A Sukkot Picnic with Natan Sharansky

Feb. 12 2020

Yesterday was the 34th anniversary of the refusenik Natan Sharansky’s release from Soviet prison. In honor of the occasion, Burton Caine recalls his 1974 visit to Moscow, where he met Sharansky for the first time at the apartment of Vladimir and Masha Slepak—then the epicenter of Soviet Jews’ struggle for freedom. During the same trip, he attended a picnic in a birch forest, organized by the Slepaks in honor of the holiday of Sukkot:

Soon all gathered for the holiday prayer. I was handed a small Israeli siddur . . . and asked to chant the kiddush . . . . Only after we returned home and my photos were developed did we notice that in two of my pictures, Anatoly Sharansky [as he was then known] was included.

Suddenly, the mood changed. A hush fell over the crowd and all frivolity stopped. The soccer game ended, and children ran to the nearest adult. We were stunned. What was happening?

The answer was immediate: the KGB had arrived, albeit disguised as peasants, wearing rough boots and carrying huge sticks. They pounded the ground, pretending to search for mushrooms. Of course, their purpose was to instill fear. On previous occasions they had severely beaten refuseniks, and at least one in our group that day still hobbled from a broken leg previously inflicted by KGB thugs. Immediately, the siddur was taken from me and handed to Eliahu Essas, a student expelled from the Moscow synagogue yeshiva when he applied for an exit visa to Israel. He chanted the prayer in Hebrew with translation into Russian to prevent the accusation that he was making an unlawful speech.

Three years later, in the frigid December of 1977, I returned to Moscow on behalf of Anatoly Sharansky, who had been imprisoned on the charge of espionage for the United States, a crime punishable by death.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: KGB, Natan Sharansky, Refuseniks, Soviet Jewry, Sukkot

Gaza’s Quiet Dissenters

Last year, the Dubai-based television channel Al-Arabiya, the Times of Israel, and several other media organizations worked together to conduct numerous interviews with residents of the Gaza Strip, taking great pains to protect their identities. The result is a video series titled Whispers in Gaza, which presents a picture of life under Hamas’s tyranny unlike anything that can be found in the press. Jeff Jacoby writes:

Through official intimidation or social pressure, Gazans may face intense pressure to show support for Hamas and its murderous policies. So when Hamas organizes gaudy street revels to celebrate a terrorist attack—like the fireworks and sweets it arranged after a gunman murdered seven Israelis outside a Jerusalem synagogue Friday night—it can be a challenge to remember that there are many Palestinians who don’t rejoice at the murder of innocent Jews.

In one [interview], “Fatima” describes the persecution endured by her brother, a humble vegetable seller, after he refused to pay protection money to Hamas. The police arrested him on a trumped-up drug charge and locked him in prison. “They beat him repeatedly to make him confess to things he had nothing to do with,” she says. Then they threatened to kill him. Eventually he fled the country, leaving behind a family devastated by his absence.

For those of us who detest Hamas no less than for those who defend it, it is powerful to hear the voices of Palestinians like “Layla,” who is sickened by the constant exaltation of war and “resistance” in the Palestinian media. “If you’re a Gazan citizen who opposes war and says, ‘I don’t want war,’ you’re branded a traitor,” she tells her interviewer. “It’s forbidden to say you don’t want war.” So people keep quiet, she explains, for fear of being tarred as disloyal.

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Read more at Boston Globe

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Palestinian dissidents, Palestinian public opinion