the Jewish Agency, which organizes the immigration and absorption of Jews from the diaspora into Israel and does Jewish community building both within and outside of Israel.
And indeed, he should be portrayed as such: Sharansky has served as the chairman of the Jewish Agency since June 2009. But his past is much more complex and not so well known.
The man who became Natan Sharansky was born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky in 1948, in Stalino, Soviet Union—an area that is now the Ukraine. As a child, Sharansky was a chess prodigy. He is said to have competed against adults, and in 1996, he even defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a competition in Israel. Sharansky went on to graduate with a degree in applied mathematics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.
But as he was born into a Jewish family, he, as many other Soviet Jews, wanted out.
It’s no surprise; the history of anti-Semitism in the region is a rich one. Under the Czars, Jews were confined to living in the Pale of Settlement, and pogroms were common. Later, Vladimir Lenin linked anti-Semitism to class struggle, describing it as an “attempt to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants from the exploiters toward the Jews,” but anti-Semitism remained entrenched.
While Joseph Stalin officially expounded on Lenin’s critiques of anti-Semitism, in practice, Jewish intellectuals were repressed under his reign. From 1948 to 1953, Stalin explicitly associated Jews with pro-Americanism and “cosmopolitanism.” The term “rootless cosmopolitan,” a Soviet euphemism reserved for a Jewish intellectual accused of not being loyal to the Soviet Union, came into use under Stalin, long thought to hold negative sentiments toward Jews.
While the USSR officially recognized the UN partition of Palestine in 1947, and even sent arms to the fledgling Israeli state during the Arab-Israeli war that ensued, the Soviets switched their support to the Arabs once the US started supporting the Jewish State. This had ominous effects for Soviet Jews: Thought agents of America, they could now also be considered Zionists, and therefore loyal to two countries outside Mother Russia.
In the post-Stalin era, Soviet Jews continued to suffer from discrimination. They were not able to attain the same jobs and university spots as non-Jewish Soviets. Discrimination was simple as Jews were identified as such on their ID cards. Since the USSR was firmly against religious expression, Jews were not allowed to practice their religion, and so those who did often did so in hiding. The same went for marriage: “Religious” weddings were not recognized, only civil weddings were. Married in a Moscow synagogue, the union of Sharansky and his wife Avital wasn’t recognized by the Soviet government.
In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel, but was denied under accusations of having had access to information vital to Soviet national security. This prompted Sharansky to become a human rights activist with the Moscow Helsinki Monitoring Group. The group worked for emigration rights while monitoring the USSR’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which called for the recognition of universal human rights.
Sharansky’s membership in the group helped establish him as one of the founders of the refusenik movement. Among refuseniks were Jews seeking emigration for religious reasons, Zionist Jews who desired to live in Israel, and relatively secular Jews who just wanted to escape anti-Semitism. Other groups, like Volga Germans and Armenians, also attempted to leave.
The Soviets arrested Sharansky in 1977 on charges of espionage for the United States, and treason—a crime punishable by death. He was sentenced to 13 years of forced labor in a Siberian labor camp. Some say he fell back on his childhood prodigy days, maintaining his sanity by playing chess in his head.
Sharansky’s imprisonment contributed to international support for the refusenik cause. Under pressure from Jewish groups, President Jimmy Carter announced on television that Sharansky was not a spy for the US in June 1977.
“It didn’t help Sharansky, but it swayed international opinion that the accusation was false,” Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, told The New Republic.
Eleven years later, Sharansky was released, making him the first political prisoner ever released by Mikhail Gorbachev due to political pressure from then-President Ronald Reagan.
Sharansky immediately made aliyah to Israel, and dropped his past, at least symbolically, by taking on the Hebrew name Natan. He wrote a memoir, “Fear No Evil,” in 1988 that recounted his time in prison. Sharansky also founded the Zionist Forum, an organization of Soviet emigrant Jewish activists dedicated to helping new Israelis and educating the public about absorption issues into Israel.
He has written two other books since: “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror”, which received much praise from President George W. Bush, and “Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy.”
An estimated one million Jews came to Israel from the former USSR over the course of the 1990’s, after Gorbachev opened the borders. In response, Sharansky entered politics in 1995, helping to found the Yisrael BaAliyah party, which promoted the absorption of Soviet Jews into Israeli society.
The party won six seats in the 1999 legislative election, gaining two ministerial posts. However, the party left the government in 2000 in response to suggestions that then Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s plans with the Palestinians might result in a divided Jerusalem.
Sharansky’s party rejoined the government after Ariel Sharon won a special election for prime minister in 2001. In the January 2003 elections, the party was reduced to just two seats and Sharansky resigned from the Knesset, albeit keeping his post as party chairman. He then decided the merge the party with Likud, and Sharansky was appointed Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Diaspora Affairs, a post he held until 2005.
In an interview with Mother Jones, Sharansky was described as “a fierce critic of the Oslo Accords” who “scoffs at the unofficial Geneva Accord, arguing that they failed to link Israeli concessions with Palestinian ones, like democratization. As Housing Minister in Ariel Sharon’s first government, he oversaw the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.”
In his position as Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, the magazine continues, “Sharansky has chaired a secret committee that approved the seizure of East Jerusalem property of West Bank Palestinians, a decision which was reversed after an outcry from the Israeli left and the international community.”
Considering Sharansky’s background as a human rights advocate, he is the type of politician who can’t seem to find his place in the Israeli political spectrum.
“Sharansky doesn’t get much love from the Israeli right, which has little patience for his talk about the virtues of Arab democracy,” Mother Jones continues. “Neither, for that matter, does the Israeli left, which wants peace as soon as possible with whatever sort of Palestinian state is willing to strike a deal. Some lefties wonder if Sharansky is simply using the banner of human rights to insure the indefinite occupation of the territories. Meanwhile, both lefties and moderate right-wingers frowned on his vote against the Gaza disengagement plan.”
In the years after the interview, Sharansky’s membership in the Knesset continued to be rocky, to say the least. In 2005, Sharansky resigned from the cabinet to protest plans to withdraw settlements from the Gaza strip and northwestern West Bank. He was re-elected to the Knesset in March 2006 as a member of Likud, but resigned just eight months later to form the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, under the umbrella of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. According to its mission statement, the institute “develops, articulates and builds support for the strategic principles needed to address the challenges currently facing Israel and the West.”
But that shut down in 2009, when Sharansky left to join the Jewish Agency, where he continues to work today. Keeping to his work with Soviet Jewry, Sharansky secured $6 million from the Genesis Philanthropy Group for educational activities in the former Soviet Union in 2009.
Over the years, Sharansky has picked up quite a collection of awards from US government officials. In 1986, Congress granted Sharansky the Congressional Gold Medal, after helping secure his release from Soviet imprisonment. In 2006, former President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2008, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation awarded him its 2008 Ronald Reagan Freedom Award.
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Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.