Counterpoint: Calling on the old Natan Sharansky

He has been strangely silent despite considerable human rights violations in Israel and the territories.

david forman 88 (photo credit: )
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
The definition of the Peter Principle is that "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." Sadly, this is the case in much of official Israeli society. Government ministers are appointed to positions of power not based on their level of expertise in the particular field for which they are responsible, but because of political payoffs or coalition wheeling and dealing. How else could anyone explain Amir Peretz having been appointed defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman foreign minister or Yuval Steinitz finance minister? Then there are Shlomo Benizri, Aryeh Deri and Avraham Hirchson, our convicted ministers. Who can forget sexual lepers Haim Ramon and Yitzhak Mordechai and the alleged rapist Moshe Katsav? Of course, there are our bigots, like Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. Upon meeting with the police, one plainclothes officer apologized for his disheveled appearance, to which Aharonovitch replied: "What do you mean, dirty? You look like a real Araboush." Even though the minister apologized for using this derogatory reference - likened to someone calling a Jew a kike - he retains his position of authority, sadly without a word of condemnation from our prime minister. IT IS THAT same prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who forced Natan Sharansky upon the Jewish Agency as its new chairman (who also had nothing negative to say about Aharonovitch's comments). One would think that this champion of human rights would be the ideal choice for such a lofty position. Given his international reputation as one of the greatest freedom fighters of all time, Sharansky should be perfectly positioned to bridge a growing Diaspora-Israel divide. He is not a sexual leper or a convicted criminal (and is most likely not prejudiced). He certainly should know something about Israel and the Diaspora world, having already held the position of minister for Diaspora affairs from 2003-2005. Finally, we have a high-profile appointment that makes sense. Well - not quite. Since moving here, Sharansky has led a political party into oblivion. He has occupied one government ministry after another, never succeeding at any of them. He has resigned from the Knesset on two occasions, and switched party affiliation to suit expedient needs more than ideological principles. In short, his tenure in the public arena has been an abysmal disappointment. And yet, true to the Israeli way of political functioning, the faithful servant, no matter his ineptitude, is rewarded with prestigious government or quasi-government portfolios that, if history is our guide, will guarantee more failure. Natan Sharansky was a symbol for human rights activists throughout the world. His heroism in standing up to the Soviet empire, so poignantly captured in his autobiography Fear No Evil, set in motion the Soviet Jewry freedom movement that galvanized Jews and non-Jews throughout the world. Sharansky refused to parochialize his struggle by turning it into an exclusively Jewish cause. Rather, he, along with Andrei Sakharov, addressed human rights as a universal issue, forming the Helsinki Human Rights Watch Committee. Sharansky became one of the most admired men in the world. When he was ultimately freed and came here, it was one of the seminal experiences that ordinary people around the globe will never forget. NOT WISHING to be identified as a religious or secular Jew, he wore his ever-present green army fatigue cap. This mode of head covering also seemed intended to purposely cloud his political views. Was he imitating Fidel Castro, expressing a socialist ideology, or sarcastically thumbing his nose at communism? Sharansky could not be pigeonholed. But the question that most of us asked and hoped would be answered positively was: Will this once-great democrat continue to be the moral spokesman for all those who suffer civil liberties deprivations? If yes, then he most certainly would be the most qualified of Israeli personalities to occupy the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency. Sadly, however, the legendary work that he did on his route to freedom ceased once he secured his own freedom. Since his arrival here, Sharansky has shown himself to be little more than an "apparatchik," a sort of political hack who has remained strangely silent despite considerable human rights violations in Israel and the territories - social, political and religious. More so, in competition with the ideological bigotry of his former countryman, Avigdor Lieberman, Sharansky has moved to the fringes of the political Right. He opposed the Wye Plantation Agreement, at which he participated, the disengagement from Gaza, and the demolition of illegal settlements, but he was always gung-ho about bulldozing Palestinians' homes in east Jerusalem when he was a deputy minister for Jerusalem affairs. His political leanings are far less problematic than his contrary stance on matters of human rights. He has not said a word about the draconian anti-democratic measures that are being bandied about under the guise of a "loyalty oath." One would expect that he would be the first person to shout to the rafters in protest against these Soviet-like edicts that he once fought. One of the most sensitive issues for Diaspora Jews is the lack of official legitimacy accorded to non-Orthodox religious movements in Israel. Does not the institutionalized discrimination against non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism constitute a violation of basic religious rights? The new titular head of the Jewish people has said nothing on this issue that is so critical to Diaspora Jews. THEN AGAIN, since his arrival here, impelled by the champions of liberty throughout the world, Sharansky's continued silence on virtually any issue of human rights violations, be they against non-Orthodox religious Jews, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, Ethiopians, immigrant workers, women caught in the "slave trade," the poor, the disabled or the single parent, has been deafening. Further, he has had nothing to say about the ongoing violence against Palestinians by religious settlers, or the vicious physical attacks by the haredi community against the police. Even the criminal behavior of too many of our political leaders has not witnessed Sharansky utter a word of dismay. The board members of the Jewish Agency have come and gone a little more than a month ago. Despite its unwieldy bureaucracy, the Jewish Agency does incredibly positive work for the Jewish people. To streamline that work and to make that body more efficient and effective, it needs a leader who is innovative and administratively capable. Most important, it needs to be guided by a person of moral stature. One can only hope that Sharansky, now being forced to act upon the international Jewish stage, will rise to the occasion, that his courage in facing up to an oppressive Soviet regime will serve as a revived symbol of his former self - a person of principle and deeds, of conscience and activism, of integrity and fair play. The Jewish people deserve and need the Sharansky of old.