Sharansky gets rock star treatment on trip to Hungary

Agency head turns down Beijing deal for his book, refuses request to excise China from list of nations where freedom is curtailed.

Sharansky 311 (photo credit: Andrs Kovacs)
Sharansky 311
(photo credit: Andrs Kovacs)
BUDAPEST – It was the sort of reception you would expect a rock star to receive, not the author of a book on political theory.
But when Natan Sharansky – whose 2004 manifesto The Case for Democracy was published in Hungarian this week – walked into a lecture hall packed with about 1,000 pro-Israel evangelicals on Wednesday, they gave the former Soviet dissident and current chairman of the Jewish Agency a round of applause so loud they almost brought the house down.
The famously diminutive Russian- born Jewish leader stood waiting on stage for several minutes before the well-groomed, clean-shaven members of the Pentecostal Faith Church settled down to listen to him speak of his battles with the Politburo for the right to make aliya.
Hundreds of admirers who couldn’t get into the main room gathered in an adjacent hall where his speech was being televised live on a big screen.
“Some of you my age remember the double talk of Communism,” Sharansky said, striking a chord with the older members of the audience, who grew up in a country which was firmly under the Soviet sphere of influence.
“I remember the day I became aware of it. My father told me Stalin is dead; it’s a joyous day for Jews. But he said that at school I must do what everybody else does. So I cried for Stalin and I sang songs for him, just like everyone else.”
On Thursday Sharansky and his entourage were received by Hungarian President Pal Schmitt at his palace overlooking the Danube for a brief breakfast meeting and photo-op.
The emphatic welcome the Jewish Agency head has received in Hungary on his two-day visit to promote his book and open an Israeli cultural center is rare for an Israeli personality.
It illustrates how much he is internationally respected – especially in right-wing or neo-conservative circles.
The Case for Democracy has so far sold over 150,000 copies worldwide and was famously endorsed by US president George W. Bush.
In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, Sharansky said he recently turned down a lucrative offer to have his book translated into Chinese because of the publisher’s demand he remove China from a list of countries he mentions where freedoms are curtailed.
“There were two references to China and they wanted to take them out,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, it doesn’t damage the content but it damages the idea of freedom of speech.’” Asked if he had another book in the pipeline, Sharansky said his top priority at the moment was the Jewish Agency. Under his leadership the 81-year-old Zionist group, which some say has outlived its usefulness, has recalibrated its mission from focusing mostly on aliya to promoting Jewish identity around the world.
But Sharansky hinted that he might have an idea for a future book based on his current work.
“All my books are written on my experiences. So being Jewish Agency head and meeting Jews around the world, I have a lot of material,” he said.