Natan Sharansky’s latest lesson for me? Start feeling like an IsraeliIt may seem odd given Israel’s frequent elections, but in the ten years I’ve lived in Israel, I had the chance to vote for Natan Sharansky – the only politician I ever actually voted FOR in my life – only once. It was in 2003, the same year Russian immigrants abandoned Sharansky’s immigrant party Yisrael Ba’aliya, dropping it to a Knesset-minimum two seats and forcing it to merge with the Likud, never to be heard from again.
It feels particularly odd to me because Sharansky’s political career, which ended last month, corresponds almost perfectly to my time in Israel. I was on a year program called WUJS in Arad (World Union of Jewish Students) during his first election campaign in 1996, when he came out of nowhere (besides a Soviet prison) and won seven seats in Knesset. The same year, I read his autobiography, Fear No Evil, and decided he should be prime minister.
I wasn’t alone. When I mentioned Sharansky to English speakers, many seemed to agree: Sharansky was the next great Jewish leader, the man to help us build a real Jewish state. When the security situation finally recedes to the background, we reasoned, Sharansky would help heal the internal rifts that were eating away our souls.
As a politician, Sharansky was an inspiriation. He talked about the Jewish people as an organic whole, inside or outside Israel. When a Jewish community in the diaspora was threatened, he argued, the Jewish state was obligated to show support. And the same was true in the inverse. Jews everywhere would support Israel because they were part of its development, even if they never set foot on its land. These were magical ideas for a recent immigrant like me, who wanted nothing more than to feel a sense of common destiny with Israel. This was exactly the kind of state I wanted to help Sharansky build.
When he dropped a seat in the next election, the loss was tempered by his success in wresting the Interior Ministry from Shas, which held a mighty 17 seats to Sharansky’s six. His party’s infamous “Shas Kontrol? Net, nash Kontrol!” slogan gave a powerful voice to the new generation of immigrants. And when his party dropped to four seats after Roman Bronfman split off and later joined Meretz, I figured he’d get his seats back in the next election.
By the time the next election came around, Israel had been branded an illegitimate apartheid state at the UN’s Conference on Racism in Durban and Palestinian suicide bombers struck Israeli coffee shops, shopping malls, and buses in unprecedented numbers as world leaders condemned Israel for defending its citizens. Someone had to stand up for the human rights of the Israeli people. The times, it seemed, were ripe for Sharansky to fulfill his destiny as the leader of the Jews.
Unfortunately, the Israeli public never took to Sharansky as the Anglo population did. And when the Russian sector also lost interest, the party was sunk. I volunteered on his campaign and watched the party drop into oblivion. But almost immediately, it looked like a blessing in disguise.
As a minister in the new Likud government, Sharansky was responsible for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs. Who better to handle these roles than Sharansky? And as a member of the Likud party, he stood a real chance of eventually winning the office of prime minister.
The natural outgrowth of the Yisrael Ba’aliyah party’s implosion was the disappearance of Israel’s only true and inclusive immigrant party. The Russians he had represented moved on, either to Avigdor Lieberman’s ideological Yisrael Beiteinu/National Union party or to other ‘Israeli’ parties. They had integrated better and faster than anyone anticipated.
At the time however, I still felt like an immigrant and longed to have my party back. But now that Sharansky has announced his retirement from politics, it seems like a good time to say goodbye to all that. The time has come – after nearly 10 years – to lose the immigrant identity and start feeling like an Israeli.
Easier said than done. But all things must start somewhere. I’m grateful to Sharansky for all the inspiration he provided. And I still long for his vision of a Jewish state. But I’m also grateful for his latest lesson – the need to know when its time to move on in life.