Natan Sharansky is currently Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs and responsible for his nation’s relations with and the effects of anti-Semitism on Jews worldwide. Under the old totalitarian system in the former USSR, a country which always had a history of anti-Semitism, Sharansky became a prominent ‘refusenik’ in 1973 when he applied for an exit visa to go to Israel but was refused on “security grounds.” He spoke out against Jewish persecution in the USSR until his arrest in 1977. A year later, he was convicted of “treason and spying for the United States.” Sentenced to 13 years in prison, he served his first 16 months almost exclusively in solitary confinement or in a special “torture cell” until he was transferred to a Siberian gulag.
He endured his prison tortures by considering himself free in spirit and by recognizing his Jewish roots. He described his ordeal and spiritual rise in his book, “Fear No Evil.” Quietly persevering as a symbol of human rights in the West, he was finally released in a 1986 prisoner exchange between the Western and Eastern powers through the efforts of his wife and the world’s Jewish community. He went to Israel where he worked to aid other dissidents like himself and help his fellow émigrés from the Soviet Jewish community. He later created a political party in Israel to assist his fellow Russian Jews in their transition into Israeli society. Elected to Israel’s parliament a year later, he went on to serve respectively as Israel’s Minister of Industry and Trade, as Minister of the Interior and Minister of Housing and Construction.
When I first met Minister Sharansky, I was surprised at his diminutive size and soft-spoken manner; I had expected a big, burly man who would stand up to totalitarian brutes. Instead, I found a highly intelligent, mild-mannered man who deals day-in and day-out with an issue that is currently rocking the entire world during the ‘War on Terror.’ And as the Minister of Diaspora Affairs for Israel, he is visiting campuses in the United States to assess the degree of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments that are becoming more and more pervasive in our educational system.
KAPLAN: “Minister Sharansky, as the Minister for Diaspora Affairs, are you aware of the level of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activities flourishing on American college campuses?”
SHARANSKY: “Of course I am aware. I am responsible for combating anti-Semitism. I am aware, in fact, on each campus in America. I just went to 14 campuses on the East Coast and I prepared a special report for the Israeli government. I knew how bad the situation was, the depth of it and how many Jewish students are paralyzed by this campaign; the battle for what kind of generation of Jews there will be: a proud generation of Jews or Jews of Silence – indifferent because they are scared, or not being involved because they want to be ‘politically correct.’ Then, Prime Minister Sharon supported me and proposed the other ministers coordinate efforts in many different ways. They are coordinating their efforts with Jewish organizations that are up already and coordinating efforts like Caravan for Democracy, Hillel and AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee).
“Together we are trying to be sure that on every campus there will be a nucleus, a critical mass that will be able to stand up and be counted to defend Israel. One of the things we did after this was form the first World Congress of Jewish Activists from campuses all over the world who came to Jerusalem. We are coordinating a “hasbara” (public relations campaign) for Jews who are coming to Israel for one year, for a half a year or even three months. Yeshiva University has a special course on how to defend Israel and how to debate. We work with Jewish organizations across America to prepare programs for high schools in order to prepare. We are aware of the problem and know it is one of the most crucial battles, definitely the battle where Israel can help shape things – but it is American Jews who have to lead and win this battle.”
KAPLAN: “Are you aware the pro-Palestinian forces on U.S. campuses have been targeting Jews with similar disinformation to try to seek their support in advocating the dismantling of Israel as the only condition for ‘peace’?”
SHARANSKY: “Well, I can tell you I’ve appeared on almost 20 campuses in America. On every campus I could find one or two Jews who would say, ‘Who needs a Jewish state? The fact is it’s much better to have one democratic Jewish-Arab state.’ I said, ‘Why not start from one democratic Arab state and from that we can make an alliance.’
For them, it’s a problem, their own identity they want to escape. It’s a very important phenomenon. I don’t want to say it’s just a Jewish phenomenon, but I wouldn’t make too much of it. My estimation was that in the past, some Jewish commissions disagreed with this. Ten percent of the Jews on campus are active, Proud Jews – one percent self-hating, like the one who gave me a nice taste of cake at Rutgers (he refers to Abe Greenhouse, a pro-Palestinian activist who smashed a pie in Minister Sharansky’s face). There is the potential the rest can become Jews of Silence, indifferent. These types of people would like to be connected to something politically. One fellow told me that ‘As a Jewish activist I was hated on campus. Now I am an environmental activist, work with the ecological Green Movement, now everyone loves me.’ So why not be loved; why be hated? That is my major concern. These people have to be our main target. As for these self-hating Jews, of course, our enemies are using very actively. ‘I’m not anti-Semitic, look what a Jew is saying.’ Sometimes it helps to mobilize the silent majority of scared, indifferent or discouraged Jews. It’s the silent, scared, indifferent Jews that we are addressing.”
KAPLAN: “As a government official, you rub elbows with high-level Jewish organizations such as AIPAC. Have you had much contact with smaller, grassroots pro-Israel organizations?”
SHARANSKY: “Of course I have. There are many Jewish organizations – a chance for every Jew to be the chairman of one or two organizations. We still have more Jews than organizations. The small Soviet Jewry Movement started small and showed me the way to relate to the Jewish struggle, like on the Columbia campus in 1964 that changed the world agenda (where Americans mobilized to free Jewish dissidents in Russia). I always use that as an example to show Jewish power. These different organizations may be big or small, but all are fighting. I’m working with AIPAC, Hillel of course, and Caravan for Democracy, Friends of Likud (Israel’s conservative political party), as well as other supporters of the Likud Movement.”
KAPLAN: “Have you heard about the case of Tatiana Menaker, a former Soviet ‘refusenik,’ who was going to be expelled as a student from San Francisco State University because of her speaking out against bias there?”
SHARANSKY: “Yes, I have heard of her.”
KAPLAN: “Actually, Front Page Magazine and Students for Academic Freedom started the campaign to get her reinstated on the campus and succeeded.”
SHARANSKY: “Yes, I met with her. She participated in some of the meetings on the campus with the faculty so she could raise the issue that some Jews are afraid to go on the record (as supporting Israel or against anti-Semitism) because they are discouraged or afraid about their grades or academic careers. It was very good she challenged the faculty....”
KAPLAN: “Israel is sometimes characterized as an “apartheidist, colonial state” by the pro-Palestinian forces on campuses. How are you dealing with that?”
SHARANSKY: “Well, I come to campus not to speak on the ‘War on Terror.’ I come to speak on human rights. I have some credentials, based on where I come from. Some would say, ‘It’s a huge contradiction. It’s chutzpah (gall) for a ‘Minister of War Criminals’ to come and speak out about human rights.’ But I can tell you, Israel is the biggest champion of human rights in the Middle East and maybe the world. And I can show them how those with all their demonstrations for human rights or freedom of speech, for the rights of women, for sexual minorities the rights of gays embrace Israel as the champion of human rights in all the Middle East and they have to demonstrate every day the Palestine Authority instead because it is one of the most awful, greatest violators of human rights. It has “honor killings” of women (killing women who lose their virginity out of wedlock or commit adultery). Usually women have to choose to be suicide bombers. Sheik Yassin encouraged women to be used as suicide bombers; the fate of gays in the Palestine Authority. Nothing compares with the unique tolerance of Israeli society. The international society of gays finds Israel the most open society for all this. And of course, freedom of speech. I say, ‘How can you demonstrate for these rights and be for them and be for Arafat?’
“Like today at the San Francisco State campus. One student said, ‘I have freedom to refuse.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s fight for your freedom. I believe you deserve to live in freedom no less than Jews or Americans. Let’s discuss it.’ I can’t say I convince Palestinian activists, I definitely gave arguments and points to aid Jews and their country and for the people who we must reach – and that’s the most important thing.”
KAPLAN: “How can the man-in-the-street, Jewish or non-Jewish, help Israel?”
SHARANSKY: “Well, as an ambassador, I am hearing all the time how weak Israel is because of all the propaganda. We have a big problem with our own public relations and we have to improve it. I hear ‘We have to increase our budget, and increase propaganda....’
“Well, our problem is bigger than this. We are in an era of pictures and TV. Boys throwing stones at tanks. People who have no depth of the subject, no history, no knowledge. In fact, journalists are coming to the Middle East with no history, no memory, no logic to what is going on. They don’t know 1948 (when Israel, just founded by the United Nations, was attacked by five Arab armies to “drive the Jews into the sea.”) from 1967 (the Six Day War), etc. They think Israel began the day they came to the Middle East. Sometimes they get a phone call to come in three hours – there will be stone throwing at such a point in Ramallah. They go there and wait and cover the stone throwing. At the same time, Israel puts up with the aftermath of the bus bombings, the terror and the blood is awful, the flesh on the walls – and our rabbis are against such pictures. So you cannot really win in this war of pictures.
“But we Jews are strong on history and being logical and believing in moral principles, so it’s very important every Jew should choose himself or herself as an ambassador of his people and of his country.”
KAPLAN: “Do you see U.S. support for Israel diminishing?”
SHARANSKY: “No. But it’s interesting. What is happening on the campuses is an absolute contradiction with American reality. I think, overwhelmingly, Americans are big sympathizers with Israel. American politicians are by far sympathizers with Israel; Christian evangelists are for Israel – and I think the reason is very simple: I think this is because democracy is the foundation of American society. Israel’s democracy is built on the same moral principles for which Americans strive to build their own society. And it’s an absolute contradiction what’s happening on the campuses. It’s an attempt to undermine the very principles on which that society is built.
“I wouldn’t say it about Europe, because Europe doesn’t have such basic societal support and is very different. In Europe, the idea to appease dictators and terrorists is not very strong. Each time when Americans are blamed for something, Israel gets blamed. Movements against pollution, against globalization, against wars and so on. Israel and America are on the same level. I would say even more so for America. The nature of anti-Semitism is very similar to but more like anti-Americanism. I wouldn’t worry about relations between America and Israel. I wouldn’t worry about the insults. I wouldn’t worry about the influence that could materialize, the atmosphere surrounding any potential Jewish leader.”
KAPLAN: “But on our campuses now you have the next generation propagandized and misinformed about Israel by a consistent and relentless movement. The recent Luntz report characterized some students, who may be tomorrow’s leaders, as unaware that Israel is a democracy and the Palestine Authority is a dictatorship. These will be tomorrow’s leaders.”
SHARANSKY: “That’s what I am saying. It’s very important to change the atmosphere on campus. We are working not only to give Jews a reason to be Proud Jews, but how also to give attention to those who are concerned about freedom in general and academic freedom – an independence of intellectual thought in America. The fact that not in the Soviet Union, but in America, we hear that students are afraid to speak out or persecuted. At Harvard, and many other schools, they are afraid to take a public position in defense of Israel or even America because they feel it can hurt their grades or academic career. On the campus at San Francisco State, Americans complain professors are teaching courses that have nothing to do with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, inserting their views. They are using their political views as a part of their academic course and some students are protesting they are afraid to go to the newspaper or the administration. They are afraid to do this. This should be of major concern not only to Jews but to all those who are afraid academic freedom can be undermined.”
KAPLAN: “Front Page has been at the forefront of academic freedom on U.S. campuses. We mentioned Students for Academic Freedom earlier. Chapters are starting up on campuses all over the country.”
SHARANSKY: “This is good.”
KAPLAN: “One last question: What do you think of Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the Katif Farms region?”
SHARANSKY: “You mean the Gush Katif settlement. Look, I’m against this. I was against President Bush’s letter before and after. President Bush’s letter was very good; it could help us in the final stages of negotiations about the final settlement and during the final stages of negotiations with the Palestinians. But what will really happen in this year if it goes ahead? There will be a relocation of 21 Jewish settlements of Jews; three generations of Jews living there that will cause a serious split within Israeli society and a perfect encouragement for terror. If it was the final steps for making peace with all the pain, the drama, I would accept it – but it’s not. It’s the ‘Middle of the War Against Terror’ and to give such a unique prize to terror for the first time in history is a mistake.
“We are evacuating Jewish settlements under fire and there is no other encouragement for terror than success. And it will be viewed as a success. It will be disengaging us from the Palestinians, but to think it will stop the world from pressuring us and demanding us to stop Palestinian suffering is naive. The world will not stop pressuring us as long as the Palestinians will be in refugee camps – such a miserable station. And to change it, you must have different leadership – leadership interested in improving rather than destroying their lives. I agree with this.
“The status quo is not weighing in our hands. But to change the status quo doesn’t mean to give more territory and give in to terror. It means to change regimes. Unfortunately, we are only just now in a time when America came to the conclusion, American leaders, that you should not accept the status quo of dictators – we should undermine their power. We are going in the other direction. We are saying ‘Let’s leave them alone and give more concessions to them.’ That’s why I am against this....”
To Read Part II of this interview in the May 4, 2004 edition, Click Here.