Following his death at the age of 97, tributes from around the world have been paid to a “modest teacher from London” who fought for Israel’s independence and then spent most of his life fighting for Soviet Jewry.
Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, was among the Jewish leaders to applaud Michael Sherbourne, who died in London on Saturday.
After serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, Sherbourne moved to Palestine with his wife and two small children in January 1948. He later wrote that they were “greeted with the sight of black smoke onshore from explosions”.
He volunteered with Machal, a unit of the pre-state Haganah paramilitary organisation comprising foreign fighters.
In 2007, he wrote about the British withdrawal on 16 May 1948, saying: “I watched from Mount Carmel as the Royal Navy warships in Haifa Harbour were loaded with Arabs who were fleeing and were taken up the coast to Beirut.”
His Brigade was given the ill-fated task of re-taking Latrun, something he recalled as “impossible” task.
“The Arabs were strongly entrenched and had 25-pounder artillery and a clear field in front,” he said.
“Meanwhile we had no artillery at all, only equipped with home-made Sten guns, which were more dangerous to us than to the enemy. Many of our so-called troops were but boys straight off the immigrant ships, from the concentration camps, with no training in the use of arms, and our losses were very heavy.”
Sherbourne returned to the UK after his wife contracted tuberculosis. Here, he studied and then taught Russian. In 1969 he became involved in the Soviet Jewry, acting as the link between Soviet activists and the outside world for over 20 years.
One of those activists was Natan Sharansky, chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, who paid his respects on Sunday.
“At a time when there was no internet, no satellite television, and no free communication between the Soviet Union and the free world, this modest teacher of the Russian language in London became the primary channel of communication between Soviet Jewish activists and Jews all over the world,” said Sharansky.
“Michael made thousands of telephone calls on our behalf and was the first to publicise some of the most dramatic moments in our struggle,” he added.
“He demonstrated that one passionate individual, with no institutional position or backing, can have an impact on the course of history. We will miss him dearly.”
Sherbourne’s achievements were recognised in front of a crowded house at last year’s Limmud conference, when Sharansky presented Sherbourne with a special plaque for his activism.