In his 1988 memoir, Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky worried that his experience as a Prisoner of Zion in the U.S.S.R., where he agitated for the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, left him ill-prepared for politics in the Jewish state. During his nine years of imprisonment, Sharansky’s case became a cause célèbre for Jews around the world, including in Israel, where his wife Avital was based. “When it comes to disagreeing with governments I have plenty of experience, but what about all these friends and supporters?” he wrote, “To say no to these people can be far more difficult than saying no to the KGB.” When Sharansky retired from electoral life in 2006, he seemed satisfied with his decision. Now, a brewing battle over religious pluralism in Israel may thrust the former Soviet dissident back into the political arena.
After entering politics, Sharansky proved that he was perfectly capable of spurning allies when their interests began to collide with his vision of good governance and Israel’s best interests. Although Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah party was seen as a potential coalition partner for both Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu prior to the 1996 general election, the first in which the party ran, Sharansky was more at home on the political right in Israel, where Jews from the former Soviet Union continue to support right-leaning parties in large numbers. Yet, only a year after joining Netanyahu’s first coalition in 1996, Sharansky threatened to topple it when it was revealed that Interior Minister Aryeh Deri had demanded the appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general in the hopes he would get a light plea deal in his corruption case. “If only 10 percent of [the allegations] are true – this government must go,” he said.
One issue that has long animated Sharansky is the divide between Jews in Israel and the diaspora, at the heart of which is not the occupation or Israel’s relations with its neighbors but the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish affairs in the country. In 1999, Sharansky voted against a law that barred non-Orthodox Jews from participating in local religious councils–––a law the ultra-Orthodox parties insisted was a requirement for their continued participation in the coalition. The law ultimately cleared the Knesset in a 50-49 vote.
Though he later merged his party with Likud and served in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s cabinet before opposing the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, Sharansky’s political life arguably came to an end in the summer of 2000, when he bolted Ehud Barak’s coalition––which, in its diverse ideological composition, was a live demonstration of Jewish unity if there ever was one––on the eve of the Camp David peace talks. Unlike Netanyahu and traditional Likudniks, Sharansky did not draw his opposition to accelerated talks with the P.L.O. mainly from traditional Revisionist or religious Zionist conceptions of Eretz Israel. Although he opposed dividing Jerusalem in any way, it was his latent neoconservatism that made him most skeptical of the talks: he did not think Israel should trust an undemocratic regime, which Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority undoubtedly was.
In sum, Sharansky never quite fit in politically in Israel. He disdained corruption, he was not quite a peacenik, but he was not a cheerleader for traditional right-wing causes, either. And while he was concerned about the divide between Israeli and diaspora Jews, he did not align himself with secular anti-Orthodox factions in Meretz and Shinui. In fact, at one point he blamed the crisis on the Reform and Conservative movements’ actions in Israeli courts and threatened to vote for a bill that would have cemented the Orthodox monopoly over conversions into the law if they did not stop. In an event that foreshadowed his own role today, the Jewish Agency met with Sharansky and urged him to oppose the bill.
Today, eight years after assuming the chairmanship of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Sharansky has taken a clear side in the political battle for religious pluralism in Israel. After the government suspended the agreement on the Western Wall, which was negotiated with the Reform and Conservative movements at Sharansky’s behest, the Jewish Agency took an unprecedented step and cancelled a scheduled dinner with Netanyahu––a throbbing rebuke to a prime minister who sees himself as a leader of the Jewish people. Instead of calling for a return to negotiations, the Jewish Agency Board of Governors approved a resolution calling on the government to implement the original agreement as well as to shelve a new conversion bill.
If ascension to the top of the Jewish Agency represented the apotheosis of Natan Sharansky’s Jewish life it was not, as he might have hoped, the end of his role in the muddy waters of Israel’s domestic politics vis-à-vis diaspora Jewry. He is now openly distrustful of the prime minister and an opponent of the Orthodox establishment, which has largely cheered the government’s recent actions. Sharansky’s legacy will be momentous, but it will not be one devoid of the ugliness of intra-Jewish politics in Israel.