Brandeis hosted authors Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy to talk about a new book they co-authored, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People,” in a virtual event on Monday, Nov. 9. In the book, Sharansky and Troy explore Sharansky’s extraordinary journey from being a dissident and a prisoner in a Soviet gulag to a public figure and leading activist in the Israeli political sphere. University President Ron Liebowitz, Prof. Jonathan Sarna (NEJS), Prof. Shirley Idelson (DEPT) and Associate Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies Dr. Shayna Weiss joined the event and participated in the conversation with Sharansky and Troy.

In many Russian-speaking Jewish households, Sharansky’s name is followed by stories filled with the struggle, survival and unity of Jewish people. Sharansky said he dedicated his life to Jewish people’s fight for freedom and Zionism — a movement for the development and support of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. He said he was a refusenik, a term for Soviet Jews that were denied permission to emigrate, and he was imprisoned for nine years in 1977 because of his correspondence with Western countries in order to publicize the dissidents' cause. During his time in the Soviet prison and after he was freed in 1986, he recalled, he remained committed to fighting for individual freedom in the face of tyranny and oppression. After his release, he became a leader in the movement to free Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, served in the Israeli government and worked closely with the U.S. government. His life's work has earned him prestigious awards, including the Israel Prize and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. 

In addition to the discussion of Sharasky’s life story, panelists shared their reflections on current U.S.-Israeli relations, President-elect Joe Biden’s attitude toward Israel, the growing divide within American communities and the overlap between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

Responding to the results of the U.S. presidential election, Sharansky and Troy spoke about how Biden's presidency will affect the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Biden’s acceptance speech urged unity, decency and dialogue for America’s future. A fear that comes with the Biden presidency, the speakers said, is that even with his call for unity, partisanship will cause Israel to remain a divisive issue in American politics. 

Both Sharansky and Troy recognized the complexity of presidential leadership when it comes to Israel. “The situation is impossible because Jews who dislike President Trump are not ready to acknowledge when he does something right for Israel,” Sharansky explained. “Similarly, the Israeli government fails to criticize President Trump when he deserves criticism.” 

Sarna asked the panelists what they believe is causing Israel to become a divisive topic in American Jewish circles. The University’s namesake, Louis D. Brandeis, was a proud Zionist, yet many young American Jews reject that term due to the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Sharansky and Troy agreed that while support for Israel used to be a bipartisan value, it has more recently become a topic of controversy between the right and left in American politics. Many young Jews support American liberal leaders and policies, but some progressive leaders do not support Israel. “This political situation creates a struggle for American liberal Jews to choose between being a good Zionist and being a good liberal,” explained Troy. 

Troy suggested that leaders frame the conversation about Zionism differently. Instead of starting with controversial topics like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or opinions on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he encouraged people to speak about what Israel means to the Jewish people, both in Israel and the United States. 

After the discussion of American politics, a question was asked about the rise of antisemitism in the United States. Monday marked the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the start of two days of violent Nazi pogroms against Jews in Germany and Austria. Sharansky discussed how today, different forms of antisemitism come from both the right and left. On the right, antisemitism is easier to identify because it resembles the violent nature of the Holocaust. In contrast, antisemitism on the left is often more difficult to see. It comes in forms of antisemetic rhetoric and a lack of condemnation of this rhetoric in response from politicians and community leaders. “Americans need to create zero tolerance to both, and this effort must come from both sides of the political spectrum. Anti Semitism is a plastic hatred. It can be manipulated and molded. It is artificial and lethal, it works for the right and left,” Troy said. 

The panelists closed the discussion with advice to pro-Israel students and Jewish Americans as a whole. They advised them to avoid building a Zionist identity that is defined in opposition to antisemites or anti-Zionists, and instead build identity in a positive vision. Young Jewish Americans, regardless of political affiliation, must strengthen their core knowledge of and love for their heritage, Sharansky said. Only then does Israel have a chance of becoming a bipartisan topic again.