JERUSALEM, Israel – When Jewish people return from around the world to live in Israel, it's a joyful end of a long journey. One of the more famous stories is that of Natan Sharansky, whose immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union paved the way for the exodus of two million Russian Jews.
Sharansky has been connecting Jewish people to Israel for 50 years. There was a time, however, when he didn't see anything good about his heritage.
"I was born in 1948 in the Soviet Union, in Ukraine. We had nothing Jewish in our life. We were absolutely assimilated – no Jewish institutions, no Jewish culture, no synagogue," Sharansky told CBN's Scott Ross. "But there was one very Jewish thing in our life and that was anti-Semitism. There was nothing positive in my being Jewish. There it was only negative."
That changed in 1967 when Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War, reuniting Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
"Here Israel emerges victorious after the attempt of Arab countries to destroy it," Sharansky continued. "And [the] Soviet Union made a lot of efforts to destroy Israel."
Natan Sharansky, Photo, CBN News, Jonathan Goff
It also marked the time Sharansky and other Soviet Jews began their search for what it meant to be Jewish.
"Everybody connects you to Israel and says, 'how your soldiers could do it?' And you want to understand, 'why [in] the world it's my soldiers?' And that's when we started reading about ourselves and suddenly discovered that there was such a unique history, which starts not from this communist dictatorship but starts from the [biblical] Exodus from Egypt and this desire to be free," he explained. "And we discovered there is a State of Israel that you want to be part of it; that's what gives you strength to start fighting for your rights as a Jew to leave to go to Israel."
Asked if the Soviet Union would allow the Jews to emigrate, Sharansky answered, "it was impossible."
"It was a regime [that] already killed tens of millions of citizens so they have no problem to kill another few hundred Jews," he said. "But we were lucky. Our struggle from the very first day became the struggle of all the Jews in the world and at the time also many non-Jews, and they succeeded to link all the interests of the Soviet Union with the fate of Soviet Jews."
CBN's Scott Ross interviewing Natan Sharansky, Photo, CBN News, Jonathan Goff
As an advocate of human rights and the Zionist movement, Sharansky also became known as a refusenik – a Jew who was refused permission to leave the Soviet Union and immigrate to Israel.
"When they arrested me finally after a few years of my activities, they accused me of high treason and explained that I will not get out alive. I'll be sentenced to death if I will not say publicly that they're right and we're wrong," he explained.
Sentenced to 14 years, he served nine, largely for spreading the truth about human rights abuses in the Soviet Union.
"Now I understand when you were in prison, that one of the things that strengthened you was the Book of Psalms," Ross asked.
"My Hebrew was not good enough. And I was reading and reading, comparing different words, sentences and so it happens the first sentence I understood fully was Psalm 23 – and "when I go through of the valley of death, I will fear no evil because You are with me," Sharanksy explained.
Ross asked, "Were you a believer in God before this?"
"There is no physical explanation why you're ready to sacrifice your life if you don't understand that there are things that are much bigger than your physical survival," he said. "When I understood that, I'm released. [They] took away all the prison clothes, gave me civil clothes and brought me to the airplane so I was lying in the snow refusing to move until they will bring me back my Psalm book."
"You still have it," Ross asked.
Psalm 23, Photo, CBN News
"It's always with me," he said, showing his treasured book.
Sharansky and his wife, Avital, were married one day before his arrest. She then led the charge for his release.
Natan and Avital Sharanksy, Photo, The Legend of Sharansky
"Then I crossed the border and the airplane from Israel took me and that's how I met – after 12 years – my wife. And that's how I met our Jewish people," he said. "So the day that started in Soviet KGB prison, finished near the Kotel [Western Wall], with thousands of our friends celebrating my release."
Sharansky's struggle played a major role in the fall of the Iron Curtain, which opened the door for two million Jews to leave the Soviet Union.
Sharansky now serves as an honorary member of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, Photo, CBN News
Years later, Sharansky headed the Jewish Agency, the organization that helps bring new immigrants to Israel.
New immigrants celebrate their aliyah at Ben Gurion International Airport, Photo, CBN News, Jonathan Goff
"It is really the history of the Exodus repeating itself in modern history," he said.
Asked about Israel's enemies threatening to push the Jews into the sea and destroy the State of Israel, he said, "So we have to stand against all this hypocrisy, against all this hatred, and we rely on us, on our faith, on our God and on our friends."
Ross asked, "When you look back through the history and you see where Israel is now, how do you feel about your country and where you are?"
"God speaks to us by His doings," Sharansky said. "Look what He's doing with Jewish people and they're the best proof of His presence. What happened with the Soviet Union? The Soviet Union doesn't exist. See what happened with Israel. There is no country in the free world with such successful strong economy. And we brought so many Jews from so many different cultures. And how they all are becoming one people united with one vision. So that's the miracle."