World is right to warn Russia over Ukraine issue: Former deputy PM of Israel

LondonUpdated: Jan 27, 2022, 08:08 PM IST
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(File photo) Natan Sharansky, former deputy PM of Israel Photograph:(AFP)

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Natan Sharansky, former deputy PM of Israel was the figurehead of the worldwide human rights campaign to free Jews from Soviet Russia. At the time, Jews there weren’t allowed to practise Jewish life – or to emigrate.

Former deputy prime minister of Israel Natan Sharansky in an exclusive interview with Wion opined that western world was right to warn Russia against invading Ukraine. He maintained that Israel had good relations with both, Ukraine and Russia.

Natan Sharansky was the figurehead of the worldwide human rights campaign to free Jews from Soviet Russia. At the time, Jews there weren’t allowed to practise Jewish life – or to emigrate.

Having spent 9 years in prison for his activism, Sharansky himself was finally freed in 1986.

He immediately moved to Israel, where he went on to become a minister in 5 different governments, including serving as deputy prime minister.

Our correspondent, Jodie Cohen, brings you this exclusive interview for WION…

Wion: Natan Sharansky, you went from the depths of a Soviet prison to becoming Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, and winning numerous awards across your lifetime. With the world currently facing difficult times because of the pandemic, what do you think gave you such resilience?

Sharansky: In Soviet Union, there was a totalitarian regime which wanted to deprive people of any independence. The way to do it was to deprive people of their identities. So I grew up having no freedom and no identity. Being Jewish, (there was) nothing Jewish in our lives. No holiday, no tradition or religion or language, nothing. There was a lot of anti-semitism. And (there was) no freedom. 

And then Israel secured victories against Arab regimes. You learn a lot in underground movements about this unique history, the people and the country, and you want to be part of it. The discovery of things bigger than yourself gives you strength to start speaking publicly and to fight for your rights. And that's how I became official spokesperson of two movements, Jewish movement and human rights movement.

When you get arrested, (you get) this feeling of yourself being part of a very important historical struggle, and that your people are together with you. And then somehow you make yourself feel that the struggle of your people depends on you saying 'no' to KGB. That's what gives you strength. And ofcourse KGB tried to convince me that everything was lost and nobody was ready to fight for you. And then you convince yourself that your people continue to struggle.

So it's mainly a struggle of your imagination against their lies and feeling that your life is more meaningful than simply your survival. Your identity and your freedom are very important.

Wion: You spent about half your time in prison in solitary confinement. With Christmas approaching, and people all over the world having to isolate because of COVID-19, what tips do you have for people finding it hard to cope in quarantine?

Sharansky: First of all, We are in a big struggle for the health of humanity and each of us has a role. We can deliver the victory together. So realising that there is sense, there is meaning (to all of this) helps.

Secondly, try to keep your sense of humour. I always enjoyed laughing at my prison guards showing them absurdity of their regime by making jokes about Soviet leaders. They couldn't even laugh because they were afraid to laugh. 

As long as you can laugh when it is funny, you are free. So internet has lot of jokes about our situation. Enjoy the jokes.

Thirdly, don't make plans which don't depend on you. For example, don't say something like when all of this is over I will go to America. It doesn't depend on you, whether you can or cannot go. Then you feel even more depressed. Make plans that depend on you.

For example, say I will learn a new language next month. I will read books which I wanted to read but didn't have time. This depends on you.

In prison, it was very important to not make plans about your survival. Your survival doesn't depend on you. But make plans to stand and say no to KGB and think that you will be a free person on the last moment of your life.

So make plans for which you can take full responsibility, and then deliver. 

Wion: Hundreds of thousands of people marched united in Washington to stand up for Jews from Soviet Russia. Today in the US, Israel and across the world, politics is increasingly polariseD. What lessons can be learned from the unity of the campaign to free Soviet Jews?

Sharansky: That campaign was extremely powerful. They marched not just to free Soviet Jews but also to bring down the iron curtain. The Soviet Union couldn't survive, it fell apart. So it was a victory against the most powerful totalitarian regime in the world. And this was possible because us, a small group of dissidents in the Soviet Union were supported by Jews from different walks of life and also other people who were interested in (supporting) human rights.

They marched with Martin Luther King and then they fought for our human rights. We also received support from those interested in freedom of those teaching Judaism. People from left to right (in the political spectrum) could understand why it was in their interest to press Soviet Union on the issue of human rights. So it was really very important that there was a common ground. 

The problem today is that even in the most obvious battles like battle against anti-Semitism, the confrontation between the left and the right that left is ready to see anto-Semitism among the right but not among themselves.

(Fight against) Hatred towards other religions and anti-Semitism must unite us all, left and right, and we all have to fight these prejudices in our own camps. This is quite a challenge, how to overcome political differences and unite ourselves for fight for freedom.

Wion: In 2018, you won the Israel Prize for your contributions to the State of Israel in the fields of Immigration and Absorption. This included setting up a political party to help integrate the 1 million Soviet Jews who moved to Israel. What can you tell us from your experience about the best way to integrate immigrants into society?

Sharansky: First of all, Israel is really a unique country because usually a country creates diaspora. In case of Israel, diaspora created Israel. They created their own state which existed two thousand years ago. So these are the people who came from very different diasporas.

Secondly, our victory over the territorial regime of Soviet Union brought the unique fact that 1 million Jews came from Soviet Union to Israel. Israel at the time was a country of 6 million people. It was a big change. It was very cometitive. People who became professionals, elite in a country of 200 million people, they came to a small country. So suddenly, number of doctors doubled (there were) engineers, 10 times more musicians and so on. So it was difficult.

But what was critical was that we understood we had to give voice to new immigrants. That's why we created a party of new immigrants. We entered the Knesset. Many immigrants were not well conversant in Hebrew, but they worked in government, municipalities are were taking decisions along with rest of country. That proved to be the best way of integration.

And if you look now, one generation later, (you can see) unbelievable example of successful integration. They are very comfortable in all walks of society.

Wion: Moving to Israel now. You became Deputy Prime Minister just after the Camp David peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down - in hindsight, why do you think they broke down? In your books on democracy, you’ve argued that there can never be peace until there are ‘real democratic institutions in Palestinian society’. Do you see signs for optimism today?

Sharansky: Well, I definitely see signs of optimism today. And they think that we lost a lot of time trying to build peace process through Oslo agreement. At that moment in 1993 when we signed the Oslo agreement, everybody was happy to see the picture of Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton. Two weeks after this I wrote my first article against this. Why? Because our prime minister said that it was very good that Yasser Arafat was a dictator. Without free press, human rights organisations, supreme court, he will defeat terrorism of Hamas.

I wrote in my article that as dictators, these people would need us as their enemies....For Yasser Arafat there will be no other enemy but us. So we have to be insistent that Yasser Arafat has free press, human rights organisations and supreme court (in Palestine). What happened in Oslo brought Yasser Arafat from Tunis to Palestine and it told Palestinians that he was their leader. And he destroyed all beginnings of (establishment of) human rights.

And that's why I was very critical. I never believed that this type of process of creating our own, or encouraging our own (principles) among Palestinians would bring peace.

I am more optimistic now. Because Abraham Accords between Israel and number of countries are based on people-to-people connections. Public opinion in Egypt continues to be extremely hostile to Israel. Same in Jordan. (But) The leaders are encouraging contact between people, businesses, cultures. It inevitably will also include Palestinians.

And then when those Palestinian leaders who will choose to recognise how important it is to use this, to build their own civil institutions, to build joint ventures with Israelis, they will become leaders of future Palestinian state which will make peace with us. Only the state in which people and leaders are interested to make peace can be our partner. So yes I am much more optimistic than I was before.

Wion: As a human rights activist, you’ve won numerous awards including, in 2006, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. Israel often faces criticism for its human rights record. In your opinion, is this criticism fair?

Sharansky: Israel, like every democratic country, should be open to criticism. Israel has a challenge of constantly fighting for its right to exist and also uphold human rights. For example, how to minimise casualties among civilians while fighting terror. Israel surely has this challenge and has more and more reasons to think about it. And as one who has been trying to solve this problem from all sides, I can say that we have this problem and we are dealing with this at least as good if not better than all other democratic countries.

Criticism is ok. But when criticism turns into demonisation of Israel, denying right of Israel to exist, applying double standards, that is anti-Semitism. 

Unfortunately, people in the free world, without realising are helping those who want to destroy us by agreeing with all sorts of extreme demonisation. For example, I hear some respectable western leader who says that I was in a refugee camp of Palestinians. This is the Auschwitz of today.

This is typical demonisation.

What does a refugee camp have to do with Auschwitz? Anyone who was in Auschwitz knows what a hell it was. It has nothing to do with poor neighbourhoods of Palestinians.

This is one of millions of examples of demonisation of Israel. These are clear double standards.

China is erasing whole cultures in Tibet and that of Uyghurs. Awful things are happening in Chechenya or in Africa. 

Amid all this, the only conflict that becomes symbol of human rights (violations) is that between Israel and Palestinians. These are clear double standards.

Wion: You were a child chess prodigy, and even beat the world chess champion in 1996! There is another Israeli who is also known to be a master strategist, and that is former PM, Benjamin Netanyahu. A) Would he beat you at chess? And B) Do you think he’ll be able to manoevre his way to becoming prime minister again?

Sharansky: First of all, Bibi (Benjamin Netanyahu) is not a bad chess player. He once drew with me and I don't know which other Israeli politician can do that.

He is not oustanding, but by the standards of politicians, he is a good chess player.

As to the political chess, Netanyahu is a friend. When I was in prison, he was a young diplomat in Washington. He was very inventive in giving ideas about how our struggle against the Soviet Union can be amplified.

And then when I was in government, I could see how he fought for an open Israeli economy, for removal of old socialist restrictions. And at the same time. For 20 years he was a fierce voice, sometimes a lonely one, against Iran. 

When such a person stays in power for so many years, it appears somehow that for the future of the country this person should stay in power. But let's not bet about democracy let's not bet over a person.

So I do reach out to my friend Netanyahu to strengthen his heritage. (But I don't want him to be complacent).

Today's political situation is unstable because we have a government that has the majority of 1 vote in the Knesset. This makes it very difficult to take any serious decision. There needs to be effort from both sides to build a government that will have a much broader platform.

Wion: Moving to geopolitics. You were born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union…today there is great tension between the Ukraine and Russia. Israel has just celebrated 30 years of ties with the Ukraine, and it also has ties with Russia. How can it continue to balance relations with both Ukraine and Russia going forward?

Sharansky: First of all, we have good relations with both Russia and Ukraine. There is no KGB today controlling minds of the people, there are no Gulags with millions of people dying there.

Having said this, I feel sorry that President Putin, who has very good relations with Israel, is restricting democracy and freedom in Russia.

Russia's annexation of Crimea was a violation of Helsinki agreement that said that borders will not change by way of war. I think this is very unfortunate.

I think the free world is right in warning Russia against invading Ukraine. At the same time I understand the difficulty of Israeli leaders who have to lead war against Iran and Iran's presence in Syria.

Unfortunately, Syrian airspace and territory is controlled by Russia. Giving away control in Syria, doing nothing when Syria was using chemical weapons and allowing strong Russian presence in Syria was a mistake from President Obama.

As a result, when we have to fight Iranian presence in Syria, we have to co-ordinate with Russia. So our leaders, when they are critical of Russia, they have to be cautious in choosing their tone, words and actions

Wion: You’re currently chairman of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy – with the pandemic there has been a new trend of Covid-related anti-Semitism. What can you tell us about this, and what is being done to counter it?

Sharansky: This is something very new, anti-Semitism and Covid. It is continuation of same policy of anti-Semites for 3000 years. Jews were presented as symbol of the evil, so everything bad was connected with Jews. (It was said that) Jews were responsible for Capitalism and they were also responsible for Marxism. They were held responsible for establishing regimes and destroying regimes.

Today we see two types of accusations. First is, Jews are making money through Covid pandemic. Second is, Jews helped China to keep Covid a secret. Jews didn't tell the world because they wanted to do business using pandemic. All of this is nonsense. But when some absolute nonsense is repeated many times on the internet, more and more people start believing it.

Only way to fight this is through a fight against demonisation of Jewish people and of Jewish state on all fronts simultaneously, on the left, on the right, religious, secular, everywhere.

After all, we are Jews and we are very proud of it. 

I was very happy when I received the Genesis Prize. I donated the prize amount, one million dollars for fight against Covid. Many Jewish people and organisations are doing excellent work in this field. 

Wion: You most recently served as Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which seeks to unite and educate Jews across the world…This is seen as a unifying role, and of course there is one other major unifying role in Israel, and that is the president. Would you like to become President of Israel one day?

Sharansky: I am very happy and lucky that I got the opportunity to lead the struggle for Soviet Jews, the struggle to bring down the iron cutrain, the struggle for integration of Soviet Jews and many other good opportunities. But everybody has to know where he can contribute. It is great, the position of president of Israel is noble. But (there are) many speeches, many performances and many receptions every day, I don't think I can be good in it.