Natan Sharansky, the iconic former “Prisoner of Zion” just celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday. Symbolically he shares the year of his birth with the State of Israel. In 1973 he applied for an exit visa to Israel but was denied for “security” reasons, the rest is history. He continued to engage in “underground” Zionist activities and became a spokesman for all of the “Refusniks” trapped behind the Iron Curtain until his arrest by the Soviet authorities in 1977 on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage. Sharansky was found guilty in 1978 and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in a Gulag. He used his show-trial to courageously declare:
I am happy. I am happy that I lived honourably, at peace with my conscience. I never compromised my soul, even under the threat of death…For more that two thousand years the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated,’ Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now, when I am further than ever from my people, from Avital, facing many arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, my Avital, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’
As a teenager growing up in both South Africa and the UK the movement to free Soviet Jewry was a large part of my Jewish activist education. Indeed, an international campaign calling for Sharansky’s release was waged by his wife Avital, in conjunction with organizations around the world. It is possible that out of a latent sense of guilt for not having done enough to work for our Jewish brothers and sisters during the dark years of the Holocaust that the international Jewish community really took up the banner of protest and made huge efforts to highlight the plight of Soviet Jewry and work for their freedom.
One specific example of grass roots activism is that our local Zionist Youth movement, Bnei Akiva, made us write letters every week both to a trapped Jewish refusnik and to our local elected official about the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union. We teenagers used to say to our staff, “what difference will our letter make?” However, just as every great waterfall starts with a drop of water, so the eventual breaking down of the Iron Curtain and release of the Soviet Jews started one letter at a time and one concerned Jew at a time. As our sages state: “It is not up you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from trying” (Mishna: Avot). Jews did not just “talk the talk” but literally “walked the walk” in countless demonstrations, culminating with the mass march in Washington DC during Gorbachev’s visit in 1987 which resulted in the mass-exodus of Soviet Jewry.
This global united movement to free Sharansky and other Refusniks ultimately led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. He arrived in Israel, proudly possessing a new Israeli passport and ID card, that same night. Upon his arrival at Ben Gurion airport, and after being greeted by dignitaries and throngs of excited Jews from across the political and religious spectrum, he said in Hebrew, with his voice cracking with emotion, “Hinei ma tov u ma naim, shevet achim gam yachad.” (“How good and how pleasant it is, a tribe of brothers and sisters united together”). Indeed it took this great man to teach all of us that we Jews should focus on what we have in common in order to bring out the best in us and make the world a better place. Happy Birthday Natan!
(Sharansky has continued to lead human rights efforts both through his writings as well as public activities since his release. Following his service as a Member of Knesset and Government Minister, Sharansky was sworn in as Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel in 2008. Natan and Avital are the proud parents of two sabra daughters and three grandchildren.)