PRAGUE (JTA) – Freedom is one of Natan Sharansky’s favorite words. Thus it is no surprise that the fiery former vice prime minister of Israel hosted a conference on democracy and security in the Czech capital over the summer.
A Sharansky admirer, President George W. Bush, was a keynote speaker at the event, delivering an ode to those who seek freedom but are repressed by authoritarian regimes.
The conference, attended by hundreds of pro-democracy activists from countries such as Egypt, Iran, Belarus and Russia, was a continuation of Sharansky’s dissident days in Soviet Russia.
In 1977 he was jailed by the communist authorities for his pro-Zionist , pro-democracy efforts and spent more than 10 years in prison, mostly in Siberia.
The man once known as Anatoly Sharansky and his wife, Avital, who campaigned tirelessly on his behalf, were among the leading lights of the movement to help thousands of Soviet Jews emigrate from Russia.
Sharansky was finally able to move to Israel, where he founded the political party Israel B’Aliyah and eventually jointed the Cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
He resigned in 2005 over Sharon’s decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip and is now the chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center, a think tank addressing challenges to Israel and the West .
JTA spoke with the 59-year-old Sharansky, where he recalled his Jewish awakening and his perspective on Israel.
JTA: This year marked the 40th anniversary not just of the Six-Day War but of the Soviet Jewry emigration movement. What memories stand out for you about this time that you want to pass on to your grandchildren?
Sharansky: When the iron gates of the Old City were broken, the Iron Curtain was broken; it was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. This is when the Soviet Union was losing control over their citizens. As Israel emerged as a strong defender of its own people, Soviet Jews started coming back to their own identity. This changed the fate of American Jews as well. Previously they thought it was not good to speak about the Soviet Jewish problem publicly because it would irritate Soviet authorities.
What were you feeling personally at this time?
I was a loyal Soviet Jew who knew I was a Jew because of anti-Semitism, but I was deprived of connection to religion and tradition. I wanted to escape from this strange reality. There was no way out, no source of strength to fight for your own freedom. Suddenly we became strong enough.
Why was the Six-Day War a source of inspiration for you?
This came from goyim, from non Jews. They were saying the Temple Mount is in our hands. This meant nothing to us, we had no idea what the Temple Mount was. But we saw the goyim suddenly respected us; that’s how I personally became a Zionist. That’s how our ulpan began, we started getting information from tourists about Jewish history. We could not have survived without Jews from all over the world. That’s why there is such a strong connection between Zionism and the Soviet dissident movement.
When you finally got to Israel after years in prison, was it what you expected?
In the morning I was in a KGB prison in Moscow, in the evening I was with my wife I hadn’t seen in 12 years and in the night I am with all the leaders of Israel, dancing at the Western Wall. I went from hell to paradise in one day, and I was afraid to wake up to see the dream was over. From there the only way is to go down, for 20 years, that’s the only way. Any religious person will find the next world was not the way he expected.
What was your biggest disappointment?
The lack of understanding of what a powerful thing is freedom. We Jews sometimes do not appreciate enough having our own democratic state. We have so much local infighting that we lose the broader aim.
You hosted a conference on freedom and democracy in Prague attended by pro-democracy dissidents, including Russia’s Garry Kasparov. Do you agree with him that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a despot running a police state?
There is no doubt that President Putin took a number of steps that took Russia backwards. There are some very serious retreats, but I disagree with those who say that it is exactly like old communist Russia. Millions of people were killed then, and we are very far from this. But today there is clear censorship on criticizing the president, limits on competition in elections and the free world has to deal with this.
Do you feel today Russian Jews in Israel are integrated in the way you had hoped?
I think its been a huge success of unprecedented proportions. The average salary of the Russian newcomers is higher than that of Israelis, they are responsible for the high-tech boom, there are medical specialists speaking Russian in every hospital. It was so quick because this aliyah created its own political party, which accelerated this process. We changed the paternalistic approach, which was that you have to wait, and only your children will become real equals after they go through the army.
Is the current Russian Israeli image hurt by Israeli Cabinet Minister Avigdor Lieberman? Are you embarrassed by some of his anti-Arab rhetoric?
Avi Lieberman is an Israeli politician, not a Russian politician. It is not true now that all Russians in Israel would choose a single party.
I was asking about Mr. Lieberman, who was reported as saying that 90 percent of Arabs who live in Israel “have no place there and should take their packages and get lost.” Is he a racist?
It’s true that he made a number of statements I disagree with, but nobody has started thinking of prohibiting his party. It is not racist; that’s too strong. It’s not fair to call him by this term. And it’s not fair to say the face of Russian Jewry is his party. It’s true that most Russian Jews were against disengagement, and they were right.
So you feel vindicated for resigning from the Sharon government?
We know what happened in the last two years. In my letter of resignation, I said Hamas would come to power, the world will not stop pressing on us for concessions and Gaza will turn into a center of terror. I was 100 percent right. I never thought we had to stay forever in Gaza, I just though one-sided concessions would only strengthen terrorists. Palestinians would not gain, Israel would not gain, only terrorists would gain.
Another guest at your conference is President George Bush, who was inspired by your book “The Case for Democracy.” But has he made the world a much more dangerous place by trying to promote those ideals through force in Iraq?
He did a great thing by bringing the democracy agenda back on the international stage. I was saying for years, including in the book, that pushing for early elections is not pushing for democracy. That’s why the Palestinian elections that gave Hamas victory were a huge mistake. As for Iraq, I never said democracy should be brought by force. But Saddam Hussein was appeased for 10 years. I believe the U.S. did have to fight. The people of Iraq didn’t want Saddam Hussein. So now the genie is out of the bottle, with Sunni-Shi’ite hatred. If it would be proved that they cannot live in one country without dictatorship, then Iraq as one country is not in roots of the people. Yugoslavia not being one country doesn’t mean democracy wasn’t meant to be there.
But aren’t there more terrorist cells operating now than ever before thanks to the Iraq invasion?
The terrorists are in retreat, 9/11 cannot happen again, that is President Bush’s biggest achievement. People don’t want to recognize it. The free world is doing very well against world terror.
Even though more people than ever hate the West?
I think this hatred of Bush in Europe is not shared by others who are actually living under dictatorships. The dissidents want him to fight all dictatorships. They want him to push against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak more, unlike in Europe where they want him to work more closely with Mubarak. I am convinced that freedom anywhere will make the world safer everywhere. And I am convinced that democratic nations, led by the United States, have a critical role to play in expanding freedom around the globe.