Activist, author, statesman and leader – and now someone trying to reconcile the situation at the Western Wall – Natan Sharansky is speaking at Congregation B’nai Israel on June 2 at 7 p.m. as part of the Roz Baim Distinguished Speakers Series.
Sharansky, one of the most famous former Soviet refuseniks and an Israeli politician, author and human rights activist, is currently chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and has presented what could be a historic proposal to add a space for egalitarian prayer to the Western Wall to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After significant thought and multiple discussions with Knesset members and a wide range of stakeholders in Israel and the Diaspora, Sharansky presented his recommendations to Prime Minister Netanyahu. “One Western Wall for one Jewish people,” Sharansky said, hoping that his recommendations would be accepted and decrease the heightened tensions at the Western Wall, so “the Kotel will once again be a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife.”
Born Anatoly Sharansky in 1948 and raised in the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), Sharansky graduated with a degree in mathematics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. He was associated with the human rights movement when he became an English interpreter for Andrei Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1975. Later, Sharansky emerged in his own right as one of the foremost dissidents and spokesmen for the Soviet Jewry movement.
In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel, but was refused on “security” grounds. Following this denial, he became more overtly involved with the “refusenik” movement and became an activist for Soviet Jews. He remained prominently involved in Jewish refusenik activities until his arrest in 1977. In 1978, Sharansky was convicted of treason and spying on behalf of the United States, and was sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment in a Siberian forced labor camp. For the first 16 months of his sentence he was held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, frequently in solitary confinement and in a special “torture cell,” before being transferred to a notorious prison camp in the Siberian gulag.
Years after his release, Sharansky stressed the need he maintained throughout his imprisonment to remain emotionally independent. He attributed his survival of the lengthy incarceration and the brutal conditions to his resistance to any sort of emotional surrender. He said that while an ordinary Russian, he was in fact a slave to the system, but that once he discovered his Jewish roots and was restricted for his allegiance to them, he was in reality a free man. Sharansky’s memoirs of his years as a prisoner of Zion are described in his book Fear No Evil. During the years of his imprisonment, Sharansky became a symbol for human rights in general and Soviet Jewry in particular.
A campaign for Sharansky’s release was waged tirelessly by his wife, Avital, who emigrated to Israel immediately following their wedding with the hope that her husband would follow shortly. Intense diplomatic efforts and public outcries for his release were unsuccessful until 1986, when Sharansky was released as part of an East-West prisoner exchange. Sharansky became the first political prisoner ever released by Mikhail Gorbachev because of intense political pressure from Ronald Reagan and the United States.
Freed on the border of a still-divided Germany, he was met by the Israeli ambassador who presented him immediately with his new Israeli passport under the Hebrew name of Natan Sharansky. He arrived in Israel on February 11, 1986, and was greeted by leading government officials, including then Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and was given a hero’s welcome.
In 1988, Sharansky was elected President of the newly created Zionist Forum, the umbrella organization of former Soviet activists. He also served as an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report.
Increasingly disappointed with Israel’s absorption of the large influx of Soviet Jews, Sharansky wrote frequently on the subject, and in 1995 created a new political party, Yisrael b’Aliyah, dedicated to helping immigrants’ professional, economic and social acculturation. In the Israeli elections the following year, the party won seven Knesset seats, and Sharansky was named Minister of Industry and Trade.
Sharansky served as Minister of Industry and Trade from 1996 to 1999. He served as Minister of the Interior from July 1999 until his resignation in July 2000, as Minister of Housing and Construction and as 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.
Sharansky resigned from the government on May 2, 2005, because of his opposition to Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. He had served in four different Knesset governments.
In November 2006 Natan Sharansky resigned from the Knesset and assumed the position of chairman of the then newly-established Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. In June 2009, he was elected and sworn in as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel..
Natan Sharansky’s memoir, Fear No Evil, was published in the United States in 1988 and has been translated into nine languages. Another book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (2004) attracted widespread attention and was famously quoted by President George Bush during his presidency.
Sharansky’s latest book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy (2008) is a defense of the value of national and religious identity in building democracy. He also maintains a website and a blog.
Sharansky is married to Avital and has two daughters, Rachel and Hannah.
The event is sponsored and underwritten by the Roslyn and Joseph Baim Family Foundation – Barbara and Joseph Baim. Tickets are $36 (reserved), $18 (unreserved) and $10 (student, with ID). Proceeds will benefit the Congregation B’nai Israel Scholarship Fund. For reservations, call (714) 730-9693.
Western Wall compromise raises hopes, but still faces obstacles
TEL AVIV (JTA) – Natan Sharansky has presented what could be a historic proposal to add a space for egalitarian prayer to the Western Wall. Israeli religious pluralism activists, however, fear that the proposal will take years to implement and could face roadblocks that prevent it from coming to fruition.
The proposal would expand the current Western Wall Plaza, currently divided into men’s and women’s sections, to allow a space where men and women can pray together. The plaza would expand to include Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological park adjacent to the Wall but currently divided from the rest of the plaza by a bridge. Egalitarian prayer is allowed at the site.
Sharansky presented the plan in New York to the rabbinical Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. Leaders of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewry have expressed their willingness to go along with the proposal. Upon his return to Israel, Sharansky presented the plan to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was asked last year by Netanyahu to formulate a plan to change prayer regulations at the Wall. The request came after rising calls among Conservative and Reform Jews to allow for non-Orthodox prayer in the plaza and several high-profile arrests of female activists at the Wall.
Sharansky’s plan, however, may encounter obstacles from the Israeli government, as well as from the Islamic Waqf, which administers Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount.
“I think it’s very ambitious,” said Lesley Sachs, director of Women of the Wall, which holds monthly women’s prayer services at the Wall. “We haven’t seen the plan, but we’re talking about a very ambitious endeavor that will take a long time to implement.”
In order to allow for egalitarian prayer at the Wall, the Israeli government will have to change a 1981 ordinance that prohibits any Jewish practice which deviates from “local custom.” At the Wall, local custom is determined by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, a haredi Orthodox leader who has opposed any change to the status quo.
The current ordinance has led to the arrest and detention of Women of the Wall for singing at the Wall and wearing prayer shawls. Sachs is concerned that until the plan is implemented, her group will continue to face arrests and detentions.
Rabinowitz in a statement offered approval for Sharansky’s plan in order to stop the Wall from “becoming a battlefield between one group of extremists and another.” Liberal activists, however, think the battle will continue.
The biggest obstacle to the plan, however, may come from the Waqf, which has opposed Israeli construction at the Temple Mount. The Waqf has protested Israel’s right to make decisions there because the Temple Mount is located in eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital.
– Ben Sales, JTA