This is the front page of the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv from February 12, 1986. The page describes Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky’s arrival in Israel after being released from a Soviet gulag (forced labour camp). The headline reads: “Our brother Anatoly, welcome home.” Under the headline is a photograph of Anatoly meeting his wife Avital after years of separation. Additional articles describe Avital Sharansky’s 12-year long campaign against her husband’s imprisonment. Other headlines mention his first day in Israel and his visit to the Kotel (Western Wall). Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is also quoted telling the Soviet Union that they will not regret opening their gates and releasing the Jewish people, indicating that other Jews were still being denied the right to leave the USSR. Below the headlines is a large photograph showing Anatoly and Avital Sharansky talking intimately. The caption below the photograph says: “Anatoly and Avital – finally together.”
The newspaper coverage demonstrates the importance of this event. People around the world supported the campaign to free the Prisoner of Zion, Anatoly Sharansky. The articles in the newspaper show his enthusiastic reception in Israel and report that even the American president, Ronald Reagan, called Sharansky and wished him “Mazal Tov.”
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Refuseniks – During the communist rule of the Soviet Union, it was very difficult for Jews to obtain visas to leave the country, and only a small quota of Jews was allowed to leave each year. The Jews who were refused an exit permit were unofficially named “refuseniks” and were considered either traitors or a security liability. Jews who applied for an exit visa were subjected to KGB (secret police) surveillance, were often denied employment, and, as a result, would either face imprisonment or find a menial job. Famous refuseniks included Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Yosef Mendelevitch, Israel and Sylva Zalmensov, and Yuli Edelstein, who later became the speaker of the Knesset (Israeli parliament). In the 1970s the plight of the Soviet refuseniks became known, and Jews from around the world placed international pressure on the USSR to allow Jews to leave the country. In 1990s, with political changes in the USSR Jews were allowed to leave freely.
Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky – Anatoly Sharansky was born in the Soviet Union in 1948. As a child he was a chess prodigy and studied applied mathematics in Moscow. In the 1970s, Anatoly became interested in Judaism and Zionism and applied for an exit visa to immigrate to Israel in 1973. The application was denied, and he was subsequently dismissed from his job. He became a human rights activist, the main spokesman for the Prisoners of Zion and refuseniks, and worked for the famous activist, Andrei Sakharov. In 1974 he married Avital, who immigrated to Israel shortly after in hope that Anatoly would soon join her. In 1977 he was arrested for high treason and sentenced to forced labour, spending much time in solitary confinement. He later wrote that he kept sane by playing chess in his head and by reading tehilim (psalms) from a small book that he had smuggled into the prison. During this time, Avital Sharansky launched a worldwide campaign to release her husband. She petitioned world leaders and led demonstrations of Jews and non-Jews around the world. Finally, in 1986, Anatoly was released as part of a larger exchange of detainees. He immediately immigrated to Israel, where he was greeted as a hero. After his arrival in Israel in 1987 – where he took the Hebrew name Natan – he worked tirelessly to help Soviet Jews, both those still in the Soviet Union and those already in Israel. He later served in the Knesset for many years and held a variety of ministerial positions, such as minister of internal affairs. Since 2009 Sharansky has served as chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency. He has won many awards including the Israel Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award.