The long incarceration of former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency, was known to have been used by Margaret Thatcher as an example of the many wrongs perpetrated by the USSR.
But it was the fury of Mr Sharansky’s wife, Avital, over her husband’s imprisonment that drove Mrs Thatcher into a direct confrontation with the Soviet regime.
In London for the funeral of the former British prime minister, Mr Sharansky explained: “I had been on hunger strikes around 1982 and 1983, over the fact that I couldn’t send letters out of prison. My wife was very concerned and was trying to up the pressure on the Soviets.”
Mrs Sharansky called David Wolfson, Mrs Thatcher’s then chief of staff, and told him she was coming to London the following day to talk to the prime minister about her husband’s plight.
Mr Sharansky said: “Avital called the prime minister’s office at midnight and said, ‘I want to speak to Mrs Thatcher tomorrow’.”
Mr Wolfson replied: “Appointments are made months in advance. Do you really think your husband is the most important matter in the mind of the PM?”
At that point, Mrs Sharansky lost her temper. “My wife shouted back, ‘Yes, I really believe that this is the most important issue for the PM to consider. Your job exists in order to make sure this meeting happens’.”
Mrs Sharansky arrived in London the next day and a car, sent by Mr Wolfson, took her straight to Mrs Thatcher.
They had tea. The next day, the Soviet ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office and told the British government would not accept the way the USSR was treating dissidents such as Mr Sharansky.
On Mrs Thatcher’s first Prime Ministerial visit to Israel in 1986, Mr Sharansky approached her husband, Denis, and said: “‘We are both in Israel because of our wives’. He laughed.”
After his release from his 16-year ordeal, most of it in a Siberian gulag, Mr Sharanksy met Mrs Thatcher several times “for five o’clock teas”.
“It was very difficult to get her to stop talking,” he said.
Mr Sharansky credited Mrs Thatcher, along with former US president Ronald Reagan, for having helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Thatcher and Reagan showed the USSR something they didn’t know how to deal with — not realpolitick, not appeasment, but strength. The defeat of the USSR was inseparable from Mrs Thatcher.”
On Mrs Thatcher’s ethics in international affairs, Mr Sharansky was unequivocal: “I appreciated how firmly she believed that people are born to be free, and the regimes that are preventing that freedom are doomed”.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Mr Sharansky — as leader of the global Jewish “family”, as the Jewish Agency chair puts it — to help resolve a long-running dispute over women praying at the Western Wall.
In a recent letter to the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, Mr Sharansky set out a plan that would provide an “egalitarian space” at the Kotel where women could recite prayers.
He said in his letter: “We have an historic opportunity to make the Kotel a symbol of Jewish unity and diversity instead of a place of contention and strife.”
His plan, he wrote, is based on the guiding principles, “access, equality and unity”.
This week, along with Rael Goodman, head of the Jewish Agency in the UK, Mr Sharansky met Jewish leaders in London to listen to their views on the proposal.
Mr Goodman said: “It is very difficult to reconcile the two sides, liberal and Orthodox, and I think we have a compromise that both sides can accept. Both sides are not ecstatic about it but it has potential to work.”