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Interview Refusenik Sharansky Still Fighting for Democratic Ideals 20 Years Later

March 10, 2006
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Natan Sharansky emerges from the crumbling concrete building that houses Likud’s campaign headquarters in search of a cup of coffee — and with a rare few minutes to reflect on 20 years of freedom. “Living in a free society, especially in Israel, is full of events and developments. Every year sometimes feels like 20 years. But when you look back at 20 years it feels like a day,” said Sharansky, flashing a mischievous grin.

He recalls that for days and weeks after his arrival in Israel he was not being able to sleep at night, fearful that his newfound freedom was only a dream.

“I was afraid I would fall asleep and then wake up and be back in my cell,” he told JTA in an interview.

Sharansky recently marked 20 years since the day he became a free man after nine years in Soviet prisons. A founder of the Jewish refusenik movement in Moscow, Sharansky became an international symbol of human rights and a champion for freeing Soviet Jewry. These days, Sharansky is busy campaigning for Likud and has a full schedule speaking on the party’s behalf to Russian-speaking audiences. He sees this immigrant community shifting, as he has, into a fuller life in Israel.

“They are now dealing with the bigger questions of Israeli society,” Sharansky said.

His path in Israel has not always been a smooth one. After entering the political fray in 1996 as the head of immigrant-rights party Yisrael B’Aliyah, he has seen his stature in Israel diminish.

When he arrived he was a symbol for everyone — on the political left and right, religious and secular. Everyone, he said, had been so involved in working for his release that they all felt he owed loyalty to their individual political agendas.

But Sharansky said he had no illusions.

“If I wanted to stay true to myself I’ll disappoint everybody,” he recalled telling himself.

Despite the initial success of Yisrael B’Aliyah, it has since dissolved and officially merged into Likud. Its voters have dispersed to various political parties. Sharansky, who has held three Cabinet posts, is no longer in the Knesset, although he is deeply involved from the outside.

He resigned from the government last May because of his opposition to the government’s plan to withdraw from Gaza.

Despite the difficulties, he says he wakes up every morning in his Jerusalem home and feels that he lives in paradise.

“With all the disappointments, fights, ups and downs and political and ideological” disputes, “I live with the feeling that I live in a paradise.” He pauses and adds, “a paradise with much to fix.”

He said his role in the refusenik movement was in some ways a good schooling in the divisions within Jewish society. Although all the organizations helping from the outside were committed to the same larger goal, he had to maneuver between their individual rivalries.

But he said he also learned a powerful lesson from his interactions with the KGB, about their perceptions of the Jewish world.

“For the KGB, there were no differences,” he said. “In the KGB, documents they saw us all as one.” This, he said, taught him a lesson regarding the strength of the Jewish people, something of which he thinks Jews have lost sight.

“The most important thing is how spiritual and powerful we Jewish people are,” he said.

Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, meanwhile, have been living under what he calls a “corrupt dictatorship.” It is no surprise, he said, that Hamas won the Palestinians’ recent elections; in fact, he has been warning about the possibility for years.

He said the rush toward elections would give a false impression of democracy.

“Elections have nothing to do with democracy. There have been elections in Russia, under Saddam Hussein. Elections” should be “the end process of democratic changes,” he said, adding that elections cannot be offered as a substitute for real democracy.

His recent book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” has become one of President Bush’s favorite books. Bush even instructed his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and other aides to read it.

Sharansky argues in the book that freedom and with it, human rights, is the essential ingredient for any society to thrive and that ruling powers must be careful not to appease dictatorships.

Critics see a conflict between his promotion of human rights and his hard-line approach when it comes to the Palestinians. Sharansky, however, sees no contradiction and says the Palestinian can have a state, but not at the expense of Israel’s safety and security.

He said it is time Jews in Israel and abroad remind themselves of their own achievements and power. When the Jews in the former Soviet Union were assimilated they were weak, he said. When they recovered a sense of their Jewish identity they found their strength and in turn, their purpose, a purpose that helped him endure prison.

“We need to understand the uniqueness of our place in history,” he said.

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