|1996–1999||Minister of Industry and Trade|
|1999–2000||Minister of Internal Affairs|
|2001–2003||Deputy Prime Minister|
|2001–2003||Minister of Housing & Construction|
|2003–2005||Minister of Jerusalem Affairs|
|Faction represented in the Knesset|
Anatoly Borisovich Scharansky
20 January 1948
Stalino, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Soviet Union
|Alma mater||Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (BMath)|
Natan Sharansky (Hebrew: נתן שרנסקי; Russian: Ната́н Щара́нский; Ukrainian: Натан Щаранський), born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky,[Note 1] is an Israeli politician, human rights activist, and author who, as a refusenik in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, spent nine years in Soviet prisons. He served as Chairman of the Executive for the Jewish Agency from June 2009 to August 2018. Sharansky currently serves as chairman for the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), an American non-partisan organization.
Sharansky was born into a Jewish family on20 January 1948 in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk) in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union.
His father, Boris Shcharansky, a journalist from a Zionist background who worked for an industrial journal, died in 1980, before Natan was freed.
His mother, Ida Milgrom, visited him in prison and stubbornly waged a nine-year battle for her son's release from Soviet prison and labor camps. She was permitted to follow her son to Israel six months after he left the Soviet Union.
He was attending physics and mathematics high school No.17 in Donetsk. As a child, he was a chess prodigy. He performed in simultaneous and blindfold exhibitions, usually against adults. At the age of 15, he won the championship in his native Donetsk. Sharansky graduated with a degree in applied mathematics from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. When incarcerated in solitary confinement, he claims to have maintained his sanity by playing chess against himself in his mind. Sharansky beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a simultaneous exhibition in Israel in 1996.
After Sharansky graduated from university, he began working for a secret state research laboratory. Sharansky lived near Sokolniki Park, on Kolodezniy Pereulok (Water-well Lane). In his spare time, Sharansky would coach young chess players at the famous chess club in the park.
He took his current Hebrew name in 1986 when he was freed from Soviet incarceration as part of a prisoner exchange and received an Israeli passport with his new name.
Natan Sharansky is married to Avital Sharansky and has two daughters, Rachel and Hannah. In the Soviet Union, his application to marry Avital was denied by the authorities. They were married in a friend's apartment, in a ceremony not recognized by the government, as the USSR only recognized civil marriage and not religious marriage.
Sharansky was denied an exit visa to Israel in 1973. The reason given for denial of the visa was that he had been given access, at some point in his career, to information vital to Soviet national security and could not now be allowed to leave. After becoming a refusenik, Sharansky became a human rights activist, working as a translator for dissident and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, and spokesman for the Moscow Helsinki Group and a leader for the rights of refuseniks.
On 15 March 1977 Sharansky was arrested by the KGB, then headed by Yuri Andropov, on multiple charges, including high treason and spying for several Americans. The accusation stated that he passed to the West lists of over 1,300 refuseniks, many of whom were denied exit visas because of their knowledge of state secrets, which resulted in a publication by Robert C. Toth, "Russ Indirectly Reveal 'State Secrets': Clues in Denials of Jewish Visas". High treason carried the death penalty. The following year, in 1978, he was sentenced to 13 years of forced labor.
Sharansky spent time in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, followed by Vladimir and Chistopol prisons, where for part of the time he was placed in solitary confinement. His health deteriorated, to the point of endangering his life. Later he was detained in Perm 35, a post-Stalin-Gulag-type so-called "strict regimen colony" in Perm Oblast.
During his imprisonment, he embarked on hunger strikes to protest confiscation of his mail, and he was force-fed at least 35 times, which he describes as "a sort of torture". Sharansky later opposed force-feeding of Palestinian detainees.
Sharansky appeared in a March 1990 edition of National Geographic magazine. The article, "Last Days of the Gulag" by Mike Edwards, profiles through photographs and text one of the few remaining Soviet prison labor camps. The article featured a photo of Natan Sharansky and his wife Avital in their home in Israel viewing photos of the same Gulag where he had been imprisoned, but as it appeared in 1990. Sharansky remarked in the article that after viewing images of the prisoner's faces, he could discern that the protocol of oppression was still at work. The author also showed Sharansky a photo of the cold isolation cell where he had himself been confined. Sharansky commented with irony that conditions had improved slightly: the stark cell now featured a thin bench bolted to the middle of the floor. He said that if that bench had existed when he was there, he could have slept on it, albeit uncomfortably.
As a result of an international campaign led by his wife, Avital Sharansky (including assistance from East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel, New York Congressman Benjamin Gilman, and Rabbi Ronald Greenwald), Sharansky was released on 11 February 1986 as part of a larger exchange of detainees. He was the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Sharansky and three low-level Western spies (Czech citizen Jaroslav Javorský and West German citizens Wolf-Georg Frohn, and Dietrich Nistroy) were exchanged for Czech spies Karl Koecher and Hana Koecher held in the United States, Soviet spy Yevgeni Zemlyakov, Polish spy Marian Zacharski, and East German spy Detlef Scharfenorth (the latter three held in West Germany). The men were released in two stages, with Sharansky freed first then whisked away, accompanied by the United States Ambassador to West Germany, Richard R. Burt. The exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and East Germany, which had been used before for this purpose.
Sharansky immediately emigrated to Israel, adopting the Hebrew name Natan and eventually simplifying his surname to Sharansky. While his wife had become religiously observant during his detention, he did not follow her example.
Due to his age and poor health, he was exempted from the standard compulsory three years' IDF service, but had to undergo three weeks of military training and do a stint in the Civil Guard.
In 1988, he wrote Fear No Evil, a memoir of his time as a prisoner. He founded the Zionist Forum, an organization of Soviet immigrant Jewish activists dedicated to helping new Israelis and educating the public about integration issues, known in Israel as klita (lit. "absorption"). Sharansky also served as a contributing editor to The Jerusalem Report and as a Board member of Peace Watch.
In 1995, Sharansky and Yoel Edelstein founded the Yisrael BaAliyah party (a play of words, since "aliya" means both Jewish emigration to Israel and "rise", thus the party name means "(People of) Israel immigrating (to the State of Israel)", as well as "Israel on the rise"), promoting the absorption of the Soviet Jews into Israeli society. The party won seven Knesset seats in 1996. It won 6 seats in the 1999 Israeli legislative election, gaining two ministerial posts, but left the government on 11 July 2000 in response to suggestions that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's negotiations with the Palestinians would result in a division of Jerusalem. After Ariel Sharon won a special election for Prime Minister in 2001, the party joined his new government and was again given two ministerial posts.
In the January 2003 elections, the party was reduced to just two seats. Sharansky resigned from the Knesset and was replaced by Edelstein. However, he remained party chairman and decided to merge it into Likud (which had won the election with 38 seats). The merger went through on 10 March 2003, and Sharansky was appointed Minister of Jerusalem Affairs.
From March 2003 – May 2005, he was Israel's Minister without Portfolio, responsible for Jerusalem's social and Jewish diaspora affairs. Under this position, Sharansky chaired a secret committee that approved the confiscation of East Jerusalem property of West Bank Palestinians. This decision was reversed after an outcry from the Israeli left and the international community.
Previously he served as the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Minister of Housing and Construction since March 2001, Interior Minister of Israel (July 1999 – resigned in July 2000), Minister of Industry and Trade (1996–1999).
He resigned from the cabinet in April 2005 to protest plans to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
He was re-elected to the Knesset in March 2006 as a member of the Likud Party. On 20 November 2006, he resigned from the Knesset.
In 2019 Natan Sharansky became the Chairman for the Institute for the study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). ISGAP is an international interdisciplinary research center with entities in Canada, the United States, the UK, Europe, and Israel. ISGAP carries out high caliber research on contemporary antisemitism and policy, including at Oxford University, La Sapienza University in Rome, Stanford University, the University of Miami, and more. More information available at www.isgap.org
His resignation was meant to allow him to form the right-leaning Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. The funding came from American billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Since 2007, Sharansky has been chairman of the board of Beit Hatefutsot, the Jewish diaspora museum.
In June 2009, Sharansky was elected to the Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel by the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. In September 2009 Sharansky secured $6 million from the Genesis Philanthropy Group for educational activities in the former Soviet Union.
He is a founding member of One Jerusalem.
In 1997, Sharansky was the focus of a 2.5-hour-long episode of Chaim SheKa'ele ("What A Life"), the Israeli version of This Is Your Life. The episode focused mainly on his experiences as a Soviet dissident, and featured many of his family and acquaintances. In 2005, Sharansky participated in They Chose Freedom, a four-part television documentary on the history of the Soviet dissident movement, and in 2008 he was featured in Laura Bialis' documentary Refusenik. In 2014, he took part in Natella Boltyanskaya's documentary Parallels, Events, People. He was number eleven on the list of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of 2005 in the "Scientists and thinkers" category. He won the 2018 Israel Prize for his lifetime achievements and special contributions to the State of Israel in the fields of Immigration and Absorption. He was awarded the 2020 Genesis Prize Foundation award for his "lifelong struggle for human rights." He donated the $1 million prize money to organizations combating the coronavirus.
Sharansky is the author of three books. The first is the autobiographical Fear No Evil, which dealt with his trial and imprisonment. The book was awarded the 1989 National Jewish Book Award for Biography.
His second book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror was co-written with Ron Dermer. George W. Bush offered praise for the book:
If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy. ... For government, particularly – for opinion makers, I would put it on your recommended reading list. It's short and it's good. This guy is a heroic figure, as you know. It's a great book.
His book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, is a defense of the value of national and religious identity in building democracy.
Still another book Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People tells about his political activity and how his personal experience influenced it.
Sharansky has argued that there can never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians until there is "the building of real democratic institutions in the fledgling Palestinian society, no matter how tempting a 'solution' without them may be." In a Haaretz interview, he maintained the following:
Jews came here 3,000 years ago and this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews are the only people in history who kept their loyalty to their identity and their land throughout the 2,000 years of exile, and no doubt that they have the right to have their place among nations—not only historically but also geographically. As to the Palestinians, who are the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years, they have the right, if they want, to have their own state ... but not at the expense of the state of Israel.
In the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011, he told Moment Magazine, "To sign an agreement you must have a partner who is dependent on the well-being of his people, which is what democracy means."