Natan Sharansky on Human Rights and Democracy in the Middle East
Former imprisoned Soviet dissident and current Israeli Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs looks at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the United Nations, the Western press, and the issue of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.
"The measure of our failure is always the number of innocent civilians who are killed. The measure of the success of our enemies is always the number of innocent civilians who are killed."
[The Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations hosted a public forum for Israeli cabinet member Natan Sharansky at UCLA's Freud Playhouse on November 30. The meeting was chaired by Burkle Center director and vice provost of the university's International Institute Geoffrey Garrett, who told the audience of some 500 that Sharansky's talk was part of a broad effort by the Burkle Center to bring to the campus a wide range of views on key international issues.
[Natan Sharansky was a leader of the Soviet dissident movement in the 1970s, when he worked closely with scientist Andrei Sakharov. Sharansky was arrested by the KGB in 1977 and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He spent 9 years in jail, including more than a year in solitary confinement. On his release he migrated to Israel where he was reunited with his wife, from whom he had been separated for more than 11 years, beginning one day after their marriage. In 1996 founded the Yisra'el Ba'aliyah party. Sharansky served as Minister of Industry and Trade, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Construction and Housing, and Deputy Prime Minister in successive Israeli governments. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1986 by the U.S. Congress. His visit to the United States was in part to speak about his new book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (Nove, 2004). Following is a transcript of Natan Sharansky's remarks, lightly edited for grammar, as English is not his native language. The subheadings have been added.]
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I just heard that the subject of my lecture is my last book, The Case for Democracy. If there are questions I will be glad to address the issues of that book. But the subject of today's lecture is a little bit different. In fact the subject which I am discussing -- and this is my twenty-fifth campus in America in the last year and a half to which I am coming and speaking -- is "Human Rights, Democracy, and the Middle East." And I have to say frankly that in some places some students respond that it is almost a chutzpah, a big surprise, how it can be that a member of the Israeli government dares to speak about human rights. Isn't it a fascist government? Isn't it a racist country? How can the representative of this fascist government speak about human rights?
I have to say I have an even bigger chutzpah, to say that Israel is the only country in the Middle East which respects human rights and which is really democratic. And then the question is, how can such differences in perception, many people in the world see Israel as the biggest violator of human rights, as an awful dictatorship. And other people like myself believe that it is the only democracy and the only country in that part of the world that respects human rights.
How Soviet Prisoners Defined a Free Democratic Society
So maybe the problem starts with the definition. How we define a free democratic society. How we define what it means to respect human rights. I have to say that my definition, which by the way I also use in the book that was just mentioned, comes straight from the Soviet prison. I didn't have to be too theoretical, to study in the university what is human rights. For us, the activists of the Soviet Union movement, of the struggle for human rights, those of us who were arrested, it was so obvious what it means.
I was sometimes in one cell with Russian monarchists and Ukrainian nationalists, with a Catholic priest who wanted to have a free connection with the Vatican, a Muslim from Crimea who was exiled to Siberia, a Pentecostal in Siberia who tried to teach his own children in his ways, and many others. And all those people, of course, had very different dreams. They viewed the ideal world in a very different way. What is there in common between a Russian monarchist who wants a restoration of the Russian monarchy and a Ukrainian nationalist who wants the independence of the Ukraine?
But for all of us it was absolutely obvious that we all wanted to live in a society where people can express their views, can present their views, can use all the tools of the society to struggle peacefully for their views, and not to be punished for this. It is called the town square test, where every person can go in the center of the town, say what he or she thinks, what she believes, to insist on their right to promote these views, and will not be arrested and will not be punished for this. And if that is possible, that is a free society. If it is not permitted it is a fear society. And there is nothing in between.
And we felt it very strongly. It was in fact what united all of us in the struggle with the KGB. With all our differences in religion, nationality, in our dreams about the future, in our desires on what we wanted to see for mankind in the future, with all these differences we all wanted to live in a society where dissent is permitted.
So if you take this criteria there is no other country in the Middle East where people can freely express their views. There is no other country in the Middle East where Arab members of the parliament can freely, without any restrictions, criticize their government. Non-Arab members, of course, too.
There is no other country in that part of the world where the rights of women are respected. Where the rights of sexual minorities are respected. And so on and so on.
What Should Be Expected from a Democracy in a State of War?
So Israel is, from this point of view, the only democracy. What makes our charge much more difficult is that Israel is a democracy in a state of war. A democracy that, through all its history, has had to fight and to defend itself against terror. And it is very difficult to be a democracy in a state of war. Especially when you are in the middle of the struggle, the new war against the terror. It is very difficult as a citizen. It is even more difficult as a citizen and a member of the government.
I am a citizen of Jerusalem. I live in the city, which I believe is the most beautiful, the most spiritual, city in the world, I would say at the center of the world. But it is also the city that has had 27 suicide bombings in the last years. Where practically in every direction you go from my house, two or three hundred meters and there is a place where another bus was exploded or a café was exploded, where there were 10, 15, 20 people killed in this place. We are a great nation, but we are a very small people, and it means in the last years practically in every family somebody very close was killed. I was at funerals where three generations of one family were buried together, where grandmothers buried their children and grandchildren. Our daughters go to funerals of their classmates or parents of their classmates. It became part of the life.
But is even more difficult to be a member of the government, of a democratic country fighting against terror. Because we have to make decisions to take care of the terrorists. And then immediately there is this awful moral equivalence where those who are targeting civilians are equal to those who are targeting terrorists. Yes, it is true that when you are targeting terrorists, civilians sometimes are killed. And I can tell you about many debates in the government whether everything was done so that innocent civilians will not be killed. But civilians are used as a shield for the terrorists.
The difference between those who are targeting civilians and those who are targeting terrorists is that the measure of our failure is always the number of innocent civilians who are killed. The measure of the success of our enemies is always the number of innocent civilians who are killed. And if twenty civilians are killed during a suicide bombing, that is success, if only four, that is failure. And there are special instructions on how this terrorist with an explosive belt on his body has to stand, whether the window of the bus has to be open or closed in order to maximize the number of victims.
What Really Happened in Jenin
That is a very important principle and important difference which cannot be ignored. To understand I could give you for the last four years, unfortunately, we have had so many unique examples of challenges which democracy faces when it has a fight with terror. I'll give you only one, which is unfortunately very famous: The battle in Jenin.
It was after that month in 2002 when in one month they killed 130 civilians in the big wave of terrorist attacks. And then twenty people in Netanya were killed when they were sitting and celebrating Passover at the Seder table. Immediately after that there was a meeting of the government, through all the night, and the decision was that we cannot continue like this. No government in the world can permit this situation when civilians in such big numbers are killed everywhere. We have no choice, and in spite of all the protests which we knew there would be, and in spite of the pressure of our best friend, the United States of America, we have to send our tanks, our troops, to those places from which the terrorists came.
And that is how, some days after this decision, our troops were sent to Jenin. In the center of Jenin there is a relatively small refugee camp. There were about 1,000 houses, a very small refugee camp. From this small refugee camp more suicide bombers came out of this place than from any other town in the world. That was the center of terrorist activity of Hamas. It was such a recognized center of Hamas that even Yasser Arafat, his troops, who were officially in control of this place, for the last nine years never dared to enter there.
And when we came there it was clear that practically in every house there can be terrorists and every door can be booby-trapped. It's a very dangerous place. But we also knew that there are probably from 500 to 1,000 Palestinians, innocent Palestinians. For many hours over loudspeakers we were calling to them to leave the houses, and of course, nobody left. They could not.
What would the armies of the world do in this case? We know what the Russians did in Grozny [capital of Chechnya, devastated by Russian troops in 1999--Ed.]. Everybody who saw what happened to that city with hundreds of thousands of population, it is clear what would happen. Everyone who watches the Balkan war knows what European armies did when they were fighting the terror: 500 citizens were killed by the bombs of the European armies. In Afghanistan and in Iraq when the American army had to attack the bases of terrorists you know that aviation was used very actively and you know the results.
Here is this case we decided that because of such a big concentration of the population in one place we would not use artillery, we would not use tanks, we would not use aviation. Not helicopters and not airplanes. Our soldiers will go from house to house. We knew that this could mean that Israeli soldiers will be killed in order so that Palestinian civilians will be saved. But we believe, and it was a very difficult decision, what we felt, that this is how democracy has to behave itself.
And after the first thirteen soldiers were killed there was a meeting of our general staff and there was a discussion. It was clear that if we started now to use tanks and artillery everything would be finished in two or three hours, but many people will be killed. It was decided to use some more sophisticated equipment, but to continue going from house to house.
Reports of Jenin Casualties were Greatly Exaggerated by the Western Press
At the end of this operation, 23 Israeli soldiers were killed. 54 Palestinians were killed. 52 of them had weapons in their hands. And at least 500 Palestinians were saved. This operation was called by the foreign press the most cynical massacre after the Second World War. The Special Committee that had to be created by decision of the United Nations to investigate the "crimes" of Israel, well, five or six days after this it became clear that there was no place for any commission. At the beginning Palestinians said there were 5,000 killed, then 500 killed, then the truth became known. 54 Palestinians were killed, as we said, 52 of them with weapons. The official United Nations report said, we cannot say that more than 26 were terrorists. But 23 soldiers were killed, an unbelievably higher proportion [than in other battles] in the war against terror.
In fact, until this day there is a special appeal in the court of the families of our soldiers. The case of the families of the soldiers against Israel, saying that it is not the function of the state to decide to sacrifice the lives of their own citizens fighting the terror, that we had to use all the weapons that we have to protect our soldiers. Because it is clear that Israeli soldiers were dying in order to save Palestinians. Well, when it comes to the Supreme Court I am sure that our Attorney General will prepare the defense of the government. But the truth is that this is something that has to be studied in every military academy as an example of how democracy has to deal, or what is the challenge for democracy in conditions of war.
This was drawn by the liberal modern press, the English press, the French press into one of the most awful crimes. And until this day I can see on some campuses the film "Jenin, Jenin" where practically everybody is right, there are no facts behind it. But it became a very popular film on American campuses.
Why Not Withdraw from the Occupied Territories Now?
So that's about democracy in conditions of war. And then I hear the voices, okay, but you know, why shouldn't you simply give away all this territory that you are keeping, satisfy the demands of the Palestinians, have a peace, and then there will be no contradiction between human rights, democracy, and peace? It is only because you are resisting to make concessions that there is still a war.
Well, let me remind you that there were at least three periods in our history when Israel was ready to make all possible concessions, but only to get recognition, to get agreement with our Palestinian partner. The last time was when Ehud Barak proposed what was believed by all the Western countries to be the maximum of what the Arabs wanted to get. He gave practically all the territory; half of Jerusalem; the Temple Mount, the most sacred place for Jews. Many people in the country refused to accept it. I personally resigned from the government [in 2000] believing that this was wrong. But that was the proposal. And the unfortunate fact is that I warned Ehud Barak, saying you will never get a peace for this. This proposal means that Yasser Arafat will decide that we are weak and will start a war. And that is unfortunately what has happened.
So the question is why each time there is a real opportunity for peace the Palestinian Authority, or those who were before the Palestinian Authority, Arab countries again and again were declining these peace proposals. The answer from my point of view is very simple. That is in fact the question I deal with in my new book. The thing is that the obligation to peace comes together with the obligation to human rights. And the opposite also is true. Dictators never have an obligation to peace. To the contrary. And the question is why? Why is there such an almost mystical connection between peace and democracy, and war and dictatorship? I'll tell you why. What is in common between democracy and dictatorship? The leaders of democracy and the leaders of dictatorship want to stay in power as long as possible. That is human nature. It has nothing to do with democracy, it has nothing to do with dictatorship.
I am sure that in America if a president could stay for the third and fourth term they would try to do it. The difference is that in democracy leaders depend on their people. So in order to stay in power, and they want to stay in power, they have to deliver, they have to show to people they are concerned about their situation, that they are making efforts to improve their life. That's why democracies practically never fight with one another. Because the overwhelming majority of people, the silent majority in every country, doesn't want war. And that's why even the most painful compromise between two democracies will always be reached, because in the end the majority of people prefer this compromise. They must be absolutely sure that their partner wants to destroy them and is not ready for any compromise in order to support the war.
Dictators Need an Enemy to Stay in Power
In dictatorship, dictators don't depend on people. People depend on dictators. But that means that if you want to stay in power you have to keep your own people under control. And to keep your own people under control dictatorship is difficult. People who have so many doubts, who are moving from true believers into double thinkers, who are hesitant, who are resistant to all this life in fear society -- to keep all these people under control is very difficult. The dictator usually has to use brainwashing and has to use secret police and has to use prisons in order to keep people in fear. But always then it is never enough.
And then every dictator needs an enemy. An enemy in order to mobilize his own people for the sacred struggle against this enemy. Internal enemy, external enemy. You can look how Stalin was doing it. It was true about Hitler. It was true about any dictator in the world. A dictator in order to keep people under control needs the enemy.
The Soviet Union had this enemy, the United States of America. But a dictatorial regime also needs an external source of energy. Because dictatorship is always a form of society that is weak on the inside. People don't like to be controlled. They try to resist this. So you need to spend all your energy to control these people. Then you need an external enemy.
It is a paradoxical situation. Dictatorial regimes need free society, both as the enemy and of the source of energy. The policy of détente of the Soviet Union meant that they wanted to succeed in having America as an enemy and as a source of energy. To be able to send their troops to Angola, to Eritrea, to Prague, to Afghanistan, to Nicaragua, and at the same time to get access to Western technology, to Western credits, to most-favored nation status, and so on. Our struggle, in fact, of the dissidents, and the steps of the struggle, the Jackson amendment [of 1974, which linked U.S. trade to human rights reform and defended the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate -- Ed.], it was all aimed to destroy this connection. How not to permit the Soviet Union to have the free world both as the enemy and as a friend. How to say to the Soviet Union, you can choose. You can have us as a friend, but then respect the rights of your people, because from now on human rights and international relations are linked, or you can have us as an enemy, but then you cannot get the energy from us. And at the moment this formula was formulated, the Soviet Union was doomed. Because whichever they chose, they could not continue to survive forever.
Misplaced Hopes in Arafat because He Was a Dictator
What happened in the Middle East, unfortunately, was absolutely opposite to this. It was decided that it will bring peace and stability by bringing the Middle East dictator, and, as our prime minister then said, it is good that Arafat is a dictator. One week after the signing of the Oslo agreement it was said, it is good the Arafat is not a democrat because, and I quote, "without human rights organizations, without bleeding-heart liberals, Arafat will fight the terrorists from Hamas much better, much more successfully than we."
That was when I wrote my first article against the Oslo process, which then, of course, was very unpopular. They hoped that a just peace was near. And I was writing in that article that we will do our best to strengthen Arafat as a dictator, hoping that he as a dictator will guarantee us peace. But just because he is a dictator, he will need us as the enemy. And he will spend every dollar and every rifle and every square metre of territory. He will spend, for one thing, on how to strengthen Palestinian hatred toward us. That is his way of controlling Palestinians. And that is the reason why, in fact, the Palestinian Authority did their best to bring up the next generation of Palestinians in an atmosphere of much bigger hatred than the previous generation of Palestinians, which grew up under Israeli occupation.
There was a big debate some weeks ago over where all this money came from that the widow of Arafat has and what will happen with this money. I tell you frankly, I don't care what will happen with this money. I care how not to repeat our mistakes. Because this money was given to Yasser Arafat by the free world, by Israel. All the world greeted the Paris agreements in 1995. The Paris agreements meant that Israel will transfer to the Palestinian Authority the tax money which belongs to the Palestinians. Absolutely justified demand and decision. But under this Paris agreement, 20% of this public money would be transferred to the private account of Yasser Arafat. It was deposited in Bank Leumi in Tel Aviv and from there sent to a bank in France. In three consecutive governments this arrangement was maintained. I was saying that if any of us would take 100 shekels of public money and would put it in our own account we would go to prison. Here every month we are sending tens of millions of dollars into the private account of Arafat. Money which belonged to the Palestinians.
And unfortunately it was never stopped until 2000 when the new intifada started. Because, it was explained to me again and again, it is an international agreement, it was supported by France, it was supported by America, it was supported by everybody. And the logic is clear. If our only hope for stability is Yasser Arafat, and if we need Yasser Arafat as a strong dictator for this, and if for this he needs some pocket money to help his own army to fight terror, so it's after all a very small price to fight the terror.
But as we know, in the end, all this was used on the aim of how to use the terror to attack Israel. Because that is the only way a dictatorial regime can survive and keep control over his own people.
Is Democracy Impossible in the Arab States?
Then it was said, but what do you want? What other options do we have? Democracy is not for the Middle East. Democracy is not for Arabs. There was not one democratic regime. Twenty-two Arab countries. Not one has democracy. And there was linking again and again of this question of human rights with democracy.
I heard this argument when I was a Soviet dissident. I heard this argument when representatives of the free world, representatives of Kissinger and Nixon, were coming and talking to us dissidents. I was organizing secret meetings with Andrei Sakharov and Western messengers, who were telling us again and again that we love you, you are our heroes, but you have to understand that democracy is not for the Russian people; they have a different mentality. They lived for a thousand years under a totalitarian regime, they will continue to live like this forever. Don't try to force us to link human rights and international relations with the Soviet Union.
Again I give you quotes from the closest advisors of President Truman, who were explaining to him in 1945 that democracy is not for Japan. Of course it's very important to fight against the militarism of Japan. But to think that there will be one day democracy in Japan, which is such an ancient civilization, much more ancient than America and Europe together, and it's all built on discipline and hierarchy, what has this to do with the understanding of human rights in the Western sense of this word?
And I can give you quotes that democracy is not for Latin America. That democracy is not for Germany. That democracy is not for Confucian cultures. I cite many of these quotes in my book The Case for Democracy.
Again and again, history has proven that democracy is for everybody in the world. Whenever they are given a real choice between living in a fear society and a free society all the people of the world choose living in a free society. And if today there are no democratic countries in the Arab world, if today there are no famous dissidents in the Arab world, I can only remind you that there were no famous dissidents in Stalin's Russia in the 1930s. Why? Because they were all killed. And the free world didn't care, because the free world was too busy with appeasing Stalin's regime. And if Gandhi had appeared in Nazi Germany he would never have millions of followers, because before he would have two followers he would be already in a concentration camp.
So it all depends on the fact of how closed a regime is and how ready the free world is to support these dissidents. And when there arise the voices of dissidents, and I give many examples in my book from the Arab world, and when they are arrested, and when they are persecuted, who in the free world demands immediately to stop assisting these regimes? Whether America was ready to link their policy toward Saudi Arabia to the question of human rights in Saudi Arabia, when I was raising this question in 1991 I was always told by the leaders of America that Saudi Arabia is not about democracy, it is about stability. We know about stability in the world today.
Who Listens to the Voices of Palestinian Dissidents?
Is America ready to stop its $2 billion assistance to Egypt because so many Egyptian dissidents are arrested? Where are the voices of Palestinian dissidents? Some of them called me from besieged Ramallah from public telephones so that they would not be caught by Yasser Arafat. But when these people finally have an opportunity to go to the West and go to the corridors of power in the free world almost always they are told, and I am a witness of this, that we cannot support you because you will weaken the Palestinian Authority, because you will weaken Yasser Arafat. And Yasser Arafat is our only hope to protect us from Hamas.
So if our idea is not to support dissidents in the Arab world because we want to get our stability by imposing dictators on the Arab people, then let's not complain that Arab people are different. Again and again if you look at the history you will see that when given a real opportunity to live in a free society they will prefer to live in a free society. And that is my belief and I have not altered it.
What We Should Hope for in the New Palestinian Leadership
Today's change of leadership in the Palestinian Authority creates new opportunities. There is now a big debate over who of the potential leaders is better for us, who speaks better English, who is dressed more like we are, who traditionally can be more sympathetic to the Western countries, and so on. Then, who is potentially that strongman who can bring us stability. I think this is simply a false way of thinking. It's not our business how these people treat us. We have to be concerned about only one thing: how these leaders will treat their own people. And we must make sure that whoever may be elected, and these elections of course have nothing to do with democracy, they are simply the way for this or that one to decide who is stronger, but whoever will be elected he must face the choice. [If he chooses democracy] he will embrace real reforms that will be able to take the Palestinians from the refugee camps -- four generations of Palestinians in refugee camps, never in history was there such a thing, and of course, it was not accidental, it was because the leaders decided that they needed these people to be in the refugee camps in order to use their hatred for our destruction. So if they would be ready to start dismantling the refugee camps, to change the system of education from hatred to good education, to be really involved in bringing jobs to their people, in creating joint ventures. . . In the past, when I was Minister of Industry and Trade, we had twenty projects, but all of them meant that Arafat would have less control over his own people and he was not interested.
So either they will be ready to have all these reforms, and we should praise them, we should support them, the new Marshal Plan should be launched, and so on; or if not, they should have no legitimacy and no support.
I believe that not only that all people are created to be equal but that all the peoples are created to be equal. Palestinians deserve to live in freedom and democracy no less than we Jews and no less than Russians and Japanese and Americans and all the others. Helping them, encouraging them, supporting any effort, even the weakest effort for them to build civil society, to build democracy, that is the way to come to real peace and stability in the Middle East.
From the Question Period
[All the questions have been summarized.]
Is the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute the Roadblock to Middle East Democracy?
Questions from moderator Geoffrey Garrett: You have heard it said that the precondition for successful change in the Arab world is successful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Do you think that is correct or do you think that is an excuse? The second question about democracy is how do democracies that respect human rights deal with real divisions among their people? The case I am thinking of is France where a lot of people believe anti-Semitism is on the rise but at the same time the French government has come down hard against symbols of Muslim life such as the wearing of head scarves.
Sharansky: The first question is closer to my lecture so I will start with that. On the second, I just came from France so that is easy for me to speak about. As to the statement that without a solution of the Palestinian-Israeli problem you cannot promote democracy in Arab countries I have to tell you first of all that, of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be solved without any connection to this question. We are interested that there be no terror and death and war and that there will be peace and stability. But I have to remind you that there was no Palestinian-Israeli conflict when there was no Israel, and there was still no democracy in the Arab world.
Before 1967, when there were no so-called occupied territories, and Palestinians by the way did not call themselves Palestinians, there was no democracy in the Arab world. So then there was some other pretext, let's wait for democracy. What I am trying to show is that there is direct dependence that dictatorial regimes are not interested in peace. They are not always interested in war. If they are weak they are interested in a cold war. Or Egypt, for example. You can say, but you have a wonderful peace with Egypt. It is true, we signed a good peace agreement with Egypt. But Egypt got many things then, but they wanted us as a political enemy. And Egypt as a dictatorial society cannot live without an enemy.
So what they did, and here I will take my other hat, the one that is coordinating the struggle against anti-Semitism, and I can tell you, today in the Arab world THE center of anti-Semitism is Egypt. More copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" [an anti-Semitic forgery written by the Russian tsarist secret police in 1885 and first widely circulated in 1905 --Ed.] were published in Egypt than in all other Arab countries together, and it is all after the signing of the agreement. Why? Because they lost us as a political enemy and they urgently needed another enemy. They have some enemies among the Arab extremists, but that can help only with a very narrow part of the society. So an enemy which can be a glue for all of the society is again Israel, or Jews, or Jewish people, the Jewish race, and that is how they are becoming the most anti-Semitic society today in the Middle East.
These societies need the situational war. That is why I believe we have to start by dealing with the problem of democracy. And as I wrote in the platform of our party in 1996, the depth of our concessions should be the depth of democratic changes and not vice versa.
Anti-Semitism in France and the Ban on Head Scarves
Now, about the question about France. You know, you say that on the one hand some people believe they are becoming more anti-Semitic -- and I can tell you it is not just some people but all the statistics show this. The statistics of the French government say that there is today an unprecedented level of anti-Semitism. 25% of all the anti-Semitic incidents, violent incidents, are today in France. On the other hand they are passing this legislation against the scarves. It is simply known as the legislation against the scarves, because of the protests in the Muslim communities. It is also, under the same legislation, that Jews in the public schools cannot go with kippah [skull cap] and with a big Mogen David [star of David] and Christians cannot go with a big cross.
The idea of this legislation is simply to say that in public schools, there are no signs of belonging to one or another faith. That is how France believes people have to be integrated. That approach is very different from the approach in the United States of America. I think it is very doubtful that successful integration of the Muslim population will be granted by their law. But that is the French way, the way of the French Revolution in contrast to the way of the American Revolution.
But yes, France today is the center of violent anti-Semitic incidents, and that is explained by two factors. On one hand there is classical anti-Semitism, which is coming in unprecedented quantities, from the Muslim world, through satellite TV, though cables. If the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" could be published in 10,000 copies and it took fifty or sixty years to go all over the world, here the pictures of rabbis cutting the throats of Christian boys and making from their blood matzo are going every evening to tens of millions of houses, including millions of houses in Europe.
And when I showed these pictures to the leaders of Western Europe they couldn't believe that that is what their citizens in London, Berlin, and Paris watch every day, but that is the reality.
On the other hand, this type of incitement, which reaches millions of citizens in Europe -- in France alone there are 6 million new citizens from the Middle East -- has meant a new kind of anti-Semitism. This new anti-Semitism is the texts on Israel, the demonization of Israel in the liberal press, where every day there is a comparison of Israel with Nazi Germany and the refugee camps with Auschwitz. This moral equivalence between terrorists and victims of terror gives a kind of legitimacy to this atmosphere of old anti-Semitism. And that is a very serious situation. In fact, two years ago, when we started publishing figures and speaking about anti-Semitism in France, the leaders of France denied it. In the last year the leaders of France have recognized that the problem is serious. They are in fact taking many steps, more than any other country, to stop it. I think as long as they will not connect it with the double standard towards Israel they will not be able to stop this anti-Semitism.
The United States and the Middle East
Question: The United States successfully won the cold war against the Soviet Union. What role can and should the United States play in defeating terrorism and promoting democracy in the Arab world?
Sharansky: My book, published three weeks ago, is exactly on this topic. I can tell you that the president of the United States of America invited me for a meeting ten days ago and when I came to him he was on page 210 -- there are 286 pages. Nevertheless to try to answer: The victory of America in the cold war shows that with the right policy toward fear societies, as I call them in the book, the free world can win this battle without one shot and without sacrificing even one soldier. Because fear societies need the free world as an enemy and as a friend at the same time, otherwise they cannot survive.
If you link your attitude toward these countries with the question of human rights you would be a factor in this, in making this the policy of all the free world, and these regimes would be doomed to failure. It would be very easy to win the war in Iran today, because it is all a nation of double-thinkers, as the head of one of the former Soviet republics told me. He was recently on an official visit to Iran, and he said it looks exactly like the Soviet Union. I said, what do you mean? All the leaders hate America, all the people in the street love America. And that is the best proof that it is already ripe for the change.
That can be said also about many other countries which today depend fully, 100%, on the money, legitimacy, technology of the free world and at the same time they are fighting the free world. And the free world is not ready to take a clear policy on this.
Nine Years in a Soviet Prison
Question: The next question is a very personal one. How did your many years of incarceration affect your world view?
Sharansky: For this you will have to read my first book, Fear No Evil, which was published eight years ago but which can still be bought through Amazon. First of all I think the punishment cell -- and the punishment cell is a very small room, very cold, very dark, three pieces of bread and three cups of water, nobody to talk to, nothing to write or to read of course -- you can become crazy simply from the flow of time. Officially only very dangerous prisoners are kept there, a maximum of fifteen days to cool them down. In the case of political prisoners, in my case, they were using it time after time. There was one time for 130 days without stop in the punishment cell. I lost consciousness. I was taken out from there for one day and then brought back. I spent 400 days in this punishment cell.
And I have to say, that was a very good place to understand your role in the world and to formulate your political views. Because in order not to become crazy you really have to remind yourself all the time why you are there. To put all this in historical perspective. To feel all the time the connection between Exodus, when you left Egypt 3,000 years ago and what is in front of you. Solidarity of Jewish people. It's something that you are really feeling and appreciating in these conditions. And at the same time you have to use your sense of humor, to use all your habits to overcome this.
I had and have a great habit, playing chess. From my childhood I could play chess without looking at the board. [I could play] many games simultaneously, so-called blind. It simply was a hobby, but suddenly in the punishment cell you understand why you had this hobby. Because there you can play, and I played thousands and thousands of games -- and I won all of them! And that strengthens the feeling that you have such a powerful intellect, which is improving from one game to another. With each game you find something better. So just at the time when they want to destroy you, when they want you to feel more and more weak, you feel that you are intellectually improving. I am sure that when I left prison I played chess much better than before.
Another thing, the tragedy of my life, was that from my kindergarten, the moment I started singing my nanny was saying, You wait, you'll sing after. Because people didn't like my singing somehow. It was the same in school and in the youth movement, all the time. And only in the punishment cell I felt that the time which was promised by my nanny -- after -- came finally. And in the punishment cell I sang so many Zionist songs, hitherto unknown in the prison, where silence is supposed to be like in the grave. And I was singing very loudly, the prison guards suffered a lot, which I enjoyed.
So that definitely develops your talents.
Is the United Nations Pro-Arab?
Question: Many people believe that the United Nations has been more of a friend to Arab causes than to Israeli ones in the last thirty or forty years. Kofi Annan is now in charge of a group considering a reform of the UN. How do you think the UN should be reformed and what do you think the prospects for that reform actually are?
Sharansky: I think it is unfair to say that the United Nations has a racial preference for Arabs against Jews. I think the United Nations is an organization which is run by a bunch of dictators and that is why they prefer dictatorial regimes over democratic regimes. I think it is absolutely natural that the United Nations all the time are using the banner of human rights to attack democracies and to protect dictatorships, because it consists of the regimes that don't permit their own people to vote but they themselves are voting. So by voting they are not expressing the desires of their people. Like the Soviet leaders were never expressing the real desires of the Soviet people. Like Saddam Hussein never really expressed the desires of the Iraqi people. They express the desires, the needs, of their dictatorships to survive and how the world should be run for the sake of these dictatorships. And that is why the United Nations a long time ago became the toy in the hands of the dictators.
This oil for food plan. It is really strange that it wasn't discovered before. That was the policy of the United Nations for many years. I propose in my book The Case for Democracy that we have in parallel, because I understand that it is impossible now to close this organization, it is easier to create a new organization in parallel to this, and what we propose is to create an organization where only leaders who are elected in free elections by their own people will have the right to vote. Only those who permit their own people to vote will have the right to vote. And this organization will of course be trying to influence the world in a way that free societies will prosper and will become bigger and fear societies will shrink.
Israeli Withdrawal from the Gaza Strip
Question: Do you believe that Ariel Sharon's plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip will increase or decrease Israel's security?
Sharansky: Well, I personally believe that there are only two things that can increase Israel's security. The first thing is the strength of Israel's army, and the second thing is democracy in the Middle East. The more free societies are, the more free Palestinian society, the bigger is our security. And that's why I voted against the plan, although I understand very well what are the reasons and I have had many long conversations with Ariel Sharon. I think it is a sign of desperation when for twenty years of peace negotiations we don't have a partner to fight against terror and he thought that we don't have and will not have the partner, and the world will continue to press and demand from us more and more concessions as if we have a partner, and the world will press only on us and not on the other side. And as a result of this he decided to make this step, hoping that as a result will be some serious step towards peace and the world will stop pressing on us and will start pressing on the other side.
But I believe that one-sided concessions to terror will only bring more terror and that at this stage if you leave Gaza it only means that Gaza becomes the beachhead of a terrorist state. I don't think that we should stay forever in Gaza. I believe that in the peace agreement not only Gaza but many other territories will be left. But then they will be the territories of a democratic Palestinian society, not of the terrorist society.
Israel and the Christian Fundamentalists
Question: What do you think the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the United States will mean for American policy toward Israel and the Middle East, if anything?
Sharansky: As I said in the beginning, I have the chutzpah to speak about human rights in the Middle East. I don't have the chutzpah to speak to Americans about internal problems of the United States of America. So what are your relations with evangelistic Christians? It is for you to decide. I can tell you that as to the Zionist point of view, no doubt they are very strong supporters of Israel. As the minister for Jerusalem I have to say that when all the tourism stopped to the Middle East, including Jewish tourism, the evangelic Christians continued coming to Israel so that in these days there is not one free room in Jerusalem. Both Jews and Christians are coming in big numbers. They proved themselves as very loyal and staunch supporters of Israel and I respect this and salute them.
As to the fears that I from time to time hear, that after all, don't you understand that all their support of Israel is because they believe that when there will be a second coming of the messiah we all will turn to the Christians and become Christians. Then I say that it only means that at least until that moment we have the same plans. But when the messiah comes, we will ask him whether you were here already or not? I believe he will be our messiah.
Is the Western Media Anti-Israeli?
Question: Do you agree with the criticism that is often leveled against the Western media that it is pro-Arab and anti-Israeli? If so, why and what can be done about it?
Sharansky: First of all, of course, I am a big supporter of freedom of speech. If not for the free Western media I think our struggle in the Soviet Union could never have been successful. But yes, I believe in these days of moral symmetry, when there is a big lack of moral clarity, the free press has contributed a lot to this, especially if you look at the liberal media in Europe. If the best cartoon of the year, the best cartoon of the year, that gets the first prize, a professional prize, in the newspaper that is very proud of its independence, it is called the Independent, in London, is Ariel Sharon eating Palestinian kids. And the blood is dropping from his mouth. I would say it is a very strong anti-Semitic cartoon. Now the target is not specifically the Jew but the Jewish state, but the same type of demonization of Jew as the traditional anti-Semites.
And then the best cartoon in Italy of another very liberal and proud newspaper, La Stampa, is the boy from Bethlehem [actually, the baby Jesus--Ed.], a very nice, sympathetic boy, who says to an Israeli soldier, "You came to crucify me for the second time." They can keep saying they are not religious newspapers, they know nothing about this religious prejudice, it has nothing to do with this -- that is an appeal directly to the same prejudices for which Jewish people paid such a high price.
And just now, speaking about Jenin. You know, for five days there was such a ruckus, English newspapers were competing who will use more awful descriptions of what happened in Jenin. As I quoted from the Guardian, I think, when I said "the greatest massacre after the Second World War." Or another newspaper wrote "it's as big a man-made crime as 9/11 in America." Five days after this it was proved that all this was lies. All this was nonsense. None of these newspapers took it back. So I think something is wrong with the feeling of responsibility of the liberal media. I believe it is closely connected to this big effort in the public opinion of Europe to appease the evil, to appease this new threat of terror, hoping that if only we will not be attacking them, but we will try to go to the reason, and the reason of course behind them is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then everything will be okay. And Europe has made this mistake many times in the past, always the price which Europe paid for this policy was awful. I only hope that this time they will understand the danger much quicker. At least I now see some changes in the public opinion in Europe, including the press, when they realize that this type of appeasement is very dangerous for their own democracy.
What about the Israeli Settlements?
Question: Do you think there is any contradiction between your and Israel's commitment to democracy and human rights and the expansion of settlements which have been judged violations of human rights by the UN and by international law?
Sharansky: Well, I will not speak about the United Nations because I said already what I think about the United Nations. But first of all, those who want to stop the settlement activity have to accept the fact of our existence, to sign a peace agreement. That's it. But second, without now going too much into the history of every settlement, how it was organized, it is clear that when we have a real peace agreement all the settlements which will be on the territory of the Palestinian Authority will be removed.
So I say it is clear, and then I ask you, why is it so clear? Why do we decide in advance that it is natural that Israel has 20% of its population who are Arabs. There are so many villages and towns which are Arabic. Arabs travel all over Israel, feeling themselves absolutely secure. And of course I am fully for this. And nobody will raise a question, or if somebody will raise a question they will not find support, that these Arab towns and villages have to be liquidated.
At the same time it goes without question, everybody says of course it is clear, in America everybody says it is clear, that any territory which will be under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the settlements have to be removed. Just now when we were talking about Gaza, we are not talking simply that the Palestinian Authority will have control but we are saying that all the Jews will be taken by force from there by us.
Why? Because in advance we decide that we accept the situation where on the one hand we are dealing with a democratic society where the life of people is sacred and that is why they cannot be touched whether they are Jews or they are Arabs, and on the other hand we are speaking about a totalitarian dictatorship where human life is nothing and that is why Jews of course will have to leave it because they will not be able to live there.
So what I want to say that I'd like to see, the ideal situation, is that when democracies on both sides are strong enough we won't have to even speak about liquidation of any settlement on any part of this soil. It is up to these people to decide whether they want to stay there as citizens of the Palestinian Authority or they want to go and be citizens of Israel. So that is the ideal situation. I understand that we are not dealing with an ideal world. I understand that probably we will have to remove many of the settlements for the real peace. But just because it is such a painful and difficult decision, it has to be done only when we have real peace, and we will have real peace when it will go together with starting something of civil society and democracy on the Palestinian side. Thank you.
Published: Friday, December 03, 2004