Natan Sharansky
Natan SharanskyIsrael news photo

Natan Sharansky, a former refusenik who now heads the Jewish Agency, moved the Jerusalem Conference audience to tears when he spoke of how Jerusalem changed his life.

The former Cabinet minister and Russian refusenik, who sat in Russian prison for nine years for his desire to immigrate to Israel, and who now serves as the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, addressed the opening session of the Jerusalem Conference on Monday evening. After thanking the organizers for scheduling the event “precisely on the anniversary of my return to Israel – the 2nd of Adar, exactly 24 years ago,” he mentioned what happened when he first arrived in Israel:

"The driver supplied by Prime Minister Peres asked me and [wife] Avital if we wanted to go straight home, since we hadn’t seen each other in so many years. We said no, first we wanted to go to Jerusalem and the Western Wall. The reason was simple: in order to close the circle. For many years I was an assimilated Jew who knew nothing about our people, our history, or our religion. I knew that I was a Jew only because of one thing: anti-Semitism.

"Our goal was only survival; how to succeed despite anti-Semitism. But a fight merely for survival provides no strength... When did this change? Only when we heard a sentence, an unclear, mystical sentence that somehow got to us in Russia: ‘The Temple Mount is in our hands!’ [sounded by Israeli general Mordechai Gur when Israel forces liberated Jerusalem in the Six Day War in 1967] We didn’t know what the Temple Mount was; we barely knew what Jerusalem was. But suddenly the Russians started treating us with more respect… and suddenly you find, without intending to or having any control, that both your enemies and your friends say: You are connected to Jerusalem! ...  And suddenly we, the millions of Jews in Russia, found ourselves again a part of the Jewish Nation, with people working to get us out and to come to Jerusalem.

My One Sentence

“And then, ten years later, when the [Russian] court asked me what last words I wanted to say to the judges, I said, ‘I have nothing to say to the judges – but to my people I say, Next year in Jerusalem!’ Because if there’s one sentence I wanted to choose before they decided my fate, and if there’s one sentence that I could say to guarantee that the Jewish world would continue to fight my struggle after my trial, it was that one. Jerusalem has that much strength…”

Bridging Millennia and Continents

“Years later, after I arrived in Israel, I heard about the upcoming Operation Solomon to bring back the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. I knew that I wanted to go along to see this glorious sight, and so I asked and received permission from the Jerusalem Report to cover the story for them, and from the Jewish Agency. When we arrived in Ethiopia, the civil war raging around us simply stopped in its tracks for a few hours while these big planes from Israel landed and we took the Jews… When these Jews got on the plane, they didn’t understand a word we uttered, nor did we understand them - until suddenly we said, ‘We’re on the way to Yerushalayim.’ They responded “Yeruzalem!” – and then you realize that there was just one word that remained among Jews to connect between thousands of years, between Africa and Moscow – and that’s Jerusalem.”

When is the World With Us?

Sharansky then explained how Jerusalem is so important for the Jewish People of today:

“I had an opposite experience a few years later, when I resigned from the government for the first time. (The second time I resigned it was because of the Disengagement, but the first time it was over Jerusalem.) Our Prime Minister then [Ehud Barak] decided that he was willing to offer the division of Jerusalem, and he explained to me his logic: ‘Either they’ll accept our plan, and though I’ll have a problem with you, we will have peace, the pinnacle of our dreams, and the Ingathering of the Exiles, etc. etc. – or they will reject it, and then the whole world will be with us, realizing that we’re not to blame.’ That’s what he told me. But just a few months later, after he made this offer and Arafat turned him down, the terrorist war broke out, what they called the Al Aksa Intifada, and there were suicide terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Netanya, and elsewhere – and the whole world was not with us; they blamed us!”

“We see, therefore, that when we fight to unite Jerusalem, the world respects us – even if it doesn’t agree with us; that’s what we felt in Moscow. But when we are willing to divide Jerusalem for the sake of peace, then we don’t receive peace – and the world is not with us.”

Closing Thousands of Circles

After noting briefly that even the Arabs of Jerusalem are interested in retaining the status quo of Israeli sovereignty in the eastern parts of the city, Sharansky said that in his six months as head of the Jewish Agency, “I try to greet every plane of new immigrants and shake their hands. I get emotional each time anew – realizing that each immigrant is another closing of a circle of thousands of years; how many of their grandparents and ancestors throughout the world prayed and hoped to come home and were not able, and now their descendants are returning!  And the most moving moment is when they receive their Israeli identity card at the Western Wall…”

Sharansky said that it’s important to fight the anti-Israel rhetoric on campuses across the U.S. by bringing Jews to Jerusalem – to the neighborhood of Abu Dis where they can see the “hated” wall and how it’s so instrumental in preventing murderous terrorist attacks, and to the Western Wall and Western Wall Tunnels as well.

He concluded his talk with a call to ensure that the Wall does not become the exclusive property “only of people like us who go to Orthodox synagogues. It must belong to all Jews. I see what a terrible loss it is when we can’t have the welcoming ceremonies for new immigrants at the Wall because mixed seating is not allowed - not only adjacent to the Wall, but even in the plaza further back.”