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Take It From a Refusenik: Jews Win When They Are United
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Opinion

Take It From a Refusenik: Jews Win When They Are United

Natan Sharansky recalls the movement that won him his freedom, and shows how today's divisions can still be overcome.

Some 250,000 people rallied for Soviet Jewry at the Freedom Sunday march in Washington in December 1987.
(American Jewish Historical Society)
Some 250,000 people rallied for Soviet Jewry at the Freedom Sunday march in Washington in December 1987. (American Jewish Historical Society)
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A few years after I, Natan Sharansky, arrived in Israel, a neighbor who moved to Jerusalem from New York saw me playing with my children in the backyard. Looking wistful, she said, “You know, Natan, it was such a great time when you were in prison. Back then, we were all united. We all protested together. Those rallies were great places for dating, too – I know many marriages that resulted. There was such a loving atmosphere between us and Israel.” Sighing, she asked: “Where is it now?”

Despite having no intention to return to the Gulag, I almost shared her nostalgia. In the ’70s and ’80s, that feeling of joining our people in their historic struggle was so overwhelming, it outshined our many differences. Soviet Jewish Refuseniks, Diaspora Jews and Israelis all felt like one big fighting family.

Still, while Diaspora Jews seemed united in their adulation of Soviet Jews, they were deeply divided too, especially the American Jews. There were so many organizations, it was hard to keep track of all their names: you had the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the Coalition of Soviet Jewry and so many others.

Once, I hosted two charming young couples from New York. It had been a long afternoon and I had no interest in doing two more briefings, back to back. “How about I brief all of you, together,” I suggested. All four looked offended. “Our organization needs its own briefing,” each couple insisted in a huff.

The bickering sometimes threatened our work. It often forced us to double our risk of exposure – and theirs — by smuggling two sets of documents to two rival organizations – even when both were only blocks apart in midtown Manhattan.

It took a long time to realize that the chaos benefitted us. Underlying the competition was a classic division between activist and Establishment groups. Although they could not stand one another, they needed each other. The struggle for Soviet Jewry needed the activists’ insistence to start; it needed the Establishment’s muscle to succeed.

The range of organizations also helped us reach a wide range of Jews. Zionism and liberalism, the fight for Jewish identity and for human freedom, united easily under one banner. You didn’t have to leave other values at the door of this movement, because so many differences proved useful. Some liberals marched straight from Civil Rights demonstrations in the South to Soviet Jewry demonstration in the North. They worked with Zionists and Orthodox Jews and anti-Communist Cold Warriors. Only the most marginal players in the Jewish world – harsh anti-Zionists and uncompromising Communists – could not fit themselves into this broad communal coalition.

Finding many doorways into this diverse community, many Baby Boomers thanked the Soviet Jewry movement for rooting them in Jewish history and Jewish causes.

Natan Sharansky

This bristling alliance originated with the movement in the 1960s – and continued through the Soviet Union’s collapse. The arc of our dialogue focused on how all this colliding energy could ramp up our power, not dissipate it.

And, let’s face it. There’s nothing like sharing an enemy when you need to bond. The KGB’s seal of disapproval drove away all the doubts and divisions. Every warring, supposedly ego-driven, organization earned its place on the same list of anti-Soviet organizations in my KGB files. They’re all honorable accomplices in the crime of defeating the Soviet Union.

So today, when we look around the Jewish world, and everyone says “we’ve never been so divided,” we are not surprised to hear such a range of different political views. The problem is in the hyper-partisanship, the polarization, the intolerance of the differences. Cancel culture, left and right, prevents cooperation and obscures our common cause. Too many of us cannot imagine one enemy that, like the KGB, has us all listed in its files.

Sadly, we do have a common enemy, and it’s best reflected by the surge in anti-Semitism from the left and the right. Rather than continuing this silly debate about which form of Jew-hatred is worse, we should unite in zero-tolerance against all bigotry.

All the quibbling, all the cancelling, also prevent us from tapping into our unique Jewish experience in connecting a deep, historic, pride in our group identity with a passionate commitment to individual freedom. We will hear that double message – in person or virtually, via Zoom this year – in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, as we celebrate the Jewish New Year and the world’s birthday.

Moreover, we have all lived that double message through this corona-crisis, witnessing the importance of both universalism and particularism. The house-by-house lockdown demonstrates that our homes are our castles: that our families and communities are our first lines of defense; and that well-patrolled national borders can keep out infections.

At the same time, the global nature of the pandemic warns us that there are some wars we can only win by all uniting internationally together. We need boundaries that are clear but permeable, so we can figure out how to cooperate against diseases-which-respect-no-borders — sharing information, collaborating on research, forging mutually-beneficial strategies, even among geopolitical rivals.

Benefiting from enough particularism and enough universalism, the best of liberalism and the best of nationalism, together we can champion the joint mission to belong and to be free as both central to human happiness. To have a full, interesting, meaningful life, you have to figure out how to be connected enough to defend your freedom and free enough to protect your identity.

Natan Sharansky was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union and was a minister in four different Israeli governments. Professor Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on the American presidency. Their book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People — from which this essay was adapted — was just published by PublicAffairs of the Hachette Book Group.

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