At Large

Natan Doin’

Natan Sharansky's resignation is huge news -- hence the silence and noncoverage.

By 5.5.05

Send to Kindle

Don't believe everything you don't read.

Natan Sharansky has resigned from the Cabinet of the Israeli government and the only audible sound from the political cognoscenti is a loud but affected yawn. The Associated Press, in their second version of the story, dismissed him as a marginal figure in Israeli politics and even disparaged his spoken Hebrew, too Russian-accented for their refined tastes. Don't buy into it: no self-respecting hog would wash in that stuff, and there has been no balder dash since Ted Koppel was handing out free hairpieces.

Trust me, Sharansky has chilled everyone to the marrow. The Right is too dumb to admit it; the Left is too smart to admit it. Hence the bipartisan yawn. But underneath: the big chill.

A large photograph has a perpetual perch in my "In" box. I never have the heart to file it away beyond my daily ambit. It is a never-published tableau of the great Ilya Essas teaching Hebrew to a picnic of about fifty refuseniks in a forest outside Moscow. (Essas, one of my best friends in the world, was the teacher of thousands. He is a genius autodidact who taught groups that went and taught other groups, reaching a vast audience that extended across the Soviet Union. By special agreement of all Israeli and Jewish media, his name was never mentioned in any articles in order not to jeopardize his work.) A clearly recognizable Anatoly Sharansky stands and listens thoughtfully.

Shortly after that, Sharansky was arrested and tried on trumped-up charges as an "enemy of the state." He spent the years from 1978 to 1986 first in an urban prison and then in a labor camp. His fiancee courageously married him a day or two before his prison term began, then began protesting vehemently for his release. The Soviets allowed her to emigrate to Israel, where she took the Hebrew name of Avital and joined the Religious Zionist, or Mizrachi, movement. She began a campaign of worldwide protests to free her husband, chaining herself to Soviet embassy gates in various capitals and conducting hunger strikes.

In 1986, the United States under President Reagan performed the unbelievably generous act of trading some captured Soviet-bloc intelligence agents for Sharansky, and he was released through the Berlin Wall. On his lonely walk across from tyranny to freedom, he accidentally dropped his worn book of Psalms, his wife's gift. As Fernanda Eberstadt wrote in the September 1988 issue of Commentary: "...It was, indeed, Avital's Hebrew copy of the Psalms -- those ululating lamentations and jubilant songs of victory composed by another high-spirited and sassy show-off -- that Sharansky read over and over again in prison and that led him gradually to a faith much like King David's: natural, mobile, and diffuse as the air we breathe..." When he turned and walked back a few steps to pick up the book, it was one of the most poignant moments of the 20th Century.

He visited President Reagan and told him that the day he called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" in a speech in England was the day that its doom was sealed. Reagan was very touched and summoned all the West Wing staffers from their offices to hear. After Reagan died, Sharansky wrote in the Weekly Standard that it is fair to say that it was he who brought down the Soviet Union.

Back in Israel, the Sharanskys were finally reunited. Their marriage was very fascinating in that she observed Jewish religious practices while he committed only to respect her observance and conduct of the home. A year or so later they had a daughter; then, another. Anatoly was Hebraicized into Natan, and he became a public intellectual of sorts, an author and lecturer. I recall standing next to him at the Wailing Wall one day circa 1990, as he prayed quietly without fanfare. He is about a foot shorter than me and his daughter seemed so incredibly tiny and beautiful, tightly clutching his hand.

Politics do not seem like a natural metier for a man so genuine and straightforward. Yet the influx of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union made up more than ten percent of the population by the mid-'90s, so it seemed natural to create a party to represent their interests. Sharansky emerged as an important voice in Israeli politics, defining (perhaps for the first time in the history of the State) a true center.

Additionally, he anchors the Israeli polity with his unabashed pro-American and pro-democracy worldview. President Bush has vocally praised Sharansky's writing and his political stance.

When Sharansky resigned from Ehud Barak's cabinet in 2000 because he thought Barak's peace plan was excessive, it was the beginning of the end for that plan. Now he has done it again, and the response is a big yawn. Oh? You fellas sure about that?

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.