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.