NEW YORK – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a rousing speech in honor of Natan Sharansky on Wednesday evening, as the vaunted human rights defender celebrated the end of his nine-year tenure as chairman of the Jewish Agency.
The New York event, titled “An Evening of Storytelling Inspired by Natan Sharansky,” celebrated the 70-year-old’s exceptional achievements and heroic life story from Soviet prisoner, to Israeli politician, to global Jewish leader.
Former US president George W. Bush, Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and 43 Jewish Agency emissaries working in North American communities attended the event at the historic Cipriani banquet hall in downtown Manhattan.
Netanyahu praised the former Soviet dissident as a stellar example of Jewish resolve and courage who helped shepherd countless Jews from throughout the world to Israel.
“If you press hard enough, they will crack,” Netanyahu recalled telling American diplomats as they were negotiating Sharansky’s release from Soviet bondage on the Glienicke Bridge in February 1986.
“The day that Natan crossed that bridge – zig-zagged across that bridge in Germany” – was a monumental event in Jewish history, said Netanyahu.
After arriving in Israel, Sharansky “was carried on the shoulders of our people to the Western Wall, to the Kotel. That day was a great day, for Israelis, for Jews and for lovers of freedom everywhere,” he said.
Netanyahu used the anecdote to touch on Iran’s dangerous impact on the Middle East’s stability, labeling it the biggest threat in the region.
“That same thing should guide us today... because there is another would-be empire in the Middle East. It to oppresses its people, it terrorizes its neighbors, but it to has a hollow core... if you press them they will [also] crack. Iran and Iran’s aggression must be stopped and can be stopped.”
Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post the event was less about him and more about the Jewish Agency’s mission to provide protection to Jews around the world.
“The main idea is not this attempt to make this event about my achievements,” Sharansky said, “the main idea to make sure that there will be more and more shlicim [emissaries] bringing Israel closer to the Jewish people and the Jewish people closer to Israel.”
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin said it was a great honor to come to New York and celebrate Sharansky’s storied career as a Jewish activist and human-rights champion.
“This is a very exciting event,” Elkin told the Post after the event. “Natan has been a friend of mine for many years... and has been an important figure for Israel.”
Former world chess champion and current Russian exile Garry Kasparov presented chess aficionado Sharansky with a chess-themed puzzle that he called a “study” to illustrate his admiration for the Jewish Agency leader.
“I felt it was my duty to be here... to congratulate Natan. And I think he was very happy because I commissioned this special study to show this chessboard” as an analogy “of all the crucial moments of his life,” Kasparov told the Post.
“It was very symbolic.... He moved from such a desperation into a win position,” he added. “His life is an inspiration.”