Natan Sharansky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science, Faith, and Survival: Conversation with Natan Sharanksy, Minister in the Israeli Government, April 16, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Aliyah to Israel

Now, you emigrated to Israel. In a few years, whether you wanted to or not, you became a political leader of Russians in Israel. There are now a million people from Russia who are there. So I'm curious: how did this experience make you a better politician, a political leader? In what ways was this an education for this later career?

I think it helped me to be a worse politician. I don't think I'm a good politician. I don't feel myself comfortable in the political world.

But it made you -- what? What did it make you?

You said it makes you a better politician. I think it makes me a worse politician. I'll explain why. Because, in fact, what was so good and so important in that struggle, and was critical in that struggle, was to make no compromise between yourself and your opponent, to say no to KGB. It was the clear world of good and evil, of light and darkness, of enemies and friends. We don't have this luxury in normal life. In fact, from this point, morally, in prison, life is the most comfortable, the most simple. You say no to KGB, and by this you fulfill all your moral commitments in the world.

Normal life is different. You have to make choices all the time, especially in politics. Politics in every country is built on compromise, or on negotiations, on not making any clear division between friends and enemies, because they can be half-friends today, half-enemies tomorrow, it's politics. So I don't think that dissident activity, confrontation with a totalitarian regime, is a good school for politicians in a free country.

On the other hand, it definitely helped me to be a leader, meaning this feeling that one person, simply by taking a moral stand, can have a lot of influence on historical process, something that gives you a lot of inner strength that definitely helped me to make the decision to do something that was never done before in Israel, to create the new party of new immigrants, in order to change the pattern of integration of these new immigrants in Israeli society. It was very successful experiment, and no doubt that my experience of taking responsibility, moral responsibility in prison, helped me.

As part of your agenda as a leader in Israel, I get the sense, having listened to you earlier, that you feel that the work for human rights, the work of dissidents, is very important for ultimately achieving a settlement in the Middle East and for identifying the kinds of changes that you would like to see on the other side, in the Arab world or among Palestinians.

I believe that inner freedom is the basis of freedom in the world, and I believe that human rights, the desire of people to live in freedom, is the basis of real security, of peace, stability in the world. Exactly as in the Soviet Union, the times of Helsinki, which we created, we were insisting in our dialogue with the West that there must be direct linkage between the question of human rights and their policy towards the Soviet Union. I believe that's true, also, for today.

Unfortunately, as in the past, there were some doubts from the Western leaders that there is any sense in linking human rights and security in Russia, because Russia is not good for democracy, because the Russian people never lived in democracy. This distrust in this linkage was very unhelpful, and we had to make big efforts to overcome this distrust.

Today, there's distrust or feeling that democracy and human rights are not for Muslim world, is not for Arabs. I think is a big problem. I believe that all people are created to be equal, and all the peoples are created to be equal, and that all people deserve and can live in freedom and democracy, Russians, and Japanese, and Americans, and Arabs, and Palestinians, of course. Not only that they can do it, but that it's the most important condition for peace and stability. That's why I always insist that the real progress for peace and stability in the Middle East depends on whether we succeed in creating a situation where Israel will not be the only democracy there. The real help which we can give to Palestinians is to encourage the emergence of real dissidents in their society, people who are not afraid to speak about human rights and freedom, against corrupt dictatorship. Exactly like in Soviet Union, these people emerged and were speaking openly, only when the West was ready to give them all the support, and as a result, the price of killing them was very high for Soviet leaders. It's important that the same will happen in the Palestinian society.

Do you think that that's what President Bush is trying to do in Iraq? But do you think you can succeed? Because in the Arab world, it's not individual Muslims that are the problem, but there seems to be [a lack of] the social conditions, the processes that the West went through to reach the point where they could appreciate democracy. Even though there were aberrations -- there were distortions like the Soviet and the Nazi system -- still, there had been enough history and movement toward that goal. Is that true of the Arab world?

In 1945, there were advisors of Truman who were saying to him that there's no sense in trying to introduce democracy in Japan, because it's a very ancient civilization, much older than America, much older than Europe, much older than Christianity, and it's all built on collective discipline, on hierarchy. It has nothing to do with the values of Western democracy, and that's why it's ridiculous. Imagine for a moment if Truman had followed their advice, and that if instead of a democratic Japan we would have today some kind of totalitarian emperor, friendly to America but keeping his people under control. How much worse would our world will feel today, and less secure?

The same about Arabs. I'm sure that most of the Arab world would prefer to live in accordance with their traditions, but democracy and human rights are not contradictory to any religion, to any national tradition.

First of all, we have to agree about definition, because the word "human rights" is used in different ways, sometimes against human rights. For me, the definition comes from my alma mater, the Soviet prison, where different dissidents -- Russian nationalists, Russian monarchists, Ukrainian nationalists, Lithuanian Catholics, Baptists from Siberia, and many others -- were sitting in one cell, had very contradictory courses, but all understood the most important thing is that they should live without fear, that they have the right to express their views and not to go to prison. If this condition is kept, that's democracy.

People can have very different views about the future, but all people prefer to live without fear that they will go to prison for their views. It is possible to encourage these types of societies in every place, where people will live without fear of going to prison. It means that we should be interested not in what are the relations between the leaders of different countries, but what are the relations of the leaders of this countries with their own people. [Do] they treat their people in fear and control them through fear, or [are] they democratically elected, and are dependent on the well-being of their people? As I always say, it's better to have a democracy which hates you than dictatorship which loves you. If you have the societies of the countries where the leaders maybe are not big friends but they all depend on their own people, they all treat their people in a way that these people live without fear, then they will be no danger to people.

How does Israel address the problem of the world's perception of its efforts to achieve its national security in an age of terrorism? There is the problem of a new anti-Semitism. That seems to be very clear in the Arab world, and it seems to be occurring in Europe. That's one piece of this. But then there is the whole debate about whether Israel is becoming another South Africa. Is it trying to implement "Bantustans" in order to gather more territory? What will bring sunlight to this discussion? If we go back to your situation in the Soviet Union, it was the international community, especially the United States, that, by supporting the dissidents, was helping you. That seems to break down because of the confusion about what Israel is trying to do in terms of its own national security. Talk a little about that. What is it that the world doesn't understand about what Israel's trying to do, and what is your advice to somebody whose background is very clear in what you stand for?

No doubt that there is confusion in the world, but I don't think it's confusion about Israel, it's confusion about basic concepts. What are human rights? We are losing this simple moral clarity, which was so important in the Soviet Union for us, for dissidents, which could help us to understand what is good and what is evil.

Israel has a very difficult challenge of how to survive as the only democracy in that part of the world, when so many neighbors want to destroy it, and how to defend and protect its citizens against the war of terror. The simple proof that Israel is not another South Africa and is not a country with "Bantustans" is that a number of times again and again, Israel tries to cut a deal quickly: Take as much territory as you can, take control of all the people, but give us security. And we never can get it. I think the reason is simple. It's not because Palestinians want to kill all the Jews, but because the leaders of Palestinians, corrupt dictators, want to use this hatred toward Jews in order to control their own people. That's why I believe that our main challenge is to encourage the process in which there will emerge leaders who are interested for their own survival to improve the life of their people and not to kill us; who will be interested to take their people from refugee camps and not to keep them in refugee camps, who will be interested to make sure that their people have jobs, and not to use their unemployment as a way to mobilize their anger against us, who will be interested to give them a good education in science, and not to teach them to be suicide bombers because that is the way for dictators to survive. That is our challenge.

Why doesn't the world understand? There is utter confusion today in the world about what human rights are, and anti-Semites are using it. The fact that there is such a double standard towards Israel is another form of modern anti-Semitism. Jews were treated in the world for thousands of years with a double standard. It was written laws of many countries. Today it's impossible, but you can see how in the international community the Jewish state is treated with different laws.

The fact that Israel is condemned by the Committee on Human Rights in the United Nations more times than all dictators in the world together, and the Committee on Human Rights was until recently led by Libya. That itself shows the cynicism of the use of this term "human rights," and that there must be a very different standard which is used towards Israel than towards all these dictators. Or that Israel is the only country condemned by the Geneva Convention about treating prisoners of war -- a very important convention, and we had awful examples in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Balkans, all over the world. And in fifty years, the only country which was condemned is Israel. It shows that there must be different laws.

That's why, I think the way out of this is, for the sake of the world, not only for the sake of Jews, is to go back to basics: What are human rights? How [do we] build on the basis of support of human rights, how [do we] build stability for different peoples to have their own states, to have their own life which is not threatening to others? I repeat it and I say it many times on campuses: You cannot be a real defender of equality of women and demonstrate and support regimes which are killing hundreds of women by honor killings, or support them to escape honor killings through suicide bombing. You cannot be supportive of the rights of gays and support regimes which are killing gays. So we have to go back to basics, and to remind people what human rights means, and what is the connection between human rights, individual rights, the democratic society, and stability of the world.

One final question, and that is this: How should Jews in the Diaspora move beyond just supporting Israel, and think about alternative Israeli policies? Do they have anything to contribute with regard to the debate within Israel about foreign policy and relations with the world? When you read Israeli papers, the diversity of the debate, the excitement of the democracy is clear in every line. But should this be a part of the way Jews in the Diaspora look at Israel?

Frankly, I always see the Jewish world as one, those who are living in Israel and those who are not yet living in Israel. It's parts of the same body of people who left Egypt 3000 years ago, and they are on their way to the land of Israel. That's why I believe that the Israeli government should be very closely involved in the problems of the Jews of the Diaspora. In fact, on my initiative was created a special government committee on the relations with the Diaspora, and I'm chairman all these years. That's why I believe that the struggle of Jews of Diaspora against anti-Semitism, and the struggle over Israel against double standard towards Israel, in fact, has to be one struggle, and there has to be much more coordination. And that's why I believe that Jews of the Diaspora have the same right, and I would say the same obligation, to be involved in the dialogue about the ways of building a Jewish democratic state, as the Jews who live in Israel.

As long as you're keeping clear lines between legitimate criticism of Israel, and anti-Semitism -- and for me, the square line is not using the demonization of Israel, not using a double standard against Israel, or a denial of the legitimatism of Israel -- as long as you're keeping the square line and demand from the others, you can criticize Israel as much as you want. We all will only benefit from this.

Mr. Sharansky, thank you very much for coming to the Berkeley campus, and being a guest on our program. Thank you very much. And thank you for this wonderful book, and your great deeds.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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