Long-time Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky has spent almost all his life fighting antisemitism in various capacities, but sadly, he believes this a fight that can never be won.
“It can be lost in a big way, like the Holocaust... but it’s a permanent fight,” the famed Soviet refusenik told The Jerusalem Post during an interview at his Jerusalem office on Tuesday.
Sharansky has been monitoring antisemitism since his days as a Soviet dissident, all the way to the Knesset, where as a minister he took on the same duty, among many others, and in the past eight years as head of the Jewish Agency.
In recent months, all eyes have been on the US, where a wave of antisemitic incidents of various kinds has swept the country since the beginning of the year. Dozens of Jewish community centers as well as Anti-Defamation League offices have received bomb threats, but on Thursday, a surprising development was announced: The Israel Police revealed that an 18-year-old dual US-Israeli citizen had been arrested on suspicion of standing behind most of those bomb threats.
In addition to the threats, several Jewish cemeteries have been defaced in recent months, antisemitic pamphlets have been distributed across college campuses and swastikas have been daubed on front doors or scrawled across subway walls. This follows an election campaign blackened by the unleashing of virulent white supremacism, which emerged with the rise of the alt-right and featured verbal attacks on Jewish journalists as well as classic antisemitic tropes and symbols resurfacing, predominantly online.
The Trump effect
Many have pointed their fingers at US President Donald Trump, accusing him and those around him of creating an environment that emboldens antisemites along with other types of racists.
But Sharansky categorically disagrees with such associations.
“The fact that this politician appeared is definitely the result of an historical process and antisemitism is part of this process, but you have to look at it much more broadly,” Sharansky says, calling it “laughable” to accuse Trump of causing antisemitism “because he did or didn’t say something about the Holocaust, for instance.”
Trump made waves on International Holocaust Remembrance Day with an official statement which failed to mention the Jews. The White House defended its statement, saying it was inclusive of all those killed in the Holocaust.
“To think that’s what defines this very deep process is ridiculous,” Sharansky told the Post, reiterating a statement he made earlier in the month that “you cannot make ties between a process so profound, long-term and historically significant, such as the return of antisemitism, and the political expression of one politician or another.”Globalism vs nationalism
For Sharansky, the contemporary conversation about Israel and the Diaspora always comes back to the universal struggle between globalism and nationalism.
“For two generations, there was globalism and modernism – and no doubt there were a lot of good things with it,” he says, pointing to the establishment of human rights as international law. In 1948, from the ashes of the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Jewish activists used this linkage between international law and human rights a lot,” he continues.
“So many barriers, prejudices against nations and religions and identities were brought down.”
But then, he says, when the idea of a nation-state became unpopular, Western intellectuals began to view the Jewish state as a “remnant of a colonial past.” Israel’s enemies, he added, took advantage of the trend to delegitimize Israel and “that’s how these new alliances in Europe and later in America were built.
“Globalization brought some very positive things for the world and for the Jews – it helped with their smooth integration – but it also brought big challenges for Israel,” he says. “It’s clear there must be some balance between globalism and nationalism. Pure globalism without nationalism would fail and pure nationalism without globalism failed long ago.” The Jews, he said, have excelled at protecting both their identity and freedom, with 2,000 years of practice in the Diaspora.
When globalization loses balance, the scale tips against national identity.
“At some point, Europe started feeling it... and as a result we have a situation today in Europe where more and more people feel that their civilization is in danger and they have to go back to their national identities,” Sharansky says, pointing to Brexit, the rise of France’s farright presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and the election of Trump in the US.
While the US reaped great benefits from globalization in recent times, he says, its citizens have also started to feel its negative effects. “There is counteraction, national forces come to surface,” he continues, stating that Trump’s victory was a sign of a loss of confidence among Americans in their national identity.
“We are at a stage where many people realize some nationalism is positive... but there should be clear limits where the positive tide of nationalism ends and the negative one begins,” he clarifies, stressing that one should not have to choose between nationalism and globalism.
Asked about his thoughts on Jewish support of Le Pen, Sharansky responds: “If you think that everything against Muslims is good for the Jews, you will very quickly become something much more tough than Le Pen. What is good for Jews is liberal society in which they can live as Jews – which doesn’t undermine or threaten their opportunities to live in accordance to their national identity – but also should not undermine the rights of others to do so.
“Because France has gone so far in removing all barriers protecting them as Jewish communities, it’s clear they feel uncomfortable in all parts of France.... under all possible leaders,” Sharansky opines. A core principle of the French constitution is Laïcité (secularism), and the government has banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public institutions.
Left versus Right In their most polarized forms, Sharansky says, those who champion globalism tend to shun Israel while they embrace liberal Jews, while those who adhere to nationalism side with Israel but eschew liberal Jews. Sharansky mentions Palestinian- American BDS activist Linda Sarsour as an example of the former.
Sarsour raised $56,000 to help repair a Jewish cemetery in the St. Louis area that was defaced last month.
On the other side of the spectrum, one could find alt-right members who ardently support Israel and simultaneously excoriate liberal American Jews.
Sharansky warns that this is a dangerous trajectory, which Jews on all sides must refrain from being partners to.
“Suddenly you hear voices saying that if you are for human rights you must also be against Israel.... that if you are a real liberal who believes in the free open world you have to fight this ‘colonial remnant,’ the Israeli state, or you are with them,” he says.
“But now we hear opposite voices that Israel is great, because it is a national state standing against the wave of Islamists.... but that liberal Jews are a problem,” he continues.
“If we will simply permit ourselves to continue this process of polarization between hatred toward Jews and hatred toward Israel, that’s an opportunity for our enemies – but it’s also a great opportunity for us.
“I am not young a man so I can’t influence the young generation,” says the 69-year-old veteran activist.
In order to fight the battle against antisemitism effectively, Sharansky says it is essential that the predominantly left-leaning Jews who inhabit US campuses must understand the danger of the attacks on Israel they are confronted with. Meanwhile, he says, the proud Republicans among American Jews must fight antisemitism on the Right.
“It is our obligation to separate these two struggles – debate between the Left and Right will continue and it’s important, but it has to have nothing to do with giving any legitimacy to the fight against Jews and the fight against the Jewish state.
That’s where there is a lot of confusion, but now it is much more clear... now we see two parts of the same problem of division between new and old antisemitism.”New antisemitism
In 2003, Sharansky declared college campuses the main battlefield for antisemitism – for new antisemitism, specifically, a term used to describe antisemitism disguised as criticism of Israel.
“It was all about the delegitimization of Israel and suddenly extreme Muslim elements were allying with the Left,” he recalls. “That was and is a very challenging moment for liberal Jews in America,” he said, explaining that these elements throw their weight behind liberal Jews and their principles and then apply them to demonize Israel.
It was around that time that Sharansky coined his “3Ds” formula for distinguishing legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism. The three Ds stand for demonization, double standards and delegitimization.
Some 13 years on, Sharansky’s antisemitism test hasn’t changed.
“If you look at a 3D film without spectacles, you won’t understand the situation if you’re not using these principles – not using spectacles – you can’t understand the situation,” Sharansky explains.
Now, he says, is an opportune moment to see both parts of the struggle. “We have to convince both the liberals and the conservatives not to be blind,” he says.
“We have to work from both directions.
It’s very important to understand that antisemitism and new antisemitism are connected,” he said hammering home that the fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism must not become a struggle between the Left and Right.
“Liberal Jews have to fight the so-called ‘allies of liberalism,’ antisemites who are using slogans of human rights against Israel, and right-wing Jews have to fight those who look like their allies but explain all the time that Israel is good... but try to mobilize them against liberal Jews.”
“We have to explain to right-wingers not to be so happy that people say Israel is great but liberal Jews are bad. Don’t dare turn them into your allies, don’t repeat the mistakes of those on the Left who turned enemies of Israel into their allies.”
Sharansky sees no conflict between one’s political views and their ability to fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
“I had to defend Israel against some very pro-Palestinian forces at the time of [the] Oslo [Accords] and I was very much against Oslo,” he says, comparing his situation in the 1990s as a right-wing Jew defending an Israel governed by the Left, to today’s liberal Jews defending Israel under the current right-wing coalition.
He adds that he was also strongly against Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, over which he resigned from the government in 2003, “but that didn’t stop me fighting day and night against anti-Israel forces.”A wave of US aliya?
Earlier this month, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to of immigration to Israel from the US, due to the ongoing incidents of antisemitism there.
But Sharansky sees no such flood of immigration on the horizon, and while his work is dedicated to aliya, is he a firm believer in the carrot, rather than the stick.
“Antisemitism can make them choose to leave, but the only reason they would come to Israel is if they think that could have a meaningful, free life here – and that’s what we have to continue strengthening and that that’s what can bring a serious increase in aliya,” says Sharansky, adding that if these pull factors don’t exist, US Jews are more likely to choose a country such as Canada to move to.
He opines that antisemitism in the US has not reached a level that would drive large numbers of Jewish citizens from their homes, “but if they do, for them to choose Israel, a lot has to be done on our side. Those who come to Israel as a shelter, they look very quickly for a better shelter. I don’t want Israel to be seen as a shelter from antisemitism,” he emphasizes.