Since the late 1970s and 1980s, when he became internationally known as a Soviet Refusenik imprisoned on charges of treason and espionage, before becoming the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev, Sharansky has been a symbol of perseverance and unity of the Jewish people. After his release in 1986 — and immediate immigration to Israel — Sharansky launched a career in the Knesset, as the deputy prime minister and minister of Internal Affairs, among other roles. He is a human rights activist and writer: his 2005 book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” met widespread acclaim and made adherents of President Bush’s cabinet.
Today, Sharansky serves as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. On May 24, he will visit Pittsburgh to address the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s King David Society and Pacesetters at Rodef Shalom Congregation at 7 p.m.
In an exclusive interview, Sharansky spoke with The Chronicle about the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how his life was changed by his years imprisoned.
The Jewish Chronicle: We’ve seen uprisings in several Arab countries this year, where, hopefully, people-led revolutions will lead to democracy. What’s stopping the same thing from happening with the Palestinians?
Natan Sharansky: People don't want to live anymore under dictatorships. They are ready to risk their lives to finish with this life of dictatorships. The pact between the free world and the dictators is broken now. Historically, it was inevitable. We need to see now if the free world will be smart enough to encourage the democratic elements in Arab society and turn them into their allies, or sit on their hands and wait until the Muslim Brotherhood and militaries will take control.
As for the Palestinians, people want to say their struggle against Israel is the same struggle of these people against the regime of [Hosni] Mubarak or [Bashar al-] Assad. It’s not the same. Palestinians did suffer from dictatorship — that of Yasser Arafat. Hamas, a bunch of terrorists who want to kill all the Jews, came to power because the Palestinians were left with a bad choice after Arafat. The process happening with Palestinians is they don’t know how to stop suffering.
JC: The hope, of course, is that democracy comes to these ‘Arab Spring’ nations. Is there a fear that instead, more extremism will rise?
NS: When we speak of the dictators, understand that the free world was stuck with the thought that Mubarak was our ally; Assad was a reformer; Yasser Arafat was good because he would defeat Hamas. But, inevitably, those dicta- tors worked against the free world.
There’s the chance that Muslim Brotherhood will come to power in Egypt — of course there is — but those millions that went to the demonstrations were not brought there by Muslim Brotherhood or the army. They were brought over by their desire not to live in fear.
Whether there will be a democratic structure to unite them is a big question. No country gets as much assistance as Egypt. If this will be used now to strengthen democratic structures, Egyptians have a chance for democracy. We need to understand our real allies are those who want democratic change, to make sure the billions of dollars don’t go to new agitators — they go to the betterment of society. There are so many people who are interested.
There are student organizations, human rights organizations and private sectors want to use [foreign aid] money for solving problems.
JC: Growing up, I was always taught how important it was for me to support Israel. In a practical sense, what does it mean to you for American Jews to support Israel?
NS: First of all, I wan to remind you that I was in the Soviet Jewry at a time when we were under the strongest dictatorship in the world, and we were assimilated and disconnected. After the 1967 war, Israel came to us as a powerful image of a new country that could be our home. If American Jewry would not have started the solidarity movement with Soviet Jewry, there is no way that we would have survived — it became the struggle of Jews all over the world.
It was American Jewish students and housewives and scientists and doctors and lawyers who turned it in to a huge international struggle. And the Iron Curtain fell, and a million Jews moved to Israel. So I never forget that the real power of the Jewish people is international solidarity.
The Jewish Agency is strengthening Jewish identity all over the world. We all have the same challenge — we want for every Jew in the world to strengthen their identity, their community and the state of Israel.
JC: This year marked the 25th anniversary of your release. How did your time imprisoned change what you wanted to do with your life?
NS: I wanted to be a mathematician and to continue this in Israel, but on my way to Israel I became a human rights activist in the Zionist movement, and imprisoned for nine years. I discovered four generations of computers were born and died — so I didn’t go back to mathematics, but continued the struggle for Soviet Jewry, their absorption and to connect the Jewish people in Israel. So it totally changed the direction of my life.
It’s not easy, but Jews are coming to understand that exactly as the struggles for Soviet Jews were the struggles of Jews all over the world, so too we must defend Israel, support Israel in this battle for freedom.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)