Never Alone is Natan Sharansky’s fourth book, after Fear No Evil (1986), the story of his surviving nine years in the Soviet Gulag, The Case for Democracy (2005), his thesis that democracy should not be abandoned as a force in international relations, and Defending Identity (2008), countering the tendency to universalize values on the assumption that identity is the cause of conflict. He wanted to title Never Alone, “Nine, Nine, Nine” reflecting his nine years in the gulag, nine years in Israeli governments and nine years heading the Jewish Agency, but his publisher overroad him.
On one level, Never Alone is an ironic title. It refers to Sharansky’s strategy for surviving the horrors of the Soviet prison system. Cut off from the world, he convinced himself that others knew of his whereabouts and were working for his freedom, and thus he was able to refuse to cooperate with his captors.
Sharansky was less alone when he arrived in Israel and helped launch a political party to represent the one million Russian immigrants as they struggled with the transition into Israeli society. A hero when he arrived in Israel, his heroic status declined over time as he was forced to function as a political animal––learning when to compromise and when to draw a line in the sand. He drew the line twice, resigning from two governments when the prime ministers advanced policies that Sharansky could not support.
And he was even less alone as head of the Jewish Agency, an organization that seeks to bring Jews worldwide together as one people. Despite the successes he instituted, Sharansky was less influential in Israel as head of the Jewish Agency than he had been as a politician.
The three-part structure of Never Alone, nevertheless, allows the reader to see how a principled individual can apply the lessons he learned as a prisoner, including standing up to those who believe giving into an enemy’s demands will work this time when it has never done so in the past.
The Realist School’s Drawbacks
Sharansky applied what he learned from the downfall of the Soviet Union to Israel’s situation with the Palestinians. To that end he opposes the “realist school” of diplomacy that claims it’s better to deal with the dictator you know than the one who will take over if you drive the present occupant out of office.
The classic case of the failure of this approach is Israel’s agreeing to install Yasser Arafat over the Palestinians via the 1993 Oslo Accords. Israel got nothing in return for entering into that agreement. Worse they convinced Arafat that the West was weak and he could get away with whatever he wanted. Sharansky writes of Oslo, “Supplying Arafat with twenty thousand guns and more so he could be strong, and paying him tens of millions of dollars monthly so he could be our dictator, with the hope that he would bring us peace, contradicted everything I had learned about the nature of dictatorships.” (193) The result? Arafat launched an intifada that led to the deaths of over one thousand Israelis and three thousand Palestinians.
Oslo’s failures unfortunately didn’t deter other Israeli prime ministers from trying to win peace by giving away even more for the chimera of peace. Thus, Sharansky resigned from Ehud Barak’s cabinet because he would have given away too much land including the Temple Mount and from Ariel Sharon’s cabinet because he wanted to give Gaza to the Palestinians. Sharansky foresaw the disaster that followed and that remains a sore on Israel’s flank.
The Kotel Controversy
Sharansky brings us to the doorstep of the present day in the third part of Never Alone, discussing the conflict between the liberal American Jewish community and Bibi Netanyahu over the kotel (western wall) and expounding on how to understand the rise of anti-Semitism and how to deal with it.
In June 1997, Netanyahu put aside the deal that had been negotiated with the ultra-Orthodox parties and the American reform community over providing space in the kotel area for women prayers––an act that enraged the Americans. Although Netanyahu didn’t publicly explain his move, Sharansky offers a likely theory.
The liberal American Jewish community had sided with Barack Obama on his deal with Iran, which Netanyahu considered an act of betrayal of Israel. Netanyahu had campaigned for strict oversight of Iran for at least a decade and came to the U.S. to express his view to Congress that the deal represented an existential threat to the state of Israel. Among other defects, monies Obama released to Iran went to upgrade Hezbollah’s military capacity, the result of which threatened Jewish communities in northern Israel.
Sharansky quotes Netanyahu as having told him, “You understand, liberal American Jews really don’t like Israel . . . They love an Israel that exists in their imaginations.”
If implemented, the kotel agreement would have cost Netanyahu support of many in the Orthodox community. Therefore, when the liberal Jewish community sided with Obama rather than with Israel, Netanyahu felt relieved of the obligation to allow the kotel deal to be consummated.
Sharansky used his position as head of the Jewish Agency to launch programs designed to support American Jewish linkage to Israel, through Birthright, emissaries (shlichim) and similar programs. Part of his motivation was to create a community of people who could work together to combat the rising volume of anti-Semitism.
Sharansky argues the Jews of America and of Israel need to work together to win that fight. While some blame those on the right and others blame those on the left, Sharansky argues that and similar disagreements should not prevent people from working together.
To that end he calls for the creation of a Global Jewish Council as a framework for constructive dialogue. The goal of such an organization Sharansky argues would be to maintain Jewish continuity in each Diaspora community while keeping the state of Israel “secure, stable and democratic.”
Would that Jews world-wide take Never Alone to heart. Sharansky offers a principled platform for the Jews of Israel and those of the Diaspora to work together against the latest outbreak of anti-Semitism which seeks to isolate Israel. While the recent treaties negotiated by Donald Trump mark a step in the right direction in terms of its Arab neighbors, the treaties can’t appease the anti-Semite forces in the U.S. and Europe. A unified Jewish community is the necessary condition to engage in a constructive fight on that front.
Time will tell whether Sharansky is alone in advocating this solution, or whether the two sides will remain hostile, each hoping the other will change its views.