This week, PublicAffairs of Hachette published Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People , by Natan Sharansky and me, culminating a three-year dialogue about the Israel-Diaspora dialogue. The copyright page says: “Printed in the United States of America” – but the book truly was made in Jerusalem.
Although it looks like Sharansky’s memoirs, it’s more like a memoir-festo. We use his extraordinary life story to argue for Jewish unity — continuing our 3,900-year-old mission balancing the two basic desires to belong and to be free. In today’s either-or world, we go countercultural – with a broader message too. We champion liberalism and nationalism – rejecting the false choice between liberalism or nationalism.
Most of our stories are his; every word and idea is ours. He talked. I wrote. I often finished the latest draft at 4 A.M. He started editing at 5:30 A.M. We differed over tone, wording, logic, structure. But, remarkably, we never disagreed ideologically.
Natan and I were not destined to collaborate. Born into that continental prison camp called the Soviet Union, he was raised to master chess and mathematics. Born into American freedom, I was raised to be an American historian. But Jerusalem summoned us both: Stripped of his identity, Sharansky sought those basics of identity and freedom. I’ve always been free but sought a deeper Jewish identity and more intimate community.
Of course, I knew of him, decades before we met. From 1977 to 1986, when he was in the Gulag, his name was on our lips – and on Prisoner of Zion bracelets around our wrists.
In freedom – serving in Israel’s Cabinet and at the Jewish Agency — Sharansky remained a perpetual dissident, which often made political horsetrading excruciating for him. But he was also a natural mediator. That creative tension produced an expansive vision of solidarity without conformity, of unity without imposing uniformity, reflecting a comfort with difference negotiated through a dialogue of one, a dialogue of us.
Such bridge-building makes him a compelling role model today. The West needs to relearn key lessons from Jewish history and American history, that a strong sense of self and of tribe need not negate others. People can live together embracing identities that are not identical, if we stop escalating arguments into zero-sum wars.
Amid growing intolerance and ideological totalitarianism – Left and Right – we celebrate difference, deviation, dialogue – within limits. We also advocate loyalty, patriotism, and self-defense against bigots, delegitimizers, terrorists.
That’s our nuanced made-in-Jerusalem message. One reader of an earlier draft kindly exclaimed, “You’re not just guardians of Zion, you’re guardians of sanity!”
We’re not so grandiose. But we are lovers of Zion – meaning Jerusalem, our old-new hometown and one of our book’s co-stars. The call of a reunited Jerusalem in 1967 inspired Sharansky and the Refuseniks. When he was sentenced to prison he shouted: “Next Year in Jerusalem,” trusting that ancient oath to keep Jews fighting for Soviet Jewish freedom.
It worked. Thousands of us kept marching for him, for them, echoing that cry.
When Sharansky was freed he rushed to Jerusalem; there, he and his wife Avital built their long-delayed life together. The governmental circus and political chamber of frustrations he endured was in Jerusalem too – and it’s where his roller-coaster relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu played out. In Jerusalem, Sharansky fought epic battles for Jewish unity – especially over the Kotel.
Moreover, it was a battered but brave Jerusalem that threw us together, as Yasir Arafat turned the Oslo “Peace Process” into his Palestinian terrorism campaign. In the early 2000s, we both fought against anti-Semitism and for Zionism, especially on campus – he as an Israeli minister and human rights activist, I as a McGill professor.
It was also at his Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, where Natan kindly welcomed my family when we made Aliyah ten years ago. We expected a two-minute photo-op. Instead, he invited us to sit around his big table. Having been raised on stories describing how this man and the equally-heroic Avital defied the KGB, my awestruck kids turned silent. Breaking the awkwardness, I asked, “When you arrived in Israel, you were beloved. But once you entered politics, Israelis started criticizing and complaining. My kids also experience frustrations with Israel sometimes – how did you cope?”
Natan asked the kids: “You love your parents, don’t you?” They nodded yes.
“But sometimes, you get angry at them, correct?” They nodded yes again.
“Yet you still love them?” Yes again.
“That’s what it was like coming to Israel,” he concluded. “I found my family here. Even when we argue, we never stop loving one another.”
Ice-broken: the kids peppered him with questions.
Back then, I never imagined we would become writing partners; still, that exchange nicely summarizes our book.
Today, I relish my daily jogs through millennia of history in my backyard; Natan delights in wandering the Machane Yehudah market every Friday – in non-Covid times. That shared passion made us neighbors and illustrates our multi-dimensional message. Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s capital, is an international treasure. This walled city of yesteryear is a high-tech-center inventing tomorrow. This spiritual and material metropolis has welcomed us – and countless others — to thrive individually. Yet it also remains the ancient symbol of that eternal lesson we each imbibed in Moscow and New York: when you have a rich collective identity — in this case when you belong to this extraordinary family called the Jewish people — wherever you are, whatever you face, you’ve got ideas, values, a people behind you; you’re Never Alone.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.