Just about a year ago, the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, then Israel's Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, spoke here at the Gershman Y and highlighted the universal themes of his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, arguing how international pressure helped topple the authoritarian regime in the Soviet Union.
That was right around the time the book had been touted by President George W. Bush, becoming required reading at a White House in the midst of preparing a second inaugural address that advocated a foreign policy based on spreading human rights and democracy.
Sharansky – who resigned from the Israeli government in May in protest of withdrawal from the Gaza Strip – also used the Soviet Union as his test case during a Monday-night speech at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn's Landing. The talk was part of a fundraising event for Lubavitch of Bucks County's new Glazier Jewish Center in Newtown.
This time around, Sharansky focused on how Jewish solidarity helped liberate the refuseniks. Last year's book was all but forgotten, as were references to the American president, and the recent elections in Egypt and Iraq that some point to as evidence of the beginning of democratization in the Middle East.
"I was one of those absolutely assimilated Jews, who grew up without knowledge of anything about their national history. I knew nothing about the Holocaust," admitted Sharansky, speaking before 200 or so people. Growing up under communism, "you mistakenly try to connect your life to the Soviet Union, as if everything [began] with the October Revolution."
He recalled that it was the news of Israel's military victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 that awakened his Jewish consciousness, and eventually led him to explore his religious and cultural roots.
Indeed, he said that it was contact with Israeli and American co-religionists during his time as a spokesperson for the Soviet Jewry movement in the early 1970s that convinced him of the powerful connection and fellowship that exists among Jews of all backgrounds.
According to Sharansky, he never felt alone during the 12 years of separation from his wife – Avital Sharansky was allowed to immigrate to Israel in 1974, being told that her husband would soon follow – or throughout the years 1977 to 1986, which he spent in a Soviet gulag after a conviction on trumped-up charges of being a CIA agent.
(As recounted in Fear No Evil, his 1988 memoir, more than 400 of those days were spent in isolation in a dark, damp cell with a daily ration of three pieces of bread and three cups of water.)
KGB agents interrogated him throughout his imprisonment, trying to get him to recant his critiques of Soviet emigration policies and human-rights abuses. "I remember thinking that these may be the last people in the world that will hear my voice," he said.
Sharansky recalled that the agents used to tell him that the American college students and housewives demonstrating for his release were powerless. Of course, the Soviet Jewry movement ultimately triumphed.
Taking a lesson from those years and applying it to the present, Sharansky told the audience that the essential unity of the Jewish people remains intact, despite the bitter divisions laid bare by Israel's disengagement from Gaza. He said that for the most part, settlers and soldiers treated each other with respect; he noted that residents of the Gush Katif community prayed in their synagogues for the well-being of their nation just days before it was set to evict them from their homes.
Stated Sharansky with conviction: "What unites us is far more important than all our divisions."