Natan Sharansky has come a long way since the gray winter day in 1986 at Berlin’s Glienicker Brücke where a spy-swap deal landed him in a prisoner’s outfit, ready to part with the totalitarian world that sprawled behind him, and realize the dream for which he had fought.
Like the biblical Joseph’s sudden procession from prison’s nadir to power’s pinnacle, the 38-year-old dissident who spent nine years in Soviet gulags, jail, and solitary-confinement cells now flew in an executive jet to Ben-Gurion Airport, where Prime Minister Shimon Peres hugged him and asked, “how are you,” to which Natan answered in the Hebrew he had learned at great risk: “All’s well.”
Having since become a party leader, lawmaker, and minister, and now completing his second term as head of the Jewish Agency which runs the Jewish state’s relations with the Jewish people, Sharansky no longer thinks “all’s well.”
Speaking to Audiatur-Online in his Jerusalem office with his alter-ego, Soviet freedom fighter Andre Sakharov, staring from the large painting on the nearby wall, Sharansky shared his thoughts about Europe’s refugee crisis, the Middle East’s freedom deficit, and the Jewish people’s religious rifts.
An hour later it is clear that at heart, the diminutive, humble, and soft-spoken Sharansky remains the dissident who stood up to a mighty empire that trampled freedom and justice – until he won.
Audiatur-Online: How would you summarize your 9 years in the Jewish Agency?
Natan Sharansky: It was more comfortable than 9 years in prison (laughs) and no less challenging than 9 years in the government.
The main function of the Jewish Agency in the past was the ingathering of the exiles – 3,5 million Jews have made Aliya through the Jewish Agency since 1948. We continued helping Jews to make Aliya and to save Jews like those from Yemen, but at the same time we adjusted to the fact that today Jews don’t make Aliya because they are fleeing from pogroms but rather come out of free choice. In order to encourage this decision, we have focused more on projects to strengthen Jewish identity.
In addition, we had to deal with the fight against this new Antisemitism that has risen on US-campuses and have accordingly increased greatly the number of emissaries (Shlichut) to US-University-campuses. Those have become centres where the struggle for the future Jewish generations is taking place.
How would you describe the goals of the Jewish People?
The goal of the Jewish People in general is to continue our thousand-year long march in history in which we keep together our belief in our Jewish identity and in our belief in freedom. We can be proud of our ideas of freedom, equality and liberty that have their roots and their beginning in our heritage. The declaration that every human being is created in the image of God is profound and is the basis of equality. It is the basis of the human rights for which we Jews have always been fighting. This quest for equality and justice and for making the world a better place – it all started with our historical march in history. Our belief in freedom and identity started when we became a nation during our Exodus from Egypt – when we received our freedom and our identity at the same time! This is unique.
It is our goal to continue our engagement in keeping those two together as we have during the three and a half thousand years of our history.
Why is this so important in today’s world?
Though we are in the Middle East, we are a democracy.
Today you can easily see how in Europe people are ready to sacrifice their identity for the sake of freedom. This is what the post-modernism for the last 35 or 40 years in Europe has been about. The underlying thought is: In order to have peace, we have to get rid of our nationality, and of our religion – we’ve had so many religious and national wars, let’s create something universal without specific identity. That is the idea of postnationalism and postmodernism.
On the other hand, in the Middle East, we have the opposite – a world which for the sake of identity is ready to give away freedom.
We are the nation that asserts to combine both. Though we are in the Middle East, we are a democracy, we are the nation that is a part of the Free World, but we are also a specifically Jewish State.
So, the role of the Jewish People is to continue to connect the two: On the one hand insisting on freedom without compromise – equality and human rights etc. – even when you are in the Middle East and among the most terrible dictatorships in the world.
And on the other hand, at the same time, while being a part of the Free World, which is prepared to give up everything even their identity for the sake of peace, we say no, we are a Jewish State, we insist on our Jewish identity.
That I believe is our unique role.
What are your conclusions from Europe’s Refugee Crisis? Where do you see the roots of this crisis?
The huge tragedy in the Middle East that spilt over to Europe is the direct result of the awful dictatorships in this region, which were unfortunately treated in the Free World – which of course includes Europe – for years as an inevitable and maybe even desirable evil because they brought stability. Dictators were accepted as long as they kept their region under control.
The result was – and I wrote about it in my book in 2004 1 – that inevitably these dictatorships will fall apart because people will not suffer forever without revolting. The fact that there is no alternative for the people, and the Free World has not even tried to make any bridges with activists of civil society in the Middle East will always result in a ruling struggle between secular dictators and types like the Muslim Brotherhood. That is what has started happening and turned into the big tragedy in Syria but also in other places.
That is also by the way why the Arab Spring failed. The Arab Spring would have been the opportunity for the West to reach out to civil society and to help them. But the message of the leaders of the West was „We don’t want a change of the regime we want an engagement with the regime“.
That was in fact the beginning of the big betrayal of the democratic forces in the Middle East. If the West continues its policy of simply sitting and waiting – then the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and their likes will be inevitable. Instead the West must make it clear that their real allies are those who believe in civil society.
I can’t say if the democratic movements and stirrings were strong enough to take power but without a doubt the situation could be very different today if there had been a consistent message from the Free World that our real strategic allies are those who believe in civil society and we are helping only them.
How far back does the source of the current refugee crisis go back to?
The refugees in Europe are a direct result of more than 100 years of dictatorships in the Middle East. Unfortunately I have to say this, but the ones who started this approach of using dictatorships as assurance for stability were Britain and France at the beginning of the 1920s when they divided the Middle East between those dictators who were loyal to them. And if necessary even created special countries. They should not have interfered and decided for the people of the Middle East – creating Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – on the basis of leaders of the tribes who would be loyal to the Empires.
From that time, the policy of the Free World consisted of how to make sure that the set of ruling dictators will be more or less loyal to them. In general, this policy of supporting dictators in the Middle East and in fact helping them exploit in the most non-democratic way their own people had to explode sooner or later. This part explains the source of the current refugee problem in Europe.
But there is the other part of the refugee problem that has to do with Europe’s history. The refugee problem didn’t start today. Europe accepted tens of millions of Muslims without demanding or even expecting from them their loyalty to the principles of the Western Democracy. This again is a direct result of the fore mentioned post-modern and multicultural ideology which said that all the values are relative, and we (Europeans) sinned with our colonial past against these people so now we must accept them without demanding that they accept our values – as a compensation for our colonial sins. We must give them citizenship and are not supposed to demand anything from them in return.
I think that was a big tragedy of Europe and was completely wrong.
People criticize Trump for closing some doors now.
Why does America not have the same problems?
We see that America has accepted thousands of Muslims and yet they don’t have the same terror problem to the extent of Europe and not the same social problems as Europe [concerning Muslims|, because in the US it is clear that those who immigrate and want to become citizens accept fully the norms of the life in America.
The reason for this is that America didn’t have this guilt-complex and never had a problem saying „no“. People criticize Trump for closing some doors now. But America has always kept its doors closed to those they suspected were not fully accepting of their democratic principles. The US doesn’t hesitate to protect their own system of values.
As a contrast in behaviour take France where there are areas in which teachers are afraid to teach about the Holocaust. Muslim parents demand that it is not a part of their history nor culture and they simply don’t want it to be taught to their children. The very fact that the local authorities accept their demand shows how absurd the situation is. Those people will continue to live with their history and philosophy while blocking out the history of their home country. This is of course their right – but why then should they be citizens of that country? This is very unhealthy.
Back to the European refugee situation: When you add to the existing European guilt and lack of demand to adhere to their Western democratic principles a huge influx of refugees and huge humanitarian issues you can’t wait and put conditions on them. It’s really a crazy situation. So – humanitarian assistance must be given but whoever is not ready to accept the norms of the Western democracy should not be given citizienship.
What must be done to prevent a worsening of the situation?
To reduce such problems in the future the West has to stop supporting dicators as a tool for stability in the Middle East and stop putting their heads in the sand as they did when they originially called Assad „a reformer“. This „reformer“ is prepared to kill masses of his own people for the sake of his survival. In addition, the West must reach out to civil society activists and democratic forces in the region as would have been possible in the first one and a half years of the Syrian war when they were asked for help. That would have been the time to overthrow Assad.
And secondly: If Europe wants to prevent losing its own principles it must not give the refugees citizenship just because they are refugees. It is one thing to help refugees and another thing to protect your own values.
How do you see the future of European Jewry?
I am not very optimistic about the future of the European Jewry. But I would say it depends also a lot on the leaders of Western Europe and I don’t mean in terms of Antisemitism. I don’t see at this moment any European government which can be called antisemitic. There are some elements in some countries and in some political parties but I can’t say there is an antisemitic government.
On the other hand, the very fact that European public opinion and sometimes the governments themselves are so involved in bashing Israel is an expression of this new type of modern Antisemitism which hides behind anti-Israel propaganda.
When I have been accused in the past that I use the term Antisemitism simply to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel I proposed the criteria of the 3 D-test: Does your criticism demonize, delegitimize or apply a double standard towards Israel? If it does it is antisemitic and not legitimate criticism as applied to every other state in the world.
The delegitimisation, demonization and double standard has been used against Jews for thousands of years in Europe and Russia, everywhere, and now these same principles are applied to Israel. That is why it is called „the New Antisemitism“. It functions the same way as the old one but now the official and publicly acceptable target is the Jewish State, which, as we have seen in Europe, opens the doors to antisemitic assaults on the Jews as well.
When European countries either vote or abstain – like France, Sweden or Spain for example – from speaking out against the UNESCO decision that Temple Mount has nothing to do with the Jewish heritage what can that be called? When Israel is the only country in the world ever condemned by this international convention for their treatment of prisoners of war – and we know in what neighbourhood we live, bordering on Syria and Egypt – what is that? When the Human Rights Committee of Europe condemns Israel more than all the dictatorships on earth put together – to say there is no double standard is impossible.
European Jewry’s future is directly connected to Israel. Let’s take as an example some French Jew – it could be a Jew from any European country. Where does he feel at home in France? There is the Conservative France. Today’s conservative France is Le Pen who is supposedly very good for the Jews. But the Jews have a historical memory and they know that for centuries for this conservative France the OTHER in Europe was the Jew! So they are suspicious.
Then there is Muslim France – even if there are many loyal Muslim French – the Jews in Paris have been told for the last 15 years not to wear their Kippa openly in light of Antisemitism from the Muslim side.
And then there is Liberal France which has always been the „Home“ to Jews. In fact, Jews feel that they were among those who created liberal France. But if you are part of liberal France and all parts of this liberal France – at your work place and in the News and Media – every day reminds you what an awful criminal Israel is while you feel very connected to Israel like most French Jews do – practically all of them have been to Israel and have family in Israel; they know Israel intimately and love Israel – and nevertheless they hear from all of their surrounding and their colleagues „you are a good guy but you can’t be part of this criminal entity..“….. How will they feel? In such an atmosphere, they feel very uncomfortable.
So it might sound strange, but I would say if there is a future for Jews in Europe depends also on the attitude and the relations of Europe with Israel.
I am not talking about those who want to be assimilated and to disappear as Jews. There is always a part of Jews who is assimilating. But those who want to continue their Jewish life and be a part of the Jewish community – for them it becomes less and less comfortable to be in this atmosphere between old Antisemitism and the new Anti-Israelism – which is the new form of the old Antisemitism – and Muslim Europe which is emerging.
So again: the future of European Jewry in fact depends on the European governments. If the governments will change their policy it can also create a different atmosphere for the Jewish communities.
Should European Jewry cooperate with Nationalist parties that are pro-Israel?
As I mentioned in the beginning I believe that our strength lies in this deep connection – and in the belief in this connection – between freedom, equality, liberty on the one side, and patriotism and national identity on the other. To the extent to which different European parties want to bring back the dignity of European nationalism – and nationalism doesn’t have to be a negative word at all when it means respect for your national history and your traditions and principles or for Western liberal democracy – to that extent I think the Jews should have no problem to express solidarity with these parties. But the one must not be on account of the other. Going back to your European national roots should not be on account of real equality of all the citizens and respect to human rights.
Generally I am very careful when using terms like „left wing“, „right wing“ and „ liberal“. Todays’ liberals can be best friends with dictators. The criteria of a party or of a movement has to be different. Respect your tradition but be aware that patriotism can be a very positive or a negative thing. The question must be if it is being used to restrict the rights of other citizens or is it used to express your national pride and dignity and to strengthen your values.
Last question: Could you say something about the Kotel-crisis?
Historically our founding fathers had the big challenge of building a Nation State from Jews who were coming from hundreds of countries. They decided there must be one language, one culture, and one religion which will unite all Jewish inhabitants of this new State. And they included Orthodox Judaism as partners in the building of the State. Today when Israel is insisting rightly that it is home for all Jews and there are many streams of Judaism who also want to see themselves as a natural part of Israeli society it is very important to give them more room. From this point, the Kotel compromise which I helped to reach was an important step in the right direction and it is very unfortunate that because of coalition considerations it was frozen for the time being. I hope it will be picked up again as quickly as possible and the political situation will permit us to implement the compromise fully because it is essential that every Jew in the world will feel that Israel is their home – with their rabbis, their communities and their synagogues.
Mr. Sharansky, thank you for the interview.
- The Case For Democracy: The Power Of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny And Terror, Nathan Sharansky with Ron Dermer, 2004, Public Affairs ↩