Yesterday I had the honour of introducing a living legend of the Jewish people, former Refusnik and Genesis prize laureate, Natan Sharansky. I was hosting an event titled, “Glimpsing Freedom just before Passover” organized by the World Zionist Organization in the UK and the Zionist Federation of the UK. Many people from across UK and the world gathered to be inspired by this great and humble man.
Natan Sharansky the iconic former “Prisoner of Zion” always comes to mind at the Seder when we recite “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Many Jews in the western world recite the famous concluding lines of the their Seder meals pro forma, without really meaning them. They are just part of the ritual. After all, for centuries of exile Jews recited these lines and then carried on with their lives.
Natan Sharansky taught us that it is not just enough to “talk the talk” and yearn and hope and pray for redemption but rather one needs to ACT and “walk the walk” in order to do what is right. He could have taken the easy path, and carried on living and working in the Soviet Union, but he courageously chose the road “less travelled by” and opted, in 1973, to apply for an exit visa to Israel. He was denied for “security” reasons. The rest is history.
Sharansky continued to engage in “underground” Zionist activities and he 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. His real “crime” was of wanting to realise the age-old Jewish dream of returning to Zion. 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 their Jewish brothers and sisters during the dark years of the Holocaust that the American joined by the rest of the international Jewish community really took up the banner of protest and make huge effort 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 used to say to our councilors, “what difference will our letter make?” We need to bear in mind that 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 in the Mishna state:
It is not up you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from trying.
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.
This global united movement to free Sharansky and other Refusniks ultimately led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. He arrived in Israel, proudly processing 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. This was Natan’s message yesterday as he explained that his latest book, ““Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People” (co-written with Gil Troy) emphasizes that Jewish people need to be proud, and knowledgable, of our traditions, peoplehood and our land, and above all, focus not on what divides us, but rather what we have in common. THIS year in Jerusalem!
Dr. Tuvia Book is the author of “For the Sake of Zion, A Curriculum of Israel Education” (Koren, 2017). His forthcoming book, Jewish Journeys, on the Second Temple Period, will be published by Koren this year. He also is a Ministry of Tourism licensed Tour Guide, Jewish educator and a Judaica artist. www.tuviabook.com