It’s a beautiful summer day at my in-laws house in Los Angeles. The sun is out. My children play on the grass with their grandparents, a rare treat since we live in Jerusalem. But I can’t enjoy it. One of my oldest friends, Liza — Elizabeth Tsurkov — is being held by militia in Iraq, and I’m terrified.
“She’s still alive,” both the news and the Israeli government say.
Liza, a Russian-Israeli doctoral student at Princeton University, traveled to Iraq this winter to conduct fieldwork for her research on human rights and sectarianism in the Middle East. She was last seen leaving a cafe in Baghdad in late March. Shortly thereafter, according to the Israeli government, she was kidnapped and is now being held by the militia group Kataib Hezbollah, a Shiite militia with ties to Iran.
Liza used her Russian passport to travel to Iraq, but she knew that entering the country as a dual Russian-Israeli citizen could put her in danger. But she also believed that you can’t really understand people who watch from the sidelines. It was an idea that drove her research and human rights research, which had already taken her into war-torn Syria and post-ISIS Iraq. Liza was there as a researcher, not an activist. But she believed that people should have the right to determine how they live, free from fear and persecution. If something seemed wrong to her, she fought to change it. If something was immoral, she called it out, regardless of the cost.
That willingness to take personal risk in the search for truth is rooted in the history of Liza’s family, a history similar to my own. Liza’s parents, like my father, the Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, were dissidents who fought to protect human rights in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, and paid the price with long prison terms in the Gulag.
I first met Liza in 1991, when I traveled with my family from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Nir David in northern Israel. “This family just made it here from Russia,” my mother told my sister and me. “Their father shared a cell with me in prison,” my father said.
When we met Liza and her sister, Emma, they seemed so unlike us. Their native language was not Hebrew, they were not religious, they did not live in Jerusalem, they did not know the games we liked to play.
But on a deeper level, there was no one else who could understand us better. How many other parents of children were imprisoned by the Soviet Union for protesting against human rights violations? Liza and Emma, like us, grew up listening to prison stories and the legacy of fighting oppression in the name of what is right. Our father was a Zionist, while Liza’s parents, Arkady and Ira Curkov, were Marxists. But they all advocated for a more democratic state, drawing international attention to the obvious abuse of their citizens by the Soviet Union.
Most importantly, they all knew – and paid for – the risks they were taking. Years of imprisonment did not remove them from their certainty, nor broke their spirit.
Our families got together often over the next few years. As we grew up, Liza and I played, talked and sometimes fought.
“I was born first, November 6th, so I’m older than you,” I told her eagerly one day when we were both 10 years old. “So I should set the rules for how we play.”
“I was born on the 11th of November — it’s not that much later,” she answered sensibly. “And besides, why should age make a difference? Why should you tell other people what to do?”
Even then, Liza’s calm logic made me feel young and immature. She lived her whole life with that deep sense of justice. Later, as her personal politics shifted to the left, her views took her far from mainstream Israeli sensibilities and, frankly, far from mine. We often disagreed on various topics, such as the political parties we supported and the best way to bring peace to the Middle East. But even when we disagreed – as children or as adults – I always knew that her opinion was honest, without possessiveness, self-interest and pride.
Liza believed from early adulthood that caring for the citizens of Israel also meant caring for the rights of Palestinians in Israel. Later, she turned her attention both professionally and personally to our Arab neighbors in their struggle for freedom during the Arab Spring. But she didn’t just want to look at them against their relationship with Israel; she believed that the right thing to do was to try to understand our neighbors from within their own societies, how they lived and understood themselves.
She became fluent in Arabic, and she visited many countries most Israelis will never enter. She traveled to Syria research political factions and wrote about their experience of the civil war for international audiences. She joined with dissidents and freedom fighters, and advocated for women’s rights and for more international aid.
Liza went to Iraq for similar reasons. She intended to explore the way Iraqis, and especially women, lived after ISIS and in the shadow of sectarianism — not, as some online critics said, spying for the Israeli government. In a region where the coverage is often male-centric and shaped by the stories of military groups and political factions, Liza wanted to hear from ordinary people to better understand the challenges they face.
Like the institutions that supported her work, Princeton and the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, Liza was committed to this goal. And like her parents in the Soviet Union of the 1980s, she went to Iraq in service of the values that are the very foundation of the liberal worldview: truth, human rights, knowledge and freedom.
When Liza’s parents risked everything to fight for freedom in the Soviet Union, they were only 18 years old. As my father told me, many of their friends and some of their family members thought they were crazy. “People told them they were taking too much risk, that their whole lives were still ahead of them,” he said. “They told them they could never win this fight, so why throw your life away?” But Arkady and Ira were sure that they were part of something bigger and more important than themselves. They believed that they were fighting for what was right, and they believed that the West, which values freedom, truth and justice, would support them.
Turns out they were right. The US government fought for Ira, Arkady, my father and others. American lawmakers helped their cause by introducing and passing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked freedom of emigration to the question of free trade. The US government also aided Soviet dissidents and political prisoners by directly raising the cases of imprisoned dissidents in every meeting or round of negotiations with the Soviets.
Arkady, Ira and my father were not US citizens, nor did they work for the US government. But Washington helped them because they were fighting for values that America wanted to uphold.
Liza is not the same kind of freedom fighter that our parents were, but she made a similar gamble. With the support of her university and that of several human rights groups, she took risks in pursuit of knowledge and information, trying to do what she felt was right. Will the liberal world stand up for her, as it did for her parents, and fight for her liberation?
As I look at Liza’s face in the newsreels today — and in our childhood photos — I hope the answer is yes.
Rachel Sharansky Danziger is a Jerusalem-based writer and educator.
The Times is committed to publishing diversity of letters to the editor. We’d love to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are a few tips. And here is our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.