Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky, February 2016
Date of birth (1948-01-20) 20 January 1948
Place of birth Stalino, Soviet Union
(now Donetsk, Ukraine)
Knessets 14, 15, 16, 17
Faction represented in Knesset
1996–2003 Yisrael BaAliyah
2006 Likud
Ministerial roles
1996–1999 Minister of Industry and Trade
1999–2000 Minister of Internal Affairs
2001–2003 Deputy Prime Minister
2001–2003 Minister of Housing & Construction
2003–2005 Minister of Jerusalem Affairs

Natan Sharansky (Hebrew: נתן שרנסקי, Russian: Ната́н Щара́нский; born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky (Russian: Анато́лий Бори́сович Щара́нский) on 20 January 1948) is an Israeli politician, human rights activist and author who, as a refusenik in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, spent nine years in Soviet prisons. He has served as Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency since June 2009.[1]


Sharansky was born in Donetsk (then called Stalino), Soviet Union on 20 January 1948 to a Jewish family. He graduated with a degree in applied mathematics from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. As a child, he was a chess prodigy. He performed in simultaneous and blindfold displays, usually against adults. At the age of 15, he won the championship in his native Donetsk.[2] When incarcerated in solitary confinement, he claims to have maintained his sanity by playing chess against himself in his mind. Sharansky beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a simultaneous exhibition in Israel in 1996.[2]

He was given the current name in 1986 by the Israeli ambassador to West Germany, after he was freed from the Soviet incarceration as part of prisoner exchange.[3]

Natan Sharansky is married to Avital Sharansky and has two daughters, Rachel and Hannah.[4] In the Soviet Union, his marriage application to Avital was denied by the authorities. They were married in a friend's apartment, in a ceremony not recognized by the government, as the USSR only recognized civil marriage and not religious marriage.[5]


Sharansky was denied an exit visa to Israel in 1973. The reason given for denial of the visa was that he had been given access, at some point in his career, to information vital to Soviet national security and could not now be allowed to leave. After becoming a refusenik, Sharansky became a human rights activist, working as a translator for dissident and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, and spokesman for the Moscow Helsinki Group and a leader for the rights of refuseniks.

Arrest and imprisonment

On 15 March 1977 Sharansky was arrested on multiple charges including high treason and spying for Americans. The accusation stipulated that he passed to the West lists of over 1,300 refuseniks, many of whom were denied exit visas because of their knowledge of state secrets, which resulted in a publication by Robert C. Toth, "Russ Indirectly Reveal 'State Secrets': Clues in Denials of Jewish Visas".[6][7] High treason carried the death penalty. The following year, in 1978, he was sentenced to 13 years of forced labor.

Sharansky spent time in the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, followed by Vladimir and Chistopol prisons, where for part of the time he was placed in solitary confinement. His health deteriorated, to the point of endangering his life. Later he was detained in Perm 35, a post-Stalin-Gulag-type so-called "strict regimen colony" in Perm Oblast.[8] He kept himself sane during solitary confinement by playing chess with himself, in his head.[9]

Sharansky appeared in a March 1990 edition of National Geographic magazine. The article, "Last Days of the Gulag" by Mike Edwards, profiles through photographs and text one of the few remaining Soviet prison labor camps. The article featured a photo of Natan Sharansky and his wife Avital in their home in Israel viewing photos of the same Gulag where he had been imprisoned, but as it appeared in 1990. Sharansky remarked in the article that after viewing images of the prisoner's faces he could discern that the protocol of oppression was still at work. The author also showed Sharansky a photo of the cold isolation cell where he had himself been confined. Sharansky commented with irony that conditions had improved slightly—the stark cell now featured a thin bench bolted to the middle of the floor. He said that if that bench had existed when he was there he could have utilized it to sleep, albeit uncomfortably.

Release from detention

Sharansky's wife Avital at the Sharansky tribunal in Amsterdam, 12 May 1980

As a result of an international campaign led by his wife, Avital Sharansky (including assistance from East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel, New York Congressman Benjamin Gilman and Rabbi Ronald Greenwald), Sharansky was released on 11 February 1986 as part of a larger exchange of detainees. He was the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev due to intense political pressure from Ronald Reagan.

Sharansky and three low-level Western spies (Czech citizen Jaroslav Javorský and West German citizens Wolf-Georg Frohn and Dietrich Nistroy) were exchanged for Czech spies Karl Koecher and Hana Koecher held in the USA, Soviet spy Yevgeni Zemlyakov, Polish spy Marian Zacharski and East German spy Detlef Scharfenorth (the latter three held in West Germany). The exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin, which had been used before for this purpose.[10][11]


Sharansky immediately immigrated to Israel, adopting the Hebrew name Natan and eventually simplifying his surname to Sharansky. His wife had become religiously observant during his detention, but he did not follow her on this path.

Due to his age and poor health, he was exempted from the standard mandatory three years' military service, but had to undergo three weeks of military training and do a stint in the Civil Guard.[12]

In 1988, he wrote Fear No Evil, his memoirs of his time as a prisoner, and founded the Zionist Forum, an organization of Soviet immigrant Jewish activists dedicated to helping new Israelis and educating the public about integration issues, known in Israel as klita (lit. "absorption"). Sharansky also served as a contributing editor to The Jerusalem Report and as a Board member of Peace Watch.

Freedom fighter awards

In 1986, the United States Congress granted him the Congressional Gold Medal.[13]

In 1987, Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America Sharansky received the Henrietta Szold Award from National President Ruth Popkin.[14]

In 2006 US President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[15]

On 17 September 2008, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation awarded Sharansky its 2008 Ronald Reagan Freedom Award.[16]

Israeli political career

Sharansky and Ronald Reagan, December 1986

In 1995 Sharansky and Yoel Edelstein founded the Yisrael BaAliyah party (a play of words, since "aliya" means both Jewish emigration to Israel, and "rise", thus the party name means "(People of) Israel immigrating (to the State of Israel)", as well as "Israel on the rise"), promoting the absorption of the Soviet Jews into Israeli society. The party won seven Knesset seats in 1996.[17] It won 6 seats in the Israeli legislative election, 1999, gaining two ministerial posts, but left the government on 11 July 2000 in response to suggestions that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's negotiations with the Palestinians would result in a division of Jerusalem. After Ariel Sharon won a special election for Prime Minister in 2001, the party joined his new government, and was again given two ministerial posts.[18]

In the January 2003 elections the party was reduced to just two seats. Sharansky resigned from the Knesset, and was replaced by Edelstein. However, he remained party chairman, and decided to merge it into Likud (which had won the election with 38 seats). The merger went through on 10 March 2003,[19] and Sharansky was appointed Minister of Jerusalem Affairs.

From March 2003 – May 2005, he was Israel's Minister without Portfolio, responsible for Jerusalem, social and Jewish diaspora affairs. Under this position Sharansky chaired a secret committee that approved the confiscation of East Jerusalem property of West Bank Palestinians. This decision was reversed after an outcry from the Israeli left and the international community.[20]

Previously he served as the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Minister of Housing and Construction since March 2001, Interior Minister of Israel (July 1999 – resigned in July 2000), Minister of Industry and Trade (1996–1999).

He resigned from the cabinet in April 2005 to protest plans to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

He was re-elected to the Knesset in March 2006 as a member of the Likud Party. On 20 November 2006, he resigned from the Knesset.

NGO work and other activities

His resignation was meant to allow him to form the right-leaning Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. The funding came from American billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Since 2007, Sharansky has been Chairman of the Board of Beit Hatefutsot, the Jewish diaspora museum.[21]

In June 2009 Sharansky was elected to the Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel by the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.[22] In September 2009 Sharansky secured $6 million from the Genesis Philanthropy Group for educational activities in the former Soviet Union.[23]

He is a Founding Member of One Jerusalem.

Media recognition and awards

In 1997, Sharansky was the focus of a 2.5-hour-long episode of Chaim SheKa'ele ("What A Life"), the Israeli version of This Is Your Life. The episode focused mainly on his experiences as a Soviet dissident, and featured many of his family and acquaintances.[24] In 2005, Sharansky participated in They Chose Freedom, a four-part television documentary on the history of the Soviet dissident movement, and in 2008 he was featured in Laura Bialis' documentary Refusenik. In 2014 he took part in Natella Boltyanskaya's documentary Parallels, Events, People. He was number eleven on the list of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2005 in the "Scientists and thinkers" category.[25]

Published works

Sharansky is the author of three books. The first is the autobiographical Fear No Evil, which dealt with his trial and imprisonment.

His second book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror was co-written with Ron Dermer. George W. Bush offered praise for the book:

If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy. ... For government, particularly – for opinion makers, I would put it on your recommended reading list. It's short and it's good. This guy is a heroic figure, as you know. It's a great book.[26][27]

His book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, is a defense of the value of national and religious identity in building democracy.[28]

Political views

Sharansky and Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, 19 September 2000

Sharansky has argued that there can never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians until there is "the building of real democratic institutions in the fledgling Palestinian society, no matter how tempting a 'solution' without them may be."[29] In a Haaretz interview, he maintained the following:

Jews came here 3,000 years ago and this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews are the only people in history who kept their loyalty to their identity and their land throughout the 2,000 years of exile, and no doubt that they have the right to have their place among nations—not only historically but also geographically. As to the Palestinians, who are the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years, they have the right, if they want, to have their own state ... but not at the expense of the state of Israel.[3]

In the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011, he told Moment Magazine, "To sign an agreement you must have a partner who is dependent on the well-being of his people, which is what democracy means."[30]

See also


  1. "Leadership, Board & Staff | The jewish agency for Israel". Retrieved 2014-02-08.
  2. 1 2 Schmemann, Serge (16 October 1996). "Kasparov beaten in Israel, by Russians". New York Times.
  3. 1 2 Desch, Michael (28 March 2005). "Sharansky's double standard". The American Conservative.
  4. "Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 2014-02-08.
  5. "Man in the news: Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky; a free man at last". New York Times. 12 February 1986.
  6. Toth, Robert (22 November 1976). "Russ indirectly reveal 'state secrets': clues in denials of Jewish visas". Los Angeles Times.
  7. "US reporter got secrets, Russians say". The Milwaukee Sentinel. 12 July 1978.
  8. Berman, Daphna (July–August 2012). "Natan Sharansky: act III, scene I". Moment Magazine.
  9. "Natan Sharansky: how chess kept one man sane". BBC News. 3 January 2014.
  10. Broder, Jonathan (12 February 1986). "Hero is home: Israel cheers Sharansky". Chicago Tribune.
  11. Moseley, Ray (11 February 1986). "Shcharansky swap confirmed". Chicago Tribune.
  12. "Sharansky begins military training". The Spokesman-Review. 1 March 1988.
  13. Congressional Gold Medal recipients. Retrieved on 9 September 2011.
  14. Guide to the Operations and Functions Records in the Hadassah Archives, RG 15, Box 45, Folder 25, American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY
  15. Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. 7 December 2006
  16. Natan Sharansky to receive Ronald Reagan Freedom Award. Associated Press via Ynetnews (28 February 2008)
  17. Natan Ščaranskij; Anatoly Sharansky (2006). The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny And Terror. New Leaf Publishing Group. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-89221-644-4.
  18. "Governments of Israel". Retrieved 2014-02-08.
  19. "Parliamentary Groups in the Knesset". Retrieved 2014-02-08.
  20. Nonna Gorilovskaya. "The Dissident: An Interview With Natan Sharansky". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2014-02-08.
  21. Sharansky new Beth Hatefutsoth head – Israel Jewish Scene, Ynetnews. (20 June 1995). Retrieved on 9 September 2011.
  22. Retrieved 3 December 2009. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  23. Berkman, Jacob (2 September 2009). "Genesis group gives Jewish Agency $6 million for education projects in FSU | Jewish Telegraphic Agency". Archived from the original on 27 February 2012. Retrieved 2014-02-08.
  24. "Chaim SheKa'ele - Natan Sharansky" (in Hebrew). YouTube. 1997.
  25. Chafets, Zev (10 April 2005). "Natan Sharansky: Bush's favorite author". Time.
  26. Dickerson, John (10 January 2005). "What the president reads". CNN International.
  27. Kristol, William (24 January 2005). "Honoring democracy. From the 24 January 2005 issue: Honor points the path of duty; the path of duty for us is the defense of liberty". The Weekly Standard. 10 (18).
  28. Sharansky Interview regarding Defending Identity, 14 July 2008. (26 July 2008). Retrieved on 9 September 2011.
  29. Natan Ščaranskij; Anatoly Sharansky (2006). The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny And Terror. New Leaf Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-89221-644-4.
  30. Natan Sharansky (May–June 2011). "What Is Israel's Next Move In The New Middle East?". Moment Magazine. Archived from the original on 6 May 2011.


Further reading

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