Nev­er Alone

Natan Sha­ran­sky, Gil Troy

  • Review
By – November 6, 2020

Natan Sha­ran­sky once quipped that the polit­i­cal par­ty he formed was unique because its mem­bers went to jail before enter­ing Israeli pol­i­tics, not the oth­er way around. That’s who he is: fun­ny, sharp, can­did, self-dep­re­cat­ing, and utter­ly com­mit­ted to action. His per­son­al­i­ty is one of the plea­sures of his lat­est book.

In the 1970s, Sha­ran­sky became an inter­na­tion­al sym­bol of free­dom as a pris­on­er of con­science in the Sovi­et Union, attract­ing the atten­tion of world lead­ers includ­ing pres­i­dents Carter and Rea­gan. He revis­its that sto­ry here, but the main sub­ject of this mem­oir is the rela­tion­ship between the State of Israel and the Jews who live else­where. Sha­ran­sky played an active role in that rela­tion­ship both as an Israeli gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, and lat­er as the head of the Jew­ish Agency for Israel.

Sha­ran­sky encoun­tered the split between Israel and the Dias­po­ra dur­ing the con­tro­ver­sy over the 2010 con­ver­sion bill, which would rec­og­nize con­ver­sions to Judaism per­formed in Israel only if they were made by Ortho­dox rab­bis. He didn’t expect the force­ful oppo­si­tion of most Amer­i­can Jews, who were angered and offend­ed by the pro­pos­al. But he always hoped to find com­mon ground. He spent years on a relat­ed issue, nego­ti­at­ing ways for non-Ortho­dox ser­vices to take place at the Kotel in Jerusalem. In the end he was stymied by actions on all sides.

The con­flict with the Pales­tini­ans was anoth­er light­ning rod. Most Amer­i­cans favored nego­ti­a­tions between Israel and the Pales­tini­ans under the Oslo accords. Sha­ran­sky saw Yas­sir Arafat as a dic­ta­tor who closed down oppo­si­tion news­pa­pers, pro­mot­ed crony­ism, and taught three-year-olds [Pales­tini­ans] to kill Jews.” He wor­ries that West­ern­ers just enjoyed being duped by cer­tain mag­ic words: equal­i­ty,’ social jus­tice,’ and espe­cial­ly peace’.”

Since then, sus­pi­cion has grown on both sides,” says Sha­ran­sky. He recalls an Amer­i­can stu­dent telling him in 2003 that as a lib­er­al Jew, it would be bet­ter for me if Israel didn’t exist.” More recent flash­points include the 2015 Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion agree­ment with Iran, and the 2018 nation-state” bill, which alien­at­ed many Jews in Amer­i­ca by stat­ing that the right to exer­cise nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion in the State of Israel is unique to the Jew­ish people.”

Sha­ran­sky writes that our com­mon jour­ney togeth­er real­ly is in doubt,” but he hasn’t lost hope that the two sides can rec­on­cile. He imag­ines a kind of revival of the Zion­ist Con­gress­es, in the form of a Glob­al Jew­ish Coun­cil which would meet for inter­com­mu­nal dia­logue before every sit­ting of the Knes­set. Despite the ris­ing indi­vid­u­al­ism in our time, he still believes in belong­ing to the tribe.”

These rec­ol­lec­tions — real­ly a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Sha­ran­sky and the his­to­ri­an Gil Troy, Sharansky’s part­ner in thought as well as in writ­ing — pro­vide a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the work­ings of Israeli pol­i­tics. The details will be espe­cial­ly illu­mi­nat­ing to read­ers who are less famil­iar with the tra­jec­to­ry of Israel – Dias­po­ra rela­tions. Some may lose patience, though, with Sharansky’s extend­ed defense of his past posi­tions, as well as com­ments about cur­rent issues like inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, white priv­i­lege, and can­cel culture.

Natan Sharansky’s courage, com­mit­ment, and com­pas­sion con­tin­ue to inspire, near­ly fifty years after he began his long jour­ney as a lover of Zion.

Discussion Questions