Natan Sharansky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science, Faith, and Survival: Conversation with Natan Sharanksy, Minister in the Israeli Government, April 16, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Jewish Identity

Along with this awareness, you were developing your sensibility and your feelings for your religious faith, for Judaism, and you were discovering that that was impossible, that the authorities were trying to stop you.

I tell you, in fact, that it was a little bit unnatural way of coming to Judaism. First, I became a Zionist, then I became a Jew, and then I became close to religion. How it happened: 1967 was the time of the miraculous victory of Israel over Arab dictatorships, and the accumulation by Israel of Soviet weapons, because the Soviets were big supporters [of Arab regimes] and sent a lot of troops to the Middle East. The anti-Semitic campaigns of the Soviet Union were very strong, but suddenly, you could see how anti-Semites treat you with maybe the same hatred, but with more respect, because strength was respected in the Soviet Union. Suddenly you see that even jokes about Jews are replaced with jokes about cowardly Jews and greedy Jews, to jokes about Jews of chutzpah.

Suddenly you understand that for these people, whether you want it or not, you're connected to Israel. That's why I felt that I have to understand what this connection means. And that's how we started learning about Israel and the underground, and started getting the first books about Israel from foreign tourists. When you find out that there is a state with which, whether you want or not, you're connected somehow in the eyes of the world, you want to feel this connection with the Jewish context, with history, with culture. And then suddenly you realize that whether you want or not, there is different history which begins not from the Bolshevik Revolution, but which begins thousands of years ago from the exodus from Egypt, and to some extent, maybe you're continuing this way. So suddenly you are finding your roots. It was a very important first step for inner freedom, for getting strength, some source of this strength. Then later, you start learning more about the spiritual power of these roots. In fact, I became really close to religion only while in prison.

A theme that emerges again and again in your book is that in becoming Jewish, you became free, even though you were trying to practice Judaism in a state that didn't want you to do that.

Yes. I believe that in order to be free, you must have the base, the source of strength to be free. The Soviet regime understood it very well, and it was cutting the roots, it was depriving people of their national identity, or their religious identity, or their property, pretending that everybody should be equal. In fact, they tried [to make] everybody dependent on them. They tried to destroy all the sources of support and solidarity. The family was very important social strength for people; they tried to destroy the family. The most popular hero among us in the Soviet school was an informer, a popular hero who informed on his parents, who caused his parents to be arrested by the Soviet authorities. It was a very important part of education to destroy solidarity with your people, with family, with the religion, and with ideals, that you would be fully in the hands of the state.

So the moment I found my identity, the moment I found my roots, the moment I felt that, in effect, there is a long history which is behind me, it became the first source of strength to speak my mind openly. The first time you start speaking your mind, you become free.

You then became a Soviet dissident. You also became a Jewish dissident, because these two struggles were intertwined; that is, the freedom of scientists as embodied by someone like Sakharov, but also the Jewish community's right to teach Hebrew, to read works in Hebrew, to read religious texts, and so on. You were then imprisoned for crimes against the state for these acts. In fact, wanting to emigrate to Israel was a crime.

No. In fact, those years I remember there was a debate among some of my friends, whether there is contradiction in being an activist of the Jewish movement, which wanted Jews to live as Jews and to emigrate to Israel, and/or to be a dissident who is defending human rights for everybody. Some people believed that's an absolute contradiction. Some Zionists thought that you could not be a good Zionist and at the same time be involved in a democratic movement, because if you want to leave, you should not be involved in the struggle to change the system. And there were some dissident friends who believed that if you are a dissident of human rights, you cannot go to your narrow nationalist [struggle]. For me, it was always a very national connection.

The moment I felt strong enough because of my Jewish identity to speak my mind and to speak on behalf of my rights and the rights of the other Jews, I felt already strong enough, also, to speak about the rights of other people whose rights are undermined. That's how I became an activist of two movements at the same time, of the Jewish emigration movement and the movement of human rights. That's how I was working with Andre Sakharov and with my Jewish Zionist colleagues, and that's how I became both the spokesman of the Jewish movement and one of the founding members of Helsinki Watch group, which was the group which was promoting rights of dissidents of all kinds in the Soviet Union.

Next page: Imprisonment in the Gulag

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