Adjusting to Freedom : Former Soviet Dissident Sharansky Throws Himself Into the Struggles of Israel, His Adopted Homeland

Times Staff Writer

Natan Sharansky excused himself to admit the man who had come to reconnect the gas. You know how it is with Israeli utilities, the former Soviet dissident told his interviewer apologetically. They had cut off his service without warning. And only when he telephoned to complain did he discover there was an outstanding, year-old bill for the equivalent of $10.

Sharansky still isn’t sure who goofed, he or the gas company. But he has been here long enough to know that while it might be of academic interest, the issue of fault was the least of his problems: “As a rule, to reconnect is a long, long story.”

Not this time.

“Oh! You’re Natan Sharansky!” the gas company representative had exclaimed when he explained the situation. “Don’t worry about a thing. You pay when you can and I’ll send you a man right away.”

Still in the Limelight

The incident was symbolic of Sharansky’s new life in Israel almost 28 months after his release from nine years in Soviet jails and prison camps. There are brief moments now when he can blend in with his surroundings--for better or, in the case of an unpaid gas bill, for worse. But his name and face don’t allow him to remain out of the limelight for long.

“There are some encouraging signs,” said the 40-year-old activist with a good-humored glint in his eye. “Only today I was coming with Avital (his wife) in a taxi from the hospital and the taxi driver told her: ‘You know, your husband looks very much like that Jew who came from Russia.’ He was sure I have only a slight resemblance. So . . . maybe at some moment in the future we will have some privacy.”


At the same time, he understands that his fame can still help him accomplish some of the many things he wants to do. The arrival in bookstores next week of “Fear No Evil,” Sharansky’s memoir of his struggle with the Soviet system, is a personal benchmark, he said. And soon, he hinted, he will throw himself into new projects dealing with the struggles of Israel, his adopted homeland.

“It so happens that at this moment I can speak, and I am speaking, with a much broader spectrum of people than, unfortunately, many Israelis do,” Sharansky said. “One of the things that concerns me most is precisely the lack of tolerance, the lack of dialogue. And that’s exactly where I want to contribute.”

In February, 1986, Sharansky’s was probably the most famous voice in all Israel after he was freed in a prisoner exchange and flown here to his people and to the wife from whom he had been separated since a day after their Moscow wedding 12 years before.

To then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who towered over the diminutive dissident at an airport welcoming ceremony, he was the “unbreakable” hero, living proof that “you can arrest a body but you cannot put in prison a spirit.”

The Jerusalem Post greeted him as “the man who was bigger than the myth.”

Traveling the World

Since then, he has traveled the world on behalf of the Soviet Jewry movement, meeting presidents and prime ministers, annoyed some American Jewish leaders by insisting on following his own, independent agenda, and steered clear of that hero-destroying institution known as Israeli politics.

The Israeli press reported on his trouble sleeping, speculated on whether he would be “preempted” by religious and politically right-wing friends of his wife, recorded the birth of their first child, Rachel, and followed him through basic training in the citizen army.

He wanted to be a paratrooper or some other “romantic” army assignment, Sharansky said with his characteristic self-deprecating humor. “But they checked my heart. They checked everything and they said: ‘Only in the next life!’ ” Instead, he will do his mandatory 30 days a year of reserve duty lecturing other soldiers on his experiences.

He moved his family into a large and comfortable, but not ostentatious, apartment in a pleasant residential section of West Jerusalem, about a 15-minute drive from the Old City walls. It’s the kind of quiet, tree-lined neighborhood where he can don one of the baseball caps that have become his trademark, join Avital, newly pregnant for the second time, and take Rachel for a relaxing stroll uninterrupted by people clamoring for his photograph.

Besides his public appearances on behalf of Soviet Jews still refused permission to leave that country, Sharansky’s first big project here was writing his memoir, which he will launch in Anaheim next week at the American Booksellers Assn. annual convention, the beginning of a monthlong book-promotion tour.

Sharansky’s book rates highly as a piece of prison literature, providing a vivid picture of the inside of Soviet jails and camps. But it is all the more remarkable for its intimate portrait of a strong-willed man forced by circumstance to find ever deeper sources of strength within himself.

The first half of the memoir concentrates on the 16-month period between his arrest in early 1977 and his trial in the summer of 1978 on treason charges, a period during which, among other things, he had to recognize and face his own fear of execution. The second half covers the following nearly eight years that Sharansky spent in prisons and camps resisting a system that, having stopped short of physically destroying him, tried all the harder to destroy him psychologically.

The remarkable spiritual journey of this self-described secular Jew starts soon after his arrest, when he is stripped and forced to stand naked before his jailers. “Nothing they do can humiliate me,” he tells himself. “I alone can humiliate myself.”

Religious Feelings

At the end of the journey nearly 600 pages later, he writes about the source of religion as a question “to which there will never be an answer. And while I am well aware how much blood has been spilled over this question and how important it is to so many people, for me it’s immaterial.

“Having realized there is no answer, I am not even searching for it. Does it really matter where this religious feeling stems from, whether man in some fashion was able to rise above his physical nature or whether he was created that way? For me, the important thing is that this feeling really exists, that I sense its force and power over me, that it influences my deeds and my life, and that for 10 years it has linked me with Avital more concretely than any letters.”

He wanted to get across two messages in the book, he said. The first is that in the Soviet Union, the West faces “a different type of system, with different mentality, with different understanding of what is law, what is individual, what is relations between state and individual, who belongs to whom, etc. When you use the same words you’re speaking about different things, whether the word is parliament, or prison, or court, or individual . “

Without the issue of human rights to act as a leveler, Sharansky said, relations with the Soviet authorities “will simply be a dialogue of deaf and blind. And taking into account the advantages of a closed system, they will deceive you.”

His second, “no less important,” message, Sharansky said, is that “every person who has some strong moral beliefs and understands what inner freedom means has enormous power of resistance to (a) totalitarian regime inside himself.”

As he writes in his book: “I had to take everything that was dear to me, everything that had meaning in my life, with me to prison. The world I re-created in my head turned out to be more powerful and more real than the world of Lefortovo Prison; my bond with Avital was stronger than my isolation, and my inner freedom more powerful than the external bondage. Mysticism turned into reality, and through my prayers I seemed to admit the power of an external force that my rational mind had denied.”

One of his biggest problems in freedom, he finds now, is that “lost in thousands of mundane choices, I suddenly realize that there’s no time to reflect on the bigger questions.”

In a way, Sharansky said, he sees the book as marking the end of one chapter in his life. Applying in freedom those crucial lessons he learned in captivity is the work of the next.

Earlier this month he helped to found the Zionist Forum of Soviet Jews, a lobbying group of Soviet Jewish emigres now living in Israel. Sharansky was unanimously elected chairman.

However, he said, after helping to launch the group he expects it to take only a small portion of his time.

“I always had a fear: How not to become a professional Soviet Jew.”

He thinks of the future in terms of projects rather than a career, he said, with the next to be initiated by autumn. “It’s too early to speak about it (in detail), but I think it will be in this field of trying to find some solutions for problems in our Jewish world,” Sharansky said.

U.S. and Israeli Jews

“Each time that I go to America and speak to the Jews there, and then come back and speak with people here, I feel it more and more strongly, that we seem to start thinking in different terms, with different concepts.

“American Jews don’t understand why Israeli Jews cannot do this or that; why reform Jewry becomes such a problem here. And here Jews cannot understand many things and many reactions of American Jews. We become more and more like different nations, and I think it’s potentially a very big danger.”

Divisions within Israel are also a “serious problem,” and while still determined to avoid any direct involvement in Israeli politics, Sharansky said he hopes he can help bridge some of those domestic gaps as well.

Between them, he and Avital have friends across virtually the entire spectrum of Israeli society, he said. “Add to it that I had a long school of tolerance in Soviet prison before, dealing with different dissident groups, people of different national, religious, and other backgrounds. . . . I always had to be like an intermediary.”

With time, Sharansky said, he will probably become more involved in the problem of Israeli-Arab dialogue as well. But having been burned once, he is admittedly cautious about blundering again.

Sharansky was clearly shaken by the furor unleashed on Israel’s political right in November, 1986, when news leaked of his meeting with Faisal Husseini, a prominent pro-Palestine Liberation Organization activist from East Jerusalem. The meeting had been arranged by a third man to enlist the former Soviet dissident’s help in the case of a Palestinian journalist arrested by the Israeli authorities and subsequently deported without trial.

Sharansky quickly took out newspaper advertisements to say he had been duped into a meeting he would never have attended had he known Husseini was identified with the PLO. He called the PLO a “scourge” and an “organization of cutthroats” whose supporters “have placed themselves beyond the pale of civilized society.”

That only infuriated the Palestinians and Israel’s political left, which charged that Sharansky had compromised his standing by the harsh language of his advertisements and by closing his eyes to the alleged violation of the Arab journalist’s human rights.

He has been under pressure from practically the minute he arrived in Israel to speak out on Palestinian human rights, he said. But he feels constrained because to do so implies a link that he does not believe exists between the struggle of Soviet Jews and that of the Palestinians.

Sharansky refuses to equate the actions of what he describes as an insecure superpower, which uses brainwashing and coercion to buttress its ideology, with those of a Jewish state he sees as fighting a hostile Arab world for its survival.

Real Problems

Certainly the nearly 6-month-old Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip have underlined that “there are real problems which our country faces . . . how to defend your right to exist and protect yourself from terror, and at the same time how to remain on those moral principles on which the country is based and which Jews, in fact, contributed to civilization.”

However, he said, he finds it ludicrous that in the United States one sees television pictures of a smiling Gorbachev looking “like a newborn, young democracy and Israel almost like a totalitarian regime. There is nothing to compare now the image of the Soviet Union and the image of Israel in the West. And that’s really the craziness of the free world.”

While not identifying with any political party, Sharansky clearly leans toward the right of the Israeli spectrum on the issue of the Palestinians.

“I don’t believe in all this stuff of an international (Middle East peace) conference” as advocated by the centrist Labor Alignment, he said. And he was critical of the Peace Now movement, which advocates creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It’s an “illusion” to think such an Israeli “retreat” would bring peace, he said.

At the same time, Sharansky said he hopes that the uprising has undermined “illusions” on the right that the status quo in the territories can go on indefinitely.

He offered no formula for peace, but did opine that if he can help bridge the gaps among Jews, he may indirectly help bridge the chasm between Jews and Arabs as well.

“One of the reasons that Arabs don’t sit with us at the negotiating table is because they see that (Labor Alignment leader and Foreign Minister Shimon) Peres and (Likud Bloc leader and Prime Minister Yitzhak) Shamir can’t talk to one another. Why should they help them?”

As cautious as he is about the Palestinian question, Sharansky is more outspoken about it now than he was a year ago, which may be another sign of his acclimatization to Israeli life.

This is a society, he quipped, “with very opinionated people. . . . I came from a country where only the government had the right to know what has to be done, to a country where the government (seems to be) the only body which doesn’t know what to do.”