Jewish Light Exclusive: Natan Sharansky remains optimistic about Israel-Diaspora

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Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Natan Sharansky wrote his latest book because his own life serves as an answer to what he sees as a pressing question: Is the gap between Israel and world Jewry narrowing or widening?

The book, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People,” chronicles Sharansky’s journey from political prisoner in the Soviet Union to Israeli government minister to chair of Jewish Agency for Israel.

“I really have experience which proves that what unites us is much bigger than what divides us,” Sharansky told the Jewish Light in an interview over Zoom.

The Israeli political leader and his co-author, presidential historian Gil Troy, will serve as the keynote speakers for the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m., at the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex near Creve Coeur.

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Despite Sharansky’s optimistic take on Israel-Diaspora relations, that does not mean he thinks Israel’s supporters can persuade all its critics among American Jews and non-Jews of what he sees as Israel’s role as a proponent of democratic values in the Middle East.

“There are those whose aim is simply the destruction of the State of Israel, [such]as your Squad congresswomen,” Sharansky said, referring to a group of Democratic representatives elected in recent years, including Rep. Cori Bush of St. Louis. “They are clearly openly anti-Zionist.”

In the book, Sharansky divides his life into three phases, the first being his nine years as a prisoner in a gulag in the Soviet Union because of his leadership among refuseniks, Jews who applied for permission to emigrate to Israel and were denied.

“How could I contribute to the struggle in prison?” Sharansky writes. “By reminding the world that the regime was evil and hypocritical. By showing that the accusations of high treason against me were based only on open meetings and public statements as a Jewish activist and democratic dissident…How could I weaken the struggle? By recognizing the regime’s moral authority and legitimacy.”

With the help of his wife, Avital, who lobbied various governments, Sharansky was released in 1986 and emigrated to Israel.

The second part of the book chronicles Sharasnky’s political career in the Jewish State. He founded a political party, Yisrael B’Aliya and served as a member of the Knesset and as a minister in four Israeli governments. In the book, he describes his “rollercoaster relationship” with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Successful politicians—David Ben-Gurion, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu—never felt they were betraying anyone or anything, as long as they were broadening their base and gaining power,” Sharansky writes. “Dissidents, however, think about their activity in terms of struggle and betrayal.”

These days, Sharansky laments Netanyahu’s quest to maintain power after losing an election earlier this year. Netanyahu described it as the “greatest electoral fraud in the history of the country.”

Sharansky praised the United States’ two-term limit for presidents.

“I believe [Netanyahu] was a very strong political leader who did a lot for the Israeli economy and Israeli security,” Sharansky said. “I think it’s important for every political leader to understand that however important he or she is to the country, it’s not the most important thing for the country that they continue their leadership forever. I am very sorry that he is undermining a lot of his legacy.”

The third phase of the book deals with Sharansky’s nine years as head of the Jewish Agency, during which he tried to strengthen connections between Jews around the world and Israel.

After spending much of his life promoting Zionism, Sharansky has developed criteria for determining when criticism of Israel becomes antisemitism.

“Every citizen in Israel is criticizing Israel,” Sharansky said. “People on the left and the right in America and everywhere else have the right to criticize Israel exactly as any other country, but there are characteristics of antisemitism: it is dehumanization of Jews, delegitimization of Jews as a nation and a religion and a double-standard” applied to Israel’s actions versus actions of other countries.

In the book, Sharansky criticizes those who link the treatment of Black people in the United States with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. That includes Bush, a first-term congressperson, who described Israel as an apartheid state and likened “brutalization” of Palestinians to St. Louis police forces’ actions towards Michael Brown and protesters in 2014 in Ferguson.

Sharansky described this comparison as “absolutely artificial.”

“We have many opponents that are misinformed, and I think everything what can be done to bring them more information, more understanding about the real situation and the role of Israel plays in bringing liberalism and democracy to the Middle East,” should be done, Sharansky said. But members of the Squad “want a world without Zionism. It’s not that they want to improve, to correct. They want a world without Zionism.”

In spite of his concerns about anti-Israel sentiment in the United States and elsewhere, Sharansky said that in standing up for Israel’s right to exist, “it is very important to be optimistic.”

“In families, especially big families, brothers and sisters don’t agree with one another in many things,” Sharansky said. “But in order to continue living in love and affection, they always make an effort to understand one another.”


Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy at Jewish Book Festival

WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Edison Gymnasium at St. Louis Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur

HOW MUCH: $45 for individual event or as part of Jewish Book Festival All-Access Pass, $118.69

MORE INFO: Purchase tickets and view the book festival schedule at Jccstl.com/festival-events-schedule