Q&A: Prof. Gil Troy on Being Natan Sharansky’s Co-Author

Oct. 13, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

The newly published Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy (PublicAffairs, 480 pages) offers an intimate portrait of the man who spent nine years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union for his activism on behalf of Jewish emigration and who, after his release in 1986, became an outspoken politician in Israel. More recently, he was head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Troy, who made aliyah 10 years ago, continues to serve as a Distinguished Scholar in North American history at McGill University, where he’s taught from 1990. A specialist in the U.S. presidency, the New York-born Troy is a prolific author on the subject, as well as on Zionism. His most recent previous book was The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland.

The CJR interviewed Troy about Never Alone and his impressions of Sharansky.

How long have you personally known Natan Sharansky? How long did you work on the book together, and how much are his words/ideas vs. yours?

I had the privilege of first meeting him in the early 2000s when he was Diaspora Affairs Minister, among other positions. He was very concerned about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus, and I shared that concern as a McGill professor. It was mostly, however, a “hello, how are you?” type relationship, with occasional brainstorming meetings in his Jewish Agency office.

When I finished my last book, The Zionist Ideas, I asked him to write the preface, thinking of him as the most prominent and legendary Zionist in the world today. He kindly agreed – then turned it around and asked me to be his co-author.

Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy
Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy

We were true co-authors. We worked extremely closely together for three years, arguing lovingly about every word, every phrase, every logical sequence. And yet, in all that time, despite coming from such different worlds, we never had an ideological disagreement. So the book truly is our words, our voice – we call this a “memoir-festo,” a manifesto and memoir, because we are using his life story to tell a broader story about Jewish peoplehood and freedom.

Why the title Never Alone?

I was brainstorming with a good friend, David Suissa, [a former Montrealer now living in Los Angeles]. I told him that the KGB kept telling Natan, “you’re forgotten, you’re abandoned, you’re alone,” but Natan says, “I knew I was never alone.”

“That’s it!” David shouts. “For 75 years we’ve emphasized ‘Never Again’ – and of course we will always revere our Holocaust martyrs – but our message now is that if you are a part of this amazing people called the Jewish people, you can know you are never alone.”

What surprised you the most in getting to know Sharansky so personally? Were there any revelations?

The newsiest part for me – and the most surprising – is that this guy is the real deal. This is a story of a man [and his wife Avital] who should have been crushed by the Soviet Union. Instead, they stood up, resisted, became symbols of freedom, and are now doing everything they can to continue the struggle, while living the simple, humble life they fought so hard to enjoy.

What does Sharansky have to say concerning Canada, about Irwin Cotler, who acted as his legal counsel while he was in prison, and the Soviet Jewry movement here? Of more recent note, the book discloses that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to dissuade emigration of French Jews to Canada to ensure their aliyah. True?

There is some fascinating Canadian content: heroes like Irwin Cotler, one of his attorneys, along with Andrea Bronfman and the Group of 35, [who] were part of that army of “students and housewives” that literally saved his life. “Students and housewives” was the dismissive phrase of one of his KGB interrogators that Sharansky, in typical fashion, flipped into a flag of honour.

When Natan arrived in Israel, Andrea and Charles [Bronfman] were among the donors who helped him ease the way for other Soviet Jews arriving by bankrolling innovative programs. Irwin Cotler remains a close friend of both authors, and a mentor to me.

And yes, Natan does report that Bibi thought that [then Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s sympathetic, enthusiastically pro-Israel Conservative government might discourage French Jews from moving to Canada and encourage them to move to Israel. Natan [and I] approach Zionism differently. We don’t want to be commissars of Zionism; we encourage an Aliyah of Choice based on Identity Zionism, a decision to join the Jewish people and live in the Jewish homeland to seek ideological fulfillment and a certain kind of communal experience, not because you are forced to or fear antisemitism.

What opinion does he express about Netanyahu? Donald Trump?

Natan and Bibi have been friends for 30 years. Natan is grateful for all that Bibi did to save Soviet Jews, and to defend Israel’s security as effectively as he has. But Natan is also repeatedly disappointed by Bibi’s demagoguery against Arabs and against critics, and felt personally betrayed when Netanyahu sabotaged the Western Wall compromise to welcome egalitarian prayer at the Kotel – especially because Bibi himself knew how important it was.

Natan [and I] were stunned that American Jews couldn’t thank Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or now, can’t appreciate the breakthrough of the Abraham Accords. But we are both dismayed and often appalled by Trump’s boorishness, his bullying, and his uncharacteristic caution when it comes to clearly denouncing the antisemitic extremists who have felt encouraged by his rise to power and his rhetoric.

What does Sharansky say about the state of Israel today or its future?

In the book, we propose what we call the Driving Test: in what direction is Israel or any country going? We are happy to report that, despite some worries here and there, the directional signals all point positively. Take a simple test: would you rather be in the Israel of 1950 or 2000 or 2020? There’s a lot of false nostalgia about early Israel, but Arabs have more equal rights today, Mizrachim [non-Ashkenazi Jews] enjoy more respect, we are closer to peace and we have more freedom, democratic quality of life, and prosperity – quite the miracle, we both like to say.

On Israel-Diaspora relations, particularly with American Jews, what is his outlook?

We do see warning signs of divergence, of two different communities with two different agendas, but we also see encouraging signs of convergence and a new mutual respect. Programs like Birthright illustrate the new Identity Zionism approach of partnership, wherein Israelis and Diaspora Jews learn from one another, look out for one another, save one another, rather than assuming that it’s a one-way relationship.

Sharansky has been in our consciousness for close to half a century, yet he remains an enigma to all except those who are closest to him. He’s not a man of faith in the conventional sense and his ideology is hard to categorize. So what sustains him? Is he someone who had “greatness thrust upon him” and perhaps would have preferred the life of an obscure mathematics professor?

With him, what you see is what you get. He’s really modest, a mensch, a funny, ironic, thoughtful idealist who doesn’t wallow in the pain of the past but delights in the miracles of the present while working for even more miracles in the future. I am an historian. Usually, when I scrutinize popular gods up close, I discover their clay feet really quickly. Natan and his wife are genuine – they live their values and getting to know them is getting to appreciate them on deeper levels, far beyond the hero worship, which makes them both uncomfortable.

While he is not a formal philosopher and was not only never a king but thought he was a terrible politician, he is more philosopher-king than man of faith or humble academic. He is driven by ideas, but wants to live by them and inspire others to live by them – so he is less interested in refining them theoretically than championing them practically.

Secondly, he understands that dictatorships are fear societies and really appreciates the freedom we all too often take for granted in modern Western democracies. And third, he really loves the Jewish people, loves being Jewish, is thrilled to live in Israel, and wants to share that with others, not in a heavy-handed way, but in an educational manner.

Sharansky insists Never Alone is not a memoir because he is not done yet. What are his plans?

He starts his work days at 5:30 a.m. and, until the pandemic, travelled around the world. He chairs the Shlichim institute of the Jewish Agency, training emissaries from Israel to work all over the world, and chairs the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, headed by Montreal native Charles Small.

He also chairs the initiative to have a proper, thoughtful memorial and museum in Babi Yar [site of a Second World War massacre in Ukraine] and he just won this year’s Genesis Prize.

Informally, he is writing, teaching, and fighting for the big ideas in our book, about identity and freedom, about the joys of being Jewish and the dangers of veering to one extreme – or the other.

– This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Leading Voices Against Antisemitism Form Partnership

Sept. 8, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Canada’s two leading voices against antisemitism are forming a new partnership.

Fighting Antisemitism Together (FAST) and the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) now have a single leader to drive their campaigns against humanity’s oldest hatred.

Catherine Chatterley
Catherine Chatterley

While FAST and CISA remain independent organizations, University of Manitoba historian Catherine Chatterley becomes president of FAST in addition to serving as editor-in-chief of the academic journal Antisemitism Studies (antisemitismstudies.com).

FAST (fightingantisemitism.ca) founder Tony Comper steps aside as president and chairman but will remain an advisor to the organization. He has also committed to fund it for at least two more years.

Comper, retired president and chief executive officer of BMO Financial Group, founded FAST 15 years ago after his late wife Elizabeth became alarmed at growing waves of antisemitism.

Tony Comper
Tony Comper

It’s now time for fresh leadership, he told the CJR in an interview.

“I’m not a kid anymore and sadly, I don’t see that this demand is going to diminish,” he said. “The bottom line is that when we established the FAST Foundation, I thought this would be a temporary response to an immediate problem, but antisemitism remains an enormous problem for Canada and it is continuing at an increasing rate.”

At their cores, the organizations share the belief that antisemitism can only be overcome through education.

FAST attacks the problem by developing curricula for elementary and high school students. Choose Your Voice, developed in 2005 with the aid of Canadian Jewish Congress and others, is aimed at students in grades six through eight. Voices into Action, developed a decade later, targets students in high school.

CISA’s website (canisa.org) says the organization “produces scholarship and education on the subject of antisemitism in its classic and contemporary forms.”

CISA publishes what it calls the “leading” academic journal dedicated to Jew-hatred, Antisemitism Studies. Its fall 2020 issue, to be released in October, includes articles on Sigmund Freud’s debunked theory of antisemitism, a review of psychological research on antisemitism, and a commentary on conspiracy theories and their antisemitic imagery.

“The basis for FAST is that the solution to this isn’t the quick fix that people would hope for,” Comper said. “It’s a long-haul effort that requires taking young kids and giving them an alternative narrative to what they might be getting at home.”

In an e-mail exchange, Chatterley, who, like Comper, is not Jewish, said the idea of partnering the two groups was raised a year ago by Comper.

“CISA and FAST remain separate organizations with separate fundraising needs, but they now have an affiliation that allows CISA to promote and support FAST’s nationwide human rights curriculum including its focus on antisemitism,” she wrote.

“CISA is very pleased to be affiliated with FAST. We plan to build on FAST’s demonstrated success and ensure that all Canadian students have an opportunity to study this award-winning human rights curriculum with an emphasis on antisemitism. We hope to work toward making these subjects a permanent part of the school curriculum in all regions of Canada.”

In 2004, when Elizabeth Comper cornered her husband while he was shaving and said something had to be done about antisemitism, B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights reported 857 incidents of harassment, violence and vandalism targeting Canadian Jews.

At the time, that was the largest number of incidents in more than 50 years. In 2019, however, the tally had risen to 2,207 incidents – a rise of eight per cent over 2018 and the fourth consecutive year of record numbers.

Comper said several factors are driving the increase, including the growth of social media, giving haters more avenues to spread their bile.

The hope, he said, is those effects can be countered by offering programs that include the history of the Rwandan genocide, the stories of Holocaust survivors, and the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War.

“Antisemitism is the worst manifestation of intolerance in history, but intolerance is alive and well in many areas today,” he said. “If we educate young people then they will take that home and their parents will start hearing a different story from their kids.”

Comper Revamps Group that Fights Antisemitism

Aug. 4, 2020

The rise in antisemitic incidents has revitalized FAST.

Fighting Antisemitism Together, or FAST, was founded in 2005 by former Bank of Montreal CEO Tony Comper and his late wife, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and Tony Comper

It had the backing of some 30 blue-chip non-Jewish business executives, including leaders of Toronto-Dominion Bank, Manulife Financial Corp., Bombardier Inc., Stelco, Bell Canada, and BCE Inc. Each executive put $10,000 toward the effort.

Over the past 15 years, FAST has fashioned free education programs geared to middle schools and high schools, and has reached 4.4 million students at more than 22,000 schools.

According to a recent report in the Globe and Mail, FAST is now joining the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA), a scholarly organization that publishes the academic journal Antisemitism Studies. CISA founding director Catherine Chatterley, who teaches modern European history at the University of Manitoba and edits the journal, is taking over as FAST’s chair and president.

Polls and surveys show that antisemitic incidents continue to rise in Canada, and that in Toronto and suburbs, Jews are the most targeted group for hate crimes.

According to B’nai Brith Canada’s most recent audit, there were 2,207 antisemitic incidents nationally in 2019 – more than six a day – an eight percent increase over the year before. It was the fourth consecutive record-setting year for antisemitism in Canada, and online harassment was up by 11 percent, the audit revealed.

“The obvious question is, if you’re doing such a wonderful job, why isn’t it having an impact on antisemitism?” Comper was quoted as telling the Globe. “The increase in the incidences justifies exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing and the need for it.”

The classroom is the ideal incubator for change, he said.

Tony Comper. Photo University of Haifa

“To fundamentally change, you need to focus on education of young people and equip them with an alternative narrative to what they’re hearing either at home, or in the street or in the school yard,” Comper said.

He has promised to fund FAST for the next two years, and plans to stay on as an adviser working with Chatterley to build fundraising and administration.

CISA is “very pleased to be affiliated with FAST,” Chatterley told the CJR via email.

“We plan to build on FAST’s demonstrated success and ensure that all Canadian students have an opportunity to study this award-winning human rights curriculum with an emphasis on anti-Semitism,” she added. “We hope to work toward making these subjects a permanent part of the school curriculum in all regions of Canada.”

CISA one of seven institutes in the world dedicated to the scholarly study of antisemitism.