Natan Sharansky

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Born a Soviet citizen in 1948, Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky was born in Ukraine, and became part of the human rights movement there. Eventually, he emigrated to Israel, where he is active in politics, has been a strategic analyst at the Shalem Center, and, in June 2009, was elected to head the Jewish Agency.[1] He is a strong Zionist, in favor of emigration of Jews in "safe" countries, such as the U.S. and France, to Israel. With respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict, he supports a two-state settlement, but expects it to require democracy in Palestine. [2]

Soviet Union

His degree is in mathematics, and he became a translator for Andrei Sakharov, a physicist associated with nuclear weapons. When he applied for an exit visa in 1973, it was denied on security grounds. He then became involved in the refusenik movement, convicted of treason and spying for the United States in 1978, and was sentenced to thirteen years' imprisonment. He was first held in Lefortovo Prison and then sent to the gulag.

In discussing his experience as a prisoner, he said he survived because he resisted emotional surrender. This led him, in his memoirs, Fear No Evil, to observe a paradox: while an ordinary Russian, the system enslaved him; but that once he discovered his Jewish roots and imprisoned for his allegiance to them, his conscience became free. [3]

He speaks of a "beautiful moment" in the gulag when Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire speech reached the prisoners. Initially, they were cautious: "All we knew about Reagan was that he was a poorly regarded actor, and after living for so long in an Orwellian world where play-acting was all we ever experienced from our own leaders, the very fact that Reagan was an actor, I will say, left us far more concerned than encouraged at first...Finally, Orwell's Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union."[4]

In a 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times, he likened his experiences to those of current dissidents in Iran, as well as to those in eastern Europe.[5]


His wife, Avital, fought for his release. She had already emigrated to Israel, hoping he would follow. Public diplomacy, including efforts by Ronald Reagan, obtained his release, as part of a prisoner exchange, in 1986. Israel met him on the German border, and he was given a state welcome there.

Soviet activism in Israel

In 1988, he was elected President of the newly created Zionist Forum, the umbrella organization of former Soviet activists, and became deputy editor of the Jerusalem Report. Still disturbed by the status of Soviet Jews in Israel, he formed a new political party, Yisrael b'Aliyah, in 1995, dedicated to helping immigrants' professional, economic and social acculturation.

Entry to politics

In 1998, the party won seven Knesset seats, and he became Minister of Industry and Trade, Minister of Housing and Construction and Deputy Prime Minister from March 2001 until February 2003.

In February 2003, Natan Sharansky was appointed Minister without Portfolio, responsible for Jerusalem, social and Diaspora affairs. Opposed to Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, he resigned in from the Cabinet in May 2005.

"New antisemitism"

He is among those who says criticism of Israel can be a sophisticated form of antisemitism, hiding behind what can be legitimate criticism of the state. [6] His criteria are that antisemitic attacks on Israel:

  1. "demonization", when Israel's actions are blown out of all sensible proportion", such as comparing Israeli to Nazi actions
  2. "double standards. When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behavior of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored"
  3. "delegitimization", denying the right of Israel to exist, "alone among all peoples in the world"

Strategic studies

In November 2006 Natan Sharansky resigned from the Knesset and assumed the position of Chairman of the newly established Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

Jewish Agency and world Zionism

In June 2009, he was elected and sworn in as Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, which has the responsibility of encouraging emigration of Jews to Israel. In his acceptance speech, he said "We live in a world of post-identity, as they used to call it, where for many people in the free world any connection to their religion, to their people, to their roots, their history seem is like something that goes against the principles of freedom," explaining Jews are especially threatened because of high assimilation rates in the Diaspora and a weakening connection to Jews in Israel. "Because of that one of the great principles and aims of this organization was and will be aliyah to Israel. But how do we bring immigrants from the United States, France or from England, if you are not strengthening their identity with their own people? And so this becomes our biggest challenge."

His appointment represented a political compromise with American donors, who would not accept him as the head of the World Zionist Organization, traditionally also held by the head of the Jewish Agency. The Israeli government accepted, reluctantly.

He described his philosophy for the role:
One of the biggest challenges is the weakening of [Jewish] identify and assimilation all over the world...In Israel we are lucky that we don?t have assimilation, but we have a weakening of the connection of the Jewish people with their roots, with their history, with being part of the Jewish community. One of our main aims of course is [promoting] aliyah, but today when more than 90 percent of the world's Jews live either in Israel, America, France or [other safe] countries like this, you cannot encourage people to make aliyah if they don't have a strong [Jewish] identity...When I hear that the reason why only 15 percent of American Jewish kids receive a Jewish education is because it's too expensive, that's only a very small part of the truth. It's expensive but many also believe it's against American ideals to give children a Jewish education. That's a big problem. [7]


  1. Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, Jewish Virtual Library
  2. Natan Sharansky (November 2002), "A Road Map that Leads Straight Back to Oslo", Jerusalem Post
  3. Natan Sharanksky (1998), Fear No Evil, PublicAffairs, ISBN 1891620029
  4. Tom Rose (June 21, 2004), "The View from the Gulag; An interview with Natan Sharansky: He describes the "beautiful moment" when the news of the Evil Empire speech reached Siberia.", Weekly Standard
  5. Natan Sharansky (26 June 2009), "The prescience of protest: The West should listen to the dissidents in Iran craving freedom -- they can feel the future", Los Angeles Times
  6. Natan Sharansky (Fall 2004), "3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization", Jewish Political Studies Review
  7. Raphael Ahren and Nir Hasson (25 June 2009), "Sharansky sworn in as Jewish Agency chief", Haaretz