Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

In Berlin, Sharansky Visits His Past and Blasts Attitudes on Anti-semitism

December 8, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The bridge hasn’t changed much since the last time Natan Sharansky crossed it — but the world certainly has.

For the first time since his release from a Soviet prison nearly 18 years ago, Sharansky, now an Israeli Cabinet minister, returned last Friday to the Glienicker Bridge in Berlin where KGB agents turned him over to West German authorities in an exchange of prisoners.

Traffic on both sides of the bridge was blocked briefly as Sharansky — making his first visit to Germany since his release from a Soviet prison on Feb. 11, 1986 — walked, surrounded by aides, security officials and reporters, across the span that had meant the difference for him between prison and liberty.

“Then it was a much longer journey, from communism to freedom,” said the former Soviet dissident, standing at the eastern end of the bridge near its elaborate, Greek-style gate. The structure spans the Havel and Glienicker lakes, and marks the border of Berlin and Potsdam.

Sharansky asked to return to this spot during a three-day trip to Berlin, which included meetings with local Jewish community leaders, politicians and academics.

On Saturday, he addressed the fifth annual European-Israel Dialogue of the Axel Springer Foundation, before heading to the United States for an Israel Bonds speaking tour.

The scene on the bridge was very different from the day of Sharansky’s release. The gray wintry skies may have been similar, but gone were signs of division between East and West.

Instead, the span was filled with the rush-hour traffic of Germans heading home from work for the weekend.

One driver honked at the crowd of journalists surrounding Sharansky and peered, frowning, to see what the fuss was about.

Sharansky made his way to the center of the bridge and recalled how, in 1986, he had to cross a low divider to freedom.

“The KGB had given me a pair of pants that were too loose, and no belt,” he said, laughing. “I was afraid I would lose my pants as I stepped over.”

Sharansky used his visit to Germany to criticize the European Union for not heeding growing anti-Semitism among Muslims in Europe and in Arab countries.

Earlier last Friday, he met with the authors of a controversial report on the topic, which was commissioned but then withheld by the Vienna-based European Union Monitoring Center for Racism and Xenophobia.

Calling the report’s authors at the Berlin Center for Research on Anti-Semitism “some of the best professionals in the field,” Sharansky said he wanted to know why the E.U. center should attempt to hide it.

“It is a very serious, professional work. It more or less coincides with our studies,” he said. “There is a clear correlation between the size of the Muslim community in one or other country and the number of physical incidents of anti-Semitism, a kind of feeling of fear by Jews in the streets.”

The center said it had killed the report because it feared the data was faulty, but critics charged that the real reason was to avoid angering Europe’s large Muslim minorities with the findings that Arab and Muslim youth were responsible for much of the surge in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

Responding to pressure from European and American Jewish groups, the EUMC finally released the report on its Web site Dec. 4, with a disclaimer.

Sharansky said it was urgent that the European Union act to prohibit the spread of anti-Semitic propaganda in Europe, such as a harshly anti-Semitic, Syrian-produced TV series that was picked up by European satellites in November.

At a news conference last Friday, Sharansky showed two excerpts of the 29-part series, including a scene in which what is meant to be a Jewish tribunal passes a death sentence on a man who had an affair with a non-Jewish woman.

The sentencing is followed by a gruesome scene of men dressed as rabbis pouring lead into the victim’s mouth, cutting off his ears and slitting his throat.

In another scene, the age-old blood-libel canard is enacted with a young, non-Jewish boy sacrificed so his blood can be used to make matzah.

Several journalists watching the scenes did not know they were seeing modern versions of medieval European anti-Semitic libels, said Joel Lion, public relations director for the Israeli Embassy here. Lion added that it might be a good sign that many Europeans have forgotten such stories, which often led to violent anti-Semitic pogroms.

But Lion said the repetition of such canards in the Arabic-speaking world may require education to inoculate against the spread of hatred.

Sharansky said that if Europe can ban hard-core pornography on the grounds that it incites violence against women, it also can ban films that bring age-old Christian anti-Jewish canards into the living rooms of Muslims.

But Sharansky also expressed optimism.

“Communism is behind us,” Sharansky said, “and hopefully anti-Semitism will also be behind us.”

Standing on the Glienicker Bridge, Sharansky recalled how he had recently visited his former Siberian prison cell, where guards had told him, “This is the end of the Zionist movement and you will never get out alive.”

Sharansky served nine years of a 13-year sentence for so-called subversive behavior related to his Zionist activism, much of the time in solitary confinement.

Today, said Sharanksy, “There is no KGB, there is no communism and more than a million former Soviet Jews are free and in Israel. It is a very triumphant feeling.”

Recommended from JTA