My Friend, Elizabeth Tsurkov, Has Been Kidnapped in Iraq. Who Will Help Her?


It’s a beautiful summer day at my in-laws’ house in Los Angeles. The sun is out. My kids are playing 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 a militia in Iraq, and I’m terrified.

“She’s still alive,” the news reports and the Israeli government both say.


Liza, a Russian-Israeli doctoral student at Princeton University, traveled to Iraq this winter to conduct field work for her research into human rights and sectarianism in the Middle East. She was last seen leaving a cafe in Baghdad in late March. Soon after, according to the Israeli government, she was kidnapped and is now being held by the paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah, a Shiite militia with links 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 watching from the sidelines. It was an idea that drove her research and human rights work, which had already taken her into war-ravaged 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 pursuit of truth is rooted in Liza’s family’s history, 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 yearslong 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 first language wasn’t Hebrew, they weren’t religious, they didn’t live in Jerusalem, they didn’t 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 kids’ parents had been imprisoned by the Soviet Union for protesting its human rights violations? Liza and Emma, like us, grew up hearing prison stories and about the legacy of fighting repression in the name of what was right. Our father was a Zionist, while Liza’s parents, Arkady and Ira Tsurkov, were Marxists. But they all advocated for a more democratic state, drawing international attention to the Soviet Union’s blatant abuse of its citizens.

Most important, they all knew — and paid for — the risks they took. Years of imprisonment didn’t rid them of their certainty, nor break their spirit.

Our families came together often over the following years. As we grew up, Liza and I played, talked and sometimes fought.

“I was born first, on Nov. 6, so I’m older than you,” I told her heatedly one day, when we were both 10. “So I should set the rules for how we play.”

“I was born on Nov. 11 — it’s not that much later,” she answered reasonably. “And besides, why should age make a difference? Why should you get to 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 fairness. Later, as her personal politics shifted to the left, her opinions carried her far away from mainstream Israeli sensibilities and, frankly, far away from mine. We disagreed often about a variety of topics, like the political parties we supported and the best way to bring peace to the Middle East. But even when we disagreed — as kids or as adults — I always knew that her opinion was an honest one, free from posturing, self-interest and pride.

Liza believed from early adulthood that caring about the citizens of Israel also meant caring about the rights of Palestinians in Israel. Later, she turned her attention both professionally and personally to our Arab neighbors in their fight for freedom during the Arab Spring. But she didn’t want to merely view them vis-à-vis their relationship with Israel; she believed that the right thing to do was to try to understand our neighbors from inside their own societies, the way they experienced and understood themselves.

She became fluent in Arabic, and she visited many countries most Israelis will never enter. She traveled to Syria to research political factions and wrote about their experience of the civil war for international audiences. She networked 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 research the way Iraqis, and women in particular, were living after ISIS and in the shadow of sectarianism — not, as some online critics have said, to spy for the Israeli government. In a region where the coverage is often male-centric and shaped by the narratives of military groups and political factions, Liza wanted to hear from regular 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 bedrock 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 that they risked too much, that their whole lives were still before them,” he said. “They told them that they could never win this battle, so why throw your life away?” But Arkady and Ira were certain 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 valued freedom, truth and justice, would support them.

It turned out that they were correct. The American government fought for Ira, Arkady, my father and others. U.S. lawmakers helped their cause by introducing and passing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked freedom of emigration to the question of free trade. The U.S. government also helped Soviet dissidents and political prisoners directly by raising the cases of imprisoned dissidents in every meeting or round of negotiations with the Soviets.

Arkady, Ira and my father weren’t American citizens, nor did they work for the American government. But Washington helped them because they fought for values that the United States wanted to uphold.

Liza is not the same kind of freedom fighter as our parents were, but she has made a similar gamble. With her university’s support 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 release?

As I look at Liza’s face in the newsreels today — and in our childhood photos — I hope that the answer is yes.

Rachel Sharansky Danziger is a Jerusalem-based writer and educator.

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