Will the real Sharansky please stand up?

The man of deeds was Anatoly, while the man of words is Natan.

natan sharansky 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
natan sharansky 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Since Sharansky announced his retirement from politics, abundant praise has been lavished upon him. Indeed, in some quarters his name has been put forth as a candidate to become Israel's next president. Not only has he merited kudos within Israel, but he has also been singled out for praise by US President George W. Bush, who cited his book The Case for Democracy as an important contribution for promoting democratic change throughout the world. Interestingly, Sharansky has derided Israel for not joining forces with the US policy of demanding democratization as the cornerstone of the pursuit of peace and security. For example, he believes that Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza was a clear indication of this failure - because Israel did not demand, as a precondition for the withdrawal, the democratic reform of the Palestinian Authority, which would include the protection of human rights. As one who suffered under the totalitarian regime of the former Soviet Union, he certainly must know what he is talking about. One should judge a person by what he does, not by what he says. There is no better example of a man of action than Sharansky. But sadly, that man of deeds was Anatoly Sharansky, while the man of words is Natan Sharansky. Would the real Mr. Sharansky please stand up? From his jail cell in Russia, Anatoly led one of one of the most powerful international human rights movements in recent history - the struggle to free Soviet Jews. The efforts to free him were not based on the support of the national aspirations of a particular Jew, but rather upon the universal application of human rights, as Anatoly, together with Andrei Sakharov, formed the Helsinki Human Rights Watch Committee. His arrival in Israel symbolized a victory of the weak over the strong. Jewish history repeated itself. Little David once again overwhelmed the mighty Goliath. A few years later, when Anatoly assumed the exalted post of cabinet minister responsible for Jerusalem affairs and for Diaspora-Israel relations, there was great hope. But now, I would like to ask Anatoly some questions: When a Palestinian home in Beit Hanina in east Jerusalem was destroyed prior to a hearing in the courts as mandated by law, why did you, as the responsible minister, remain silent, as was the case with all other administratively demolished homes of Palestinians? Is this not an obvious violation of one's human and judicial rights, two linchpins of the case for democracy you so energetically advocate? If I asked Anatoly, the answer would have been: "Absolutely." But for you, Natan, the answer was, and is, obviously: "No!" Let's not confine our discussion to Palestinian rights. There is one stream of Judaism that is officially acknowledged in Israel - Orthodoxy. Now, I ask you, Anatoly: Does not the institutionalized discrimination against non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism in Israel constitute a violation of basic religious rights? Anatoly Sharansky would have replied: "Absolutely." But for you, Natan Sharansky, the answer again is: "No!" As Anatoly, you opposed Communism, which fed a perverted form of nationalism that jailed anyone who challenged the Soviet state. In present-day Israel, democracy is being challenged by an exaggerated nationalism, propelled by a chauvinistic theology. Here, the threat to democracy takes the form of religious extremism. Such a distorted brand of Judaism rarely jails people, but it does murder a prime minister, and may one day lead to a civil war. Mr. Sharansky: Where is your opposition to this fusion of religion and nationalism, which has become Israel's metaphoric combination of Marxism and xenophobia? Anatoly would be leading the masses against such a perversion of Judaism, but not you, Natan. The Russian Jewry freedom movement that you, Mr. Sharansky so bravely led should have taught us (and you) an important lesson: Our suffering as Jews under the Soviet state should sensitize us to the suffering of others. Since your arrival in Israel, impelled by the champions of liberty throughout the world, your silence on virtually any issue of human rights as they affect Palestinians, non-Orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs, Ethiopians, immigrant workers, women caught in Israel's "slave trade," the poor, the disabled, the single parent is deafening. Your preoccupation with security concerns finds you ignoring pressing socioeconomic issues. The manner in which a country tends to the needs of the weaker elements in its society also tests its commitment to human rights and democracy, which you claim are so dear to you. Mr. Sharansky, your name recognition is virtually unmatched by any Jewish leader. You may have lost some of your hero status in Israel, but you are still regarded throughout the world, and certainly within the Diaspora Jewish community, as a person of moral authority. One would expect you to exercise that authority by engaging in human rights issues once again. But, alas, even though you are now free of the restraints of political horse-trading, this does not seem to be the case. Sadly, Anatoly Sharansky, whose courage in facing up to an oppressive Soviet regime served as a symbol for human rights activists throughout the world, has turned into Natan Sharansky, a parody of his former self. Israel and the Jewish people need the Anatoly Sharansky of principle and deeds, not the Natan Sharansky of parochial and empty rhetoric.