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Celebrating Natan Sharansky (#CelebrateWithNatan)

Celebrating Natan Sharansky (#CelebrateWithNatan)

Honoring his superhuman struggle against the Soviet state and his efforts to strengthen Israel.

Natan Sharansky is winding down his leadership of The Jewish Agency for Israel, a post he has held since 2009.  The Jewish Agency serves to strengthen ties of Jews around the world with Israel. You can read their most recent annual report on their activities here (pdf.)

To honor Sharansky’s service and life, the Jewish Agency is encouraging people to share memories about Sharansky, including using the hashtag #CelebrateWithNatan.

So I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to recollect Legal Insurrection’s prior coverage of Sharansky, plus a new story I just learned about him.

I have written several times about Sharansky’s super-human struggle as a prisoner in the Soviet Union. On the second day of Legal Insurrection’s existence, October 13, 2008, I wrote John McCain and Nathan Sharansky, in which I discussed Sharansky’s prison struggle.

I was a student of Russian and Soviet history in college, and spent a considerable amount of time in the Soviet Union. While a student in Moscow, I became close friends with the Yakir family (more on them in a later post), a family steeped in Soviet tragedy and controversy. During my many afternoons at the Yakir apartment, I met a wide range of Soviet refuseniks and dissidents. Of all the refuseniks in that era, none was more famous than Anatoly (Nathan) Sharansky, now an Israeli politician.

(See my later post about the Yakir family.)

I expanded on that discussion just a month later, One of my first posts at Legal Insurrection, on November 11, 2008, was Is It Time For Conservatives To Sit Down In The Snow?.

Sharansky spent almost a decade in Soviet prison because of his activities on behalf of Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel. Sharansky was subjected to torture and other indignities, but never lost his spirit.Sharansky notoriously refused to obey even the most mundane orders from his captors. Sharansky understood that to compromise even a little would lead to compromising a lot. Throughout his ordeal, Sharansky kept his spirits alive by reading a small book of psalms.

As Sharansky was being led to the airplane that would take him from the Soviet Union to East Germany for the exchange, the Soviets confiscated his book of psalms.It would have been easy for Sharansky simply to keep walking towards the plane and freedom. But Sharansky understood that the Soviets confiscated his book of psalms not because they wanted the book, but because they wanted to show that even in this last moment, they were in control.

In front of reporters covering his departure, Sharansky sat in the snow refusing to move unless the Soviets gave him back his book of psalms. Here was this diminutive man, after 10 years in prison, on the verge of freedom, refusing to budge unless one of the world’s two superpowers gave him back his book. And give him back his book of psalms they did. Sharansky proceeded to the plane, where he read Psalm 30: “I will extol thee, O Lord; for thou hast lifted me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.”

Jay Nordlinger’s 2005 interview with Sharansky recounts not only the episode in the snow, but also the final moments when Sharansky walked to the car for the exchange:

Sharansky spent nine years in the Gulag, a harrowing time in which he demonstrated what resistance is. More than 400 of those days were spent in punishment cells; more than 200 were spent on hunger strikes. His refusal to concede anything to the Soviet state was almost superhuman. This was true to the very last. When they relinquished him to the East Germans, they told him to walk straight to a waiting car — “Don’t make any turns.” Sharansky zig-zagged his way to that car.

I would have additional posts about Sharansky from time to time, including this February 2009 post rounding out the story of his arrival in Israel, and what happened to the book of Psalms the Soviets tried in vain to confiscate (emphasis added):

Sharansky’s arrival in Israel was greated with jubilation. After thousands greated Sharansky at the airport, Sharansky went to the Western Wall in Jersusalem:

On February 11, 1986, he began the day as a prisoner of the Soviet Union. K.G.B. guards then flew him to East Berlin, and there he was told to walk across the Glienicke Bridge and into the West. Sharansky had grown so skinny on prison rations that, on worldwide television, his state-issued trousers nearly fell to his ankles as he walked to freedom. By nightfall, he was at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, carried along on the shoulders of hundreds of jubilant Israelis. At the Wall, he prayed from a tiny Book of Psalms…

On April 18, 2015, Sharansky: The U.S. has “lost the courage of its convictions”. I was able to add video to the story

I found this video which has brief clips of that moment of release, as well as his arrival in Israel as the crowd sang Hine Mah Tov (Psalm 133 – “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”). I remember those events, but never was able to find video.

My most recent post about Sharansky was in January 2016, Brown Univ. anti-Israel group protests appearance by Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky.

In going over Sharansky’s history for this post, I found a story I never told before. I’m not sure if I knew it, but I had just a vague recollection when I saw it.

Brown wasn’t the first university where Sharansky was protested by leftist students, many of them anti-Zionist Jews.

When Sharansky appeared at Rutgers University in 2003, he faced not only protests but a pie in the face thrown by Abraham Greenhouse, who would go on to a career writing for anti-Israel websites and working for anti-Israel groups.

Sharansky had faced off against the KGB and the power of the Soviet state and won. His response to the pie in the face was perfect:

“I hope it was a Kosher pie!”

Sharansky’s Israeli security guards had a less humorous response to the assault and battery:

A man who threw a pie in the face of former Minister Natan Sharansky just before he was to speak at a packed Rutgers University lecture hall in 2003 was found guilty Thursday of a disorderly persons offense.

Abe Greenhouse, 27, was fined USD 200 and ordered to pay USD 155 in court fees and penalties….

Greenhouse, a Jewish pro-Palestinian activist, could have received up to 30 days in jail  stiffer fines….

Israeli security guards grabbed Greenhouse, breaking his nose and giving him a black eye and a swollen lip, according to court records.

You can read more recollections and honors for Sharansky at the #CelebrateWithNatan hashtag on Twitter.


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A terrific and inspiring column! Thank you!

Talk about guts – and Soviet ingratitude:

“…Shchransky…was the translator and go-between for the physicist Andrei Sakharov, one of the fathers of the Soviet nuclear bomb and the inventor of the Tokamok nuclear fusion reactor, who became the target of a sustained campaign of pressure and threats by his fellow scientists and the KGB in 1972 for his insistent warnings against the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In 1976, Shcharansky himself became one of the founders and a leading spokesman for the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, which devoted itself to the Sisyphean task of ensuring that Moscow lived up to its commitments to ensuring the human rights of its citizens under international treaties. With Sakharov’s blessing, Shcharansky also became the most visible spokesman for the growing mass movement of Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union for Israel….On March 15, 1977, Shcharansky was arrested on charges of high treason and spying for the United States. He would spend the nine years of his life following his trial imprisoned in Siberia.”

More fascinating reading:

What an amazing and inspiring story! I had tears in my eyes and a very big lump in my throat as I read all the memories and stories of his amazing courage standing up to the biggest bullies of the 20th century – the Soviets! In the early 70s I had the privilege of meeting a few of fellow refusniks at the main synagogue in Moscow (on an UNMARKED street on the Soviet map!!). It was an unexpected – and, of course, memorable – moment in Soviet Jewry history and one I feel privileged to have witnessed. (Thank God my own ancestors left czarist Russia in the previous century!!) God bless and always honor Natan Sharansky!!

I held my breath as I watched Natan walk towards freedom.