The day he crossed the Glienicke Bridge in East Berlin in February 1986, Natan Sharansky went from one of Soviet Russia’s most famous prisoners to one of Israel’s most famous immigrants.
In a matter of hours, he was transported from his cramped prison cell, having spent nine years in captivity, to the throngs of celebrating Israelis escorting him and the prime minister to the Western Wall.
“In a few hours, I had ascended from hell to paradise, from the grim reality of evil to the fantasy world of my imagination, the transcendent feeling of being transported to a different dimension,” he would later write of the experience in his 1988 memoir, Fear No Evil.
Today, 31 years on, his long campaign for Jewish freedom continues. Having been thrust almost immediately into Israeli public life after his release, Sharansky, now 69, has fought incessantly for integrating the Jewish world into the vision of Israel’s future.
His efforts to help create housing and jobs to absorb the influx of new citizens from the collapsed Soviet Union led him to the halls of Israeli power as both a Knesset member and cabinet member, and eventually to the leadership of the Jewish Agency, Israel’s historic immigrant absorption bureau, which he has spent the last nine years reshaping.
Speaking to Jewish News in his office in Jerusalem, Sharansky says that the organisation, once seen as ageing, amorphous and wasteful, is now at the forefront of tackling challenges facing the Jewish people in the 21st century, having shifted its focus from aliyah to strengthening Jewish identity around the world.
“This is a process that I spearheaded but this is not a process that the Jewish Agency is imposing on the Jewish world. It’s a process that the Jewish world is imposing on it’s institutions, like the Jewish Agency,” Sharansky said.
Describing a shift in Jewish immigration to Israel from “saving Jews from persecution” to “aliyah of free choice,” Sharansky said that the Jewish State has had to change its perspective on and relationship with the Diaspora. “Our major aim is now to reach every Jew in the world and help him or her to strengthen their connection with history, tradition, community and religion,” he said. “Those who want more olim must make sure there are more Jews, because Jews are the candidates for aliyah.. Our aim is to make Jews proud to belong to their people.”
But bridging that gap can prove challenging when the ideals of an Israel united with its Diaspora collide with its at-times brutal internal politics. Earlier this year, an Israeli cabinet decision to suspend an agreement to expand a section of the Western Wall for the benefit of non-Orthodox worshippers triggered an unprecedented crisis between world Jewry and the government in Jerusalem. Diaspora groups, including UK community leaders, harshly condemned the move as a rejection of their creed in favour of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
In a rare move, Sharansky waded into the crisis, making a rare reentry into Israeli politics with a cutting critique of the decision and a public call for Netanyahu to honour the original agreement.
“Israel has to give a feeling to every Jew in the world that it is their home, they are welcome here with their communities, with their rabbis and with their prayers. That’s why we at the Jewish Agency, and myself as chairman, worked so hard to help create this deal and why we are so critical about the decision of the government to freeze it,” he told Jewish News, almost four months after the government flip flop, still with no end to the deadlock in sight.
For Sharansky, the myriad challenges Israel faces have fine tuned but not destroyed his belief in the “paradise” he came to in 1986.
“When you are in the skies, you can only go down, down to reality. And the closer you are to the earth you are, the more obvious the discrepancies, things that are not exactly the paradise you saw in your dreams,” Sharansky posited of his own experience in Israel as well as the State’s 69-year history.
“For now, lets call it a paradise in progress,” he said with a smile.