My Midwestern American childhood coincided with the movement to free Soviet Jewry, to enable emigration to Israel. I attended demonstrations with my family and later with my youth group. When the Soviet ambassador came to town, I remember standing in a wintry night to chant at him:
ONE TWO THREE FOUR
OPEN UP THE IRON DOOR!
FIVE SIX SEVEN EIGHT
LET MY PEOPLE EMIGRATE!
Like many others, I proudly marked the bar mitzvah of a Soviet Jewish boy along with my own, extending it into a proxy celebration for something he wasn’t free to celebrate. Our community’s rabbi smuggled Hebrew textbooks and prayerbooks into that bleak totalitarian realm where Jews weren’t free. The plight of Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel engendered a consciousness of the ongoing Jewish struggle to survive and flourish, and a sympathy for oppressed minorities wherever they are. I knew the names of refusnik heroes and revered them, but one rang louder than all others: Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky.
Sharansky’s name itself became a slogan and a prayer for freedom. I remember weeping when he was finally freed from the gulag and allowed to join his wife in Jerusalem. When he published his memoir, I rushed to read his inspiring, and sometimes surprisingly humorous account of his travails, like when he maneuvered a prison commandant to cover his head in respect as he lit Hannukah candles in his office. His courage and wit and humanity made him one of my moral heroes.
Living in Jerusalem, I’ve walked by Sharansky many times in all sorts of circumstances, and never once has the thought that there goes history failed to enter my mind. This reverence survived my realization that we didn’t belong to the same political camp here in Israel. In fact, I began to value it, for Sharansky was one of the few figures in public Israeli life, rarer every day, who expressed respect for those with whom he disagreed and meant it sincerely. He addressed political disagreements with dignity and with care for his commitment to the Jewish people, for all its members, both political allies and opponents. Sharansky has been a model of civility in what has too often been a toxic political environment with the unique ability to inspire secular and religious Jews, right-wing nationalists and left-wing humanists, often simultaneously. A precious and rare thing indeed.
I now struggle to understand how it happened that, along with Professor Gil Troy, he penned a spuriously argued piece for Tablet, the most divisive article I have read in years, demonizing and misrepresenting fellow members of the people that he has championed for decades, all in the name of Jewish peoplehood, national unity, or perhaps most accurately, nationalist loyalty.
For Sharansky, those who seek to advance full equality between Jews and Palestinians between the river and the sea are now excised from the Jewish collective in the name of its unity, literally labeled “Un-Jews.” Those who criticize the structure of our current ethno-state as not just bad for Palestinians, but corrosive to Jewish life in the Land of Israel are painted as nefarious traitors of the past who “who wormed their way deep into the tradition and tried to weaken Jewish identity ideologically from within by canceling a central pillar of contemporary Jewish identity.”
It is now common practice on the right to use an accusation of cancellation to call for the cancellation of others, though I’ve yet to see anyone refer to Sharansky and Troy as illegitimate members of the Jewish people. But despite the fact that the targets of their ideological purge are people who “remain deeply involved Jewishly… active in forms of Jewish leadership, running Jewish studies departments, speaking from rabbinic pulpits, hosting Shabbat dinners,” for Sharansky, they are akin to an animal that feeds on the flesh of corpses, subversives plotting ruin, like the Jews who were supposedly duped to serve Stalin’s regime before being murdered.
It’s difficult to read his angry and hypocritical screed without wondering whether Sharansky wishes the same fate suffered by Itzik Feffer and Shloyme Mikhoels, leaders of the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee, one shot, the other cut down in a staged hit-and-run, for so many Jews who have dedicated their lives to their people’s material, cultural, and moral welfare as they understand it. For “Un-Jews” echoes George Orwell’s “unpersons,” the dissenters stripped of their humanity by the horrific regime he depicts in 1984. A generation later, Margaret Atwood modified this in The Handmaid’s Tale into the category of “unwoman,” created by the totalitarian fundamentalist Christian regime of Gilead to condemn and ultimately annihilate women who would not embrace its demands of subservience. It bears mention that both those novels satirize totalitarianism in a deeply serious way and are intended as alarums. Yet, without any trace of irony, Sharansky calls Jews who do not conflate Jewish peoplehood with territorial Zionist nationalism “Un-Jews.”
What happened to the Sharansky who embodied Ahavat Yisrael, the love of the People of Israel, who demonstrated comity and civility and humanity, especially when addressing those with whom he did not agree?
At middle age, I no longer need heroes. For decades of adulthood, I have demystified many and rejected the idolatry of idolization and idealization. One can and must admire model figures without revering and worshiping them. Maturity is supposed to cultivate an openness to complexity and realism. I never needed anyone to tell me that Sharansky is human, a real man with real flaws like us all. But I never expected to watch him attack his fellow Jews with such vitriol and slander. I never expected to see him as an Un-Hero.
This will surely affect his legacy, though it should not erase it. Several thousand co-written words in Tablet magazine cannot erase all he endured, expressed, and represented. I, for one, will oppose anyone who attempts to excise his formidable efforts and contributions on behalf of the people to which we both gratefully belong, a belonging that is among the greatest blessings I have received, from its historical record.
But I would certainly appreciate an explanation for how someone who has often played such a unifying role could use his voice to foster division, demonization, and denigration of his fellow Jews over political disagreement. And I hope he finds the wisdom and the love to reject his newfound intemperateness and viciousness.
Today in Israel, especially as Rubi Rivlin prepares to vacate the presidency, we have precious few unifying public figures. If ever Sharansky was needed, it is now. Which leaves me with a single question for my erstwhile hero: ayeka, where are you?