Natan Sharansky. (Image source: Ram Mendel/Wikimedia Commons)
Natan Sharansky's recent autobiography "Never Alone" is a testament to what a solitary soul can endure and then accomplish if he maintains a life of principled consistency. The book's first section recapitulates Sharansky's "refusenik" role in the USSR in defense of the human rights of Soviet Jews. This period also covers his nearly nine-year incarceration in the KGB's infamous prisons. Sharansky credits his unwavering faith in the G-d of the Jewish Bible, his awareness of his wife Avital's relentless efforts to rally global dignitaries and world Jewry to work for his release, and his mastery of mental chess matches to sustain hope for his ultimate liberation. In retrospect, Sharansky celebrates the improbable unity of Israeli Jews and the Jews of the Diaspora as the formula that forced the totalitarian Soviet empire to disgorge him to freedom.
The second portion of Sharansky's autobiography recounts his transformation from Ukrainian Soviet dissident mathematician to an Israeli politician who employed his heroic notoriety and authority as government official to help assimilate nearly a million Soviet Jews who made "Aliyah" (rising up/emigrating) to Israel. Sharansky embraced this mission of integrating Jews from the global Diaspora, especially those from the Soviet Union, into Israeli society. He viewed his work as fulfilling the dream of Israel's founding father, Theodor Herzl: to establish a Jewish home where Jews could be safe, where Jews would be free to express their unique identity without being despised for their refusal to hide their Jewishness.
Sharansky admits to a few exasperating experiences in the topsy-turvy nature of Israeli politics, and describes his frustration as having "more authority with less freedom." Sharansky pays tribute to the several prime ministers who "built Israel" during his life as a "zek" (non-person) in a KGB cell and in his role as a public servant: Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. He makes it clear that he did not refrain from criticizing some of the policies of these leaders.
Addressing Israel's aloneness in an Arab and Islamic Middle East, Sharansky does not shy away from heaping ridicule on the failed "peace process" between the Jews and the Arabs of the region. He reasons that until there is a fundamental internal transformation of Palestinian Arab society that embraces democracy, there can be no realistic negotiations. He roundly condemns Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a dictator and a terrorist. He views his successor Mahmoud Abbas as a pale and equally corrupt reflection of his predecessor.
Sharansky is under no illusions about Palestinian leaders. He believes that they still are wedded to the goal of Israel's elimination. Sharansky underscores his point by quoting Soviet dissident and creator of the USSR's hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov: "Never trust a government more than it trusts its own people." Case in point, the Palestinian Authority, which has not held elections in more than a decade, just "postponed" the scheduled May 22 parliamentary elections in the West Bank. Abbas made this decision after realizing his slate of candidates would be soundly defeated.
Sharansky also provides insights into Vladimir Putin's cynical decision-making, acquired during the former "refusnik's" meetings with the Russian president. Sharansky recounts Putin's promise to protect Russia's remaining Jews, thereby doing the right thing even if for the wrong reason. Putin's pledge in responding to Sharansky's plea to avoid encouraging Russia's historical anti-Semitism responds:
"We fear pogroms more than you. For you, it's a few people being beaten, here and there, for us, it's a loss of control. If one group succeeds in taking the law into its own hands, do you have any idea how many other groups might follow? I will not permit any violence against Jews."
In another session with the Russian leader, Sharansky, acting as an Israeli back channel to Moscow, urges Putin to refrain from giving Iran access to Russian missile and nuclear technology. Putin offers that selling Iran technology is merely doing what several European countries are doing and "Why shouldn't we Russians profit too?" Sharansky suggests that Putin is using Iran as a foil to pressure the US and implies that the Russian President has no fondness for the Islamic Republic.
Sharansky comes down hard on the Iranian regime as ideologically the most dangerous of enemies, claiming that he is in agreement with prominent Iranian analysts such as, Uri Lubrani, the last Israeli unofficial ambassador to Iran; Dr. Bernard Lewis, the most accomplished western Islamic scholar, and Ron Dermer, the long-serving Israeli ambassador to the US. Sharansky has sharp words of condemnation for Barack Obama; he accuses the former US President of having abandoned Iran's dissidents by his refusal to offer even verbal support for anti-regime demonstrators during their nationwide protests in 2009.
In perhaps the book's most poignant pages, this hero for all seasons offers himself as a bridge between Israeli Jews and Jews of the Diaspora. He laments the lack of empathy for Israel, particularly among so many of America's Jews. He agonizes over the tendency of American Jews to try to assimilate into American societal norms, surrendering any understanding of what it means to be a Jew and the values -- advanced even now, such as: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" -- that Jews brought to the world more than three thousand years ago.
Sharansky bemoans the failure of fathers to teach their sons about the stubborn singularity of what it means to be a Jew. He is a fierce critic of the "new" campus-based anti-Semitism, and catalogues several programs that Israeli and some American Jews have developed to lend courage to Jewish-American youths to defend, fight back, and celebrate their Jewish identity in the face of radical Jew-haters as well as self-hating American Jews who serve as a poisonous brew that eventually destroy both the institutions of democracy and the freedoms of individual liberty.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.