Chess warrior. Former political prisoner. Longtime Israeli minister and head of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Always a Jewish inspiration.

Natan Sharansky has checked many boxes throughout his life, eight years of which were spent in a gulag in the former Soviet Union. One of the most well-known refuseniks and a leader of the fight to release Soviet Jewry, he pushed relentlessly for freedom, supported by his wife, Avital, and Jews and non-Jews around the world.

He was eventually released in 1986. The Iron Curtain fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union two years later.

Sharansky, who was born in Donetsk, Ukraine, left to make a new life in Israel, where he held numerous ministerial positions and headed the Jewish Agency for Israel from the summer of 2009 through this past summer.

On Sunday, the 70-year-old was honored in New York with the inaugural Tikvah Prize by the Jewish Leadership Conference for his heroism as a Jewish statesman and more.

JNS sat down with Sharansky following his acceptance of the prize and a conversation with Elliot Abrams, who served as a foreign-policy adviser under U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Elliott Abrams interviews Natan Sharansky at the Jewish Leadership Conference in New York on Oct. 30, 2018. Credit: Jackson Richman.

Q: First and foremost, what is your reaction to Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh? 

A: Tragedy is tragedy. The answer is whether people want to organize around those acts globally in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, and also America. [And to do so] because of this crisis, which happened between post-nationalism and nationalism.

Post-nationalism encourages left-wing anti-Israel campaigns. Nationalism encourages classical anti-Jewish words. But both of them are [causing] some fanatics to attack Jews. I believe Jewish communities have to be on alert.

After the tragedy in Toulouse, France, in 2012, I saw how easily it could be prevented: if there’s some minimum equipment, and we created a special fund in which I raised money and there are hundreds of communities all over the world that we were helping. Jewish communities have to take care of the security of their institutions.

Q: In the aftermath of the shooting, there are some, such as former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, who are calling for the State of Israel to recognize Conservative and Reform Jews. What’s your reaction? 

A: I’ve been calling for this for a long time. That is very principled and very important—that every Jew in the world will feel at home in Israel. And I will speak about it many times, saying that in Israel, if you really want it to be the home for every Jew in the world, you have to know that Israel welcomes them, with their rabbi, with their community, with their prayers. And I think it’s almost tragic that the State of Israel has to make such important Zionist decisions when there’s some terrorist attack.

Q: Are shootings like this able to unite the Jewish community over our political, religious and communal differences?

A: It’s like a reminder of our mutual faith, which is stronger than all of our disagreements, and it does give something. To hope it will help overcome some ideological debates, definitely not.

Q: What are your thoughts about the current state of relations between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews?

A: Between Jews, it’s OK. Between the American organized Jewish community and the State of Israel, there are definitely some serious dangers. I would say that Israelis correctly expect that American Jewry will show much more understanding of our security needs, and that we cannot behave as if we are Switzerland.

On the other hand, American Jews are right when they expect much more understanding of the Israeli government to show acceptance of the pluralism within American Jewry. Because of internal political reasons, the Israeli government is not interested in showing this.

Q: What is your overall reaction to the state of European Jewry? How serious are problems related to immigrant and anti-Semitism?

A: I believe that the problems which happened in Europe are so deep. They went so far, this policy of post-nationalism—a reworking of national borders and permitting tens of thousands of new citizens who don’t accept the rules of liberal democracy. It’s really come to such a point where European Jews are increasingly feeling uncomfortable.

This meeting of post-intellectual, post-identity that denies the value of the Jewish state—old, radical right-wing anti-Semitism … and the new anti-Semitism mainly connected with Muslim citizens and the liberal left. It creates a situation where the Jews of France don’t feel themselves comfortable in any part of French society. I think it’s almost irreversible. I don’t believe there is a future for the Jews of France.

For the first time in modern history, we see that there are more and more British Jews who feel that it is not their home. That, we didn’t see before.

Q: Speaking of British Jews, what’s your reaction to the rise of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his highly controversial views?

A: That’s a very logical continuation of [what] to some extent is happening in America—that the left becomes less liberal, and more and more connected to the extremists of the Muslim movement and the anti-Zionist world.

It’s not liberal. It has nothing to do with human rights. This is a betrayal of liberal values. That’s what been happening in Europe over the last 15 years, and now it has contributed to Corbyn’s rise to power. That’s extremely dangerous, but it also shows how deep this tendency on the left is.

Q: We see in America a lot of left-wing Jews starting to support ideas of Marxism, communism, socialism. As someone who overcame that, what’s your reaction?

A: I say it’s almost a tragedy, the lack of elementary knowledge of what Marxism really means.

What Marxism practices … “They say, ‘OK, it was started and made mistakes.’ ” Everybody who looks deeply into the essence of Marxism [should understand] how Stalinism was built theoretically by Marx … and then by Lenin—their idea was, ‘We have to take as much as possible, power from the individual, to take their property, to take their opportunities to influence on the social and religious and national life.’ ” And to let the state to distribute it, then it brings to slavery. [It’s akin] to the same forms of totalitarian regimes.

When you say socialism, sometimes socialism is understood as social democracy, and that’s OK. There are some social democratic parties in Europe who try to have some welfare agenda, so it’s one thing.

But the fact that the people will go to classical Marxism … mankind already paid the lives of tens of millions of people and enslavement of hundreds of millions. I think this presents very dangerous solutions, and I would recommend people will start learning from the atrocities.

Q: You were a champion chess player. Would you characterize your time in prison as a game of mental chess?

A: I write a lot about it in my book (Fear No Evil). I think chess helped me a lot—to discipline myself and to see all of my battles with the KGB as a chess game when you’re trying to think two steps before your offensive.