Thursday, February 11, 2016

Natan Sharansky's 30th Anniversary of Freedom

Natan Sharansky was freed as a Prisoner of Zion 30 years ago today. Sharansky is one of the most famous former Soviet refusniks and should be treated as a hero of the Jewish people. In the 30 years since he gained his freedom Sharansky has become a devoted Israeli politician.

In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel, but was refused on “security” grounds. Following this denial, Sharansky became more involved with the refusnik movement and became an activist for Soviet Jews. On March 15, 1977, he was arrested by the KGB, accused of treason and espionage. I remember marching at the Rally to Free Soviet Jews in D.C. with my mother. Somewhere in the crowd with her own mother, was a 14-year-old girl, who would become my wife 11-and-a-half years later.

The human rights activist arrived in Israel on February 11, 1986, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Shimon Peres. In 1988, he 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. In November 2006, 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, a post he holds today. He is credited with creating a space at the Western Wall for men and women to pray together. This plan for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, which Sharansky worked on for several years, took effect late last month.

Since Sharansky's release from a Soviet prison, he has accomplished so much on behalf of the Jewish people. Personally, I've visited the Former Soviet Union twice and have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Sharansky several times -- both in Israel and in the United States. It is always an honor to be in his presence and I'll never forget what this great man sacrificed for his fellow Soviet Jews.

On the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of his freedom, his daughter Rachel Sharansky Danziger wrote a gripping op-ed in the Times of Israel titled "30 years after Glienicke Bridge."

The bridge was Glienicke Bridge, of Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” fame. When my father walked onto it he was a prisoner in the Soviet block, though a free man in spirit. He found freedom on the day he stopped hiding his opinions. He earned freedom as he fought for his right to be a Jew in Israel, and for his fellow Russians’ human rights. He preserved it as the KGB imprisoned his body, trying and failing to force him to recant...

As my parents’ daughter, I am forever aware that I owe my existence to the people who yelled with my mother. I wouldn’t be here today if you, the Jews of the world, wouldn’t have opened your hearts and your homes and your purses. You marched in rallies, sent letters to your representatives, paid my mother’s tickets as she flew from one demonstration to another. You hosted her. You encouraged her. Your yells broke through the Iron Curtain. They broke into my father’s cell long before they broke him out of it. And they broke into my inner geography, where they ring and echo to this day.

I want you to know that I remember, and that I am grateful. I want you to know that when I saw my parents playing with their grandchildren near Lefortovo Prison several years ago, it was your victory that made me almost dance with joy. Thirty-five years earlier, my father’s KGB investigator told him that “we don’t let heroes leave Lefortovo alive.” You, the Jewish People, proved him wrong.

Your spirit and strength in those years freed a man, and brought an empire to its knees. When I feel tired, when I fear for the future, when we squabble and fight within ourselves, I go back to your echos inside me, and find hope.

Natan Sharansky: Thank you for your courage, conviction and devotion to the Jewish people: "Am Yisrael Chai... The Jewish people endure!"

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