Natan Sharansky and Irwin Cotler: ‘Mr. No’ and ‘Getting to Yes’

By GIL TROY

My wife jokes that the two reasons she failed to learn constitutional law at McGill University’s law school are named Irwin Cotler and Natan Sharansky.

In the mid-1980s, Cotler, her constitutional law professor, was busy flying to Moscow and missing lectures in an effort to free Sharansky from the Gulag. Today, I joke that two of the reasons I don’t get a lot of sleep are named Cotler and Sharansky.

At the age of 80, the indefatigable Cotler sets such a high standard of productivity and impact, you want to keep up. Just yesterday, he was named by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. Meanwhile, his younger 72-year-old friend, Sharansky, and I just finished a three-year-marathon writing and rewriting and more rewriting project, which resulted in our new book, Never Alone.

These days, I hope, young people will joke that two of the reasons they balance their deep pride in being Jewish and Zionist with a broad commitment to human rights and fixing the world are named Cotler and Sharansky, too.

Sadly, in our either-or world, these human rights activists and traditional liberals risk being unfashionable. Beyond supporting Israel, they dare to be complex thinkers. When people demand they choose liberalism or nationalism, identity or freedom, Jewish particularism or universalism, they answer, “yes, both.” They understand that to row effectively, you need two oars; that for a bird to fly, let alone soar, it needs two wings.

In the late 1970s, Cotler, already a renowned McGill law professor and human rights lawyer, started representing Sharansky, essentially deputized by Natan’s wife, Avital. Back then, even some Israeli operatives read Zionism too narrowly. As we describe in Never Alone, these Zionists-with-blinders feared that Sharansky’s work with the Soviet human rights icon Andrei Sakharov and the broader dissident movement endangered the Refusenik movement’s fight for free emigration for Soviet Jews to Israel. The Israelis didn’t understand that to the KGB, seeking to leave was as threatening as speaking out. Still, they pressured Avital, suggesting she divorce her husband because the KGB was going to jail him, and Israel wouldn’t be able to protect him because he crossed some line They also pressured Cotler, among others, to stay away from Sharansky. None of them broke.

While appealing to international tribunals and Soviet courts, snaring the Communist dictators in their own hypocrisies, Cotler helped score a huge victory. Two months after Sharansky’s arrest in 1977 on trumped-up charges of espionage, rumours were flying about him in the West. Cotler and other lawyers, especially his Harvard law school colleague Alan Dershowitz, turned to Dershowitz’s former student, Stuart Eizenstat, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser. Eizenstat convinced Carter to break from standard American policy and declare that Sharansky wasn’t an America spy. Denying one accusation risked implying that others might be guilty. Carter’s bold statement helped tremendously.

For all their similarities in vision and ideology, for all their contributions to Zionism and human rights, there’s a profound difference. Our book is divided into three parts – 9-9-9 – for Sharansky’s nine years in Gulag, nine years in the Israeli government (he served in four cabinets, including as interior minister and deputy prime minister), and nine years as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He often jokes that he doesn’t know where he suffered most, but usually replies, “in politics.”

Not that he wasn’t effective. His many accomplishments range from helping Russian immigrants settle, to furthering Israel’s privatization, to building bridges between Israeli Arabs and Jews, the ultra-Orthodox and others, and between Israel and the Diaspora.

Still, Sharansky hated being a politician: the compromising, the posturing, the nattering. He jokes it was easy in prison. “All you had to say was ‘no.’” He describes his political “failure” by saying: “I was in four prisons and never resigned; I was in four governments and resigned twice.”

By contrast, Cotler served for 16 years as a Member of Parliament, as a Minister of Justice and Attorney General for three of those, and thrived. He retired, somewhat reluctantly, in 2015 at age 75, having been selected by his peers as Canadian Parliamentarian of the Year. Recalling that when he was 11, his father told him the Parliament represented vox populi, Cotler said: “This is the voice of the people. This is the seat of governance. This is where the laws of the country are made. This is where the national debates take place. This is where coalitions can form across party lines on certain cases and causes and move them forward.”

Note the power of programming. Sharansky survived in the Gulag as “Mr. No.” Cotler thrived as a lawyer, professor, activist, and parliamentarian by getting to Yes. Democracy in general and human rights work in particular requires both skill-sets – from different practitioners. You need Sharansky-dissidents taking those stands as outsiders, and you need Cotler-lawyer-legislators as insiders building the platforms on which those stands are made – as well as the safety nets to save the dissidents when necessary.

I have benefited immensely by learning from both. Their lives prove that when you belong to the Jewish people you are Never Alone – and that no matter how brave or visionary you are, you cannot accomplish much alone. You need teamwork, people with different skills, changing the world step by step, insiders and outsiders, “Mr. No” and “Getting to Yes,” working together.


Gil Troy
Gil Troy

Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100 – one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life” – Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.