I briefly met Natan Sharansky about five years ago. We were sitting together at NBC TV waiting for our respective interviews. I wanted to speak with him. In fact, I had wanted to speak with him since the late 1980’s.
I recalled, vividly, Sharansky’s stance as a “prisoner of conscience” in the former Soviet Union, his celebrated release and, later, his arrival in Israel. I also remembered how, while at first silent about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, he finally spoke out in condemnation. And then, I recalled, how the Israeli establishment pounced on him and not only silenced this former human rights champion-but turned him into an apologist for Israeli policy. Later, as Sharansky entered Israeli politics, he was allied with the right wing. He moved from silence in the face of violations of Palestinian human rights to being an advocate for these violations. Still later, as a minister in the government, he carried out these same violations.
I followed all this closely, because I had hoped that Sharansky would have reacted differently. A friend, Dr. Israel Shahak, himself a former child prisoner abused in Nazi war camps, and later founder of the Israeli League for Civil and Human Rights, sent me frequent clippings from the Israeli press and reports on Sharansky’s public activities.
Shahak was as disappointed as I was that Sharansky would not “measure human rights with one yard stick”-that he would be selective in his commitment.
And so I waited in the NBC holding room, until Sharansky had finished his phone call and then I approached him. We initially exchanged pleasantries, and then I told him how I had followed his career and how I had been disappointed by his submission to pressure. His voice, I told him, could have been so important, but he had lost his courage and had agreed to be silent.
He listened, and, at first, mumbled something to the effect that I didn’t understand the “Palestinian threat.” Then he fell silent and looked away. In fact, as I recall, he made very little eye contact with me throughout the exchange.
I gingerly attempted to pursue the topic, but, with his head down and his eyes turned away, he made it clear there would be no further conversation. I have often wondered what his behavior meant. Had I reached him and did he feel guilt? That was too much to hope for. Or, did he, realizing that I was not a sycophant or part of his mesmerized following, decide that it was simply not useful to waste words on an “unbeliever.”
Over the years, when I’ve seen his name, I’ve thought of his hypocrisy. It troubled me that his forced “snap conversion on human rights” of the late 80’s had been forgotten, his myopia ignored. But no more. In recent weeks a flurry of sharp and tough critiques of Sharansky have been written by a variety of individuals appearing in a range of publications-from the right wing American Conservative and right wing, pro-Israel New York Sun to a critical assessment of all of this in the liberal Jewish weekly Forward. It appears that, at last, “the little hero” is getting knocked down to size.
Of course most Americans don’t remember Sharansky’s history as a “refusenik” or “prisoner of conscience.” They probably don’t even remember the Soviet “gulags.” What they do know about Sharansky is that he has become the “darling” of the Bush Administration. It has been reported that it was a long conversation Sharansky had with Vice President Cheney that led to the Administration’s decision to isolate, ignore, and seek the removal of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. And, more recently, it was after a long meeting in the White House between President Bush and Sharansky that the President emerged to praise his book The Case for Democracy. President Bush said, “I felt like his book just confirmed what I believe. He writes a heck of a lot better than I could write, and he’s certainly got more credibility than I have…”
“Ay,” to borrow from Shakespeare, “there’s the rub.” The point is, does Sharansky have credibility? The recent above-mentioned criticisms from the right and left appear to agree that because of his silence in the face of Israeli abuses of Palestinian human rights and denial of democratic rights to this occupied people, he is not credible.
Now there is an important lesson here, not only for Americans and Israelis, but for Arabs as well. For our commitment to human rights to be consistent and not hypocritical, it must be absolute. We, too, must measure human rights by one yardstick.
I recall in the 1980’s there were two competing groups in California-one pro-Syrian Baath, the other pro-Iraqi. Each year they would issue separate human rights reports accusing the other of violations, while ignoring the violations of their sponsoring regime. Neither was credible.
It is also not credible to complain about the US’ use of torture or “secret detentions” or Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinian detainees, and not condemn similar practices when they are carried out by Arab governments.
Our goal must be to be consistent in the defense of rights. Or else we are no better than, and no less hypocritical than, Natan Sharansky.