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Nathan Sharansky and Rhonda Spivak


by Rhonda Spivak, Special Report From Washington

Former Soviet refusnik, Natan Sharansky is a man of short stature physically, but he remains a giant in the Jewish world.  His significant stature was especially evident in the long standing ovation he received after he spoke at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America in Washington on November 8.

The following is a condensed version of his speech:

"TWENTY years ago to this day, the Berlin Wall fell. Two great wars were being waged in those years. The first was a worldwide struggle to free Soviet Jewry – a cause which galvanized Jews across the globe as no other cause had, since the establishment of the State of Israel. The second was the Cold War, the struggle of free democracies around the world against the tyranny of Soviet style communism. In each struggle, the fall of the Wall became a turning point. Right after that fateful November day, a great Exodus of Soviet Jewry began in earnest. And within months, the totalitarian stranglehold over Eastern Europe disintegrated before our eyes.

"The fact that a single event on the world stage – the fall of the Berlin Wall – was the culmination of both struggles is hardly coincidental. It seemed to be history's way of saying that, in a deep way, the wars were not really separate; they were simply two sides of the same coin.

"For years, I had been a foot soldier in both these great wars. In the years before my arrest I was in fact the unofficial spokesman of two movement -- a human rights movement pressing for democratic reforms in the Soviet bloc and Soviet Jewry movement seeking the right of Jews to become free. In those years I was often pressed by my comrades in arms on both sides to make a choice between these two wars. You have to decide, they said, are you the fighter for human rights for everybody or are you fighting for the rights of your own tribe? Do you belong to the world of universal values or to the world of nationalist? I must say, I personally never felt that I needed to choose… because I felt that they [these battles] are deeply connected… The battle for freedom and the battle for identity was the same battle for me.

"FROM where did the strength to fight for freedom come from? I was one of many assimilated Jews only because the Soviet regime put it as an aim to deprive people deliberately of any loyalties to their faith, to their nation, to their family. As the official definition of citizenship stated clearly-- all Soviet people are cogs in the communist machine…

'When did this situation change? In 1967, the Six Day War in Israel reconnected us with our people, with our country and history, and gave us pride for being Jewish. We discovered our identity and this empowered us to fight for our freedom. But even then we, [a] small group [of] Jewish activists could never have survived in the struggle in the Soviet Union if it did not immediately become the struggle of hundreds of thousand of millions of Jews all over the world. Why did these Jews for twenty years spend their time energy trembling for fear when they traveled to the Soviet Union to bring us books and bring us information from the free world and to press on their governments?

"Many times I heard from many of these volunteer emissaries almost the same phrase. We are from the same cities, shtetl[s] and it is almost by chance that we are there and you are here. They were also returning to their "shtetl" and getting from there their energy, their passion to fight for our freedom.

"I remember when the time [came]… to have a historic march on Washington… I remember there were some voices of skepticism. Will big numbers of Jews really come to Washington in the winter for [this] demonstration?... Not to be part of that demonstration was like not going to the Bar Mitzvah of your family…

"In fact this demonstration of a quarter of a million Jews in Washington in December was probably the biggest family reunion in history… So the energy that was released from going back to your people was the driving force of the great struggle for freedom. In fact the Berlin Wall was brought down because proud Jews, proud Czechs proud Germans, proud Catholics, proud Pentecostal together with a proud army of Jews brought down the Berlin Wall.

"That's why the choice between two battles was fallacious.

"TODAY…people of the free world again are asked to make a choice between universalism and nationalism, between freedom and identity. If you believe in the universal values of freedom and human rights, why bother to stick to your national or ethnic identity we are asked.

"This question hits home in an especially difficult way for Jews. Doesn't Judaism prize tikkun olam, perfection of the world at large, as its highest value? If we insist on being part of a Jewish state, does that make a mockery of our larger, universal ideals? If so, do we really want to shelter ourselves in a Jewish cocoon of a state? Why insist on staying part of a small tribe, when the great, global melting pot makes nationalities seem like nothing more than sentimental reminisces

"And when one young Jew believes, that he or she, must make choice, that you cannot belong to both, they make the choice in favor of universalism. And then assimilation erodes our communities. And then it becomes more and more difficult for the people of Israel to defend their Jewish state. And our detractors sense our hesitation and our weakness and multiply their efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.

"THEN the most awful thing happens. A young Jew after months and sometimes years of standing in the face of extreme and false slanderous attacks on Israel, finally says enough – I want to live in the world without Israel.

"It's frightening enough when our enemies talk about a world without Israel, but when a Jews says this, it is the greatest victory for our enemies.

"Just like twenty years ago…this choice between freedom and identity is a false one. We must remind ourselves that the Iron curtain was brought down and hundreds of millions found their freedom only because we found the source of strength in our pride and in our identity. We must remind ourselves that we succeeded in building the democratic State of Israel and bringing the ideas of human rights and equality to the darkest places populated by tyrants and dictators only because we were empowered by thousands of years of dreams and prayers of Next year in Jerusalem.

"Today I speak here as the Chairman of the Jewish Agency… which connects between the Jewish world and the State of Israel and which together…made history- -- rescuing more than 3 million Jews from pogroms and persecutions…

"But our main battle today is to strengthen, to deepen, to build and to defend our Jewish identity – the identity of one people, those in Zion and those in the Diaspora….Our aim must be to connect every young Jew with Israel and to connect Israel with every Jewish community of the world…

"We have to be able to reach every young Jew in the Diaspora and in Israel by Jewish education-through schools, special courses, cable TV and internet. And we must find a way to make it interesting…

"Strengthening Jewish identity is the best answer in the struggle for Israel… to continue kibbutz galuyot, gathering of the exiles. And most important today, like yesterday, returning to our Jewish roots, rebuilding our Jewish identity, can empower us to fight for tikun olam, with more justice and more freedom for everybody

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.