Thirty years ago next February, a baggy-panted little man walked across a bridge that connected East to West Germany and electrified the world. Anatoly Shcharansky was free after spending nine years in a Soviet prison and becoming a byword for Soviet Jewish “refuseniks.” The same day he was released by Moscow, Sharansky was whisked to Israel to an adoring public who could scarcely believe he was freed at last.
Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel in the early 1970s, and after a 1977 newspaper article alleged he was collaborating with the CIA, Sharansky was charged with treason and sentenced to 13 years of forced labour. His release on Feb. 11, 1986 was the culmination of intense international pressure that included relentless work from human rights lawyer and Canada’s future justice minister, McGill University law professor Irwin Cotler.
Once in Israel, Sharansky (he adopted a simpler English spelling and the Hebrew first name Natan) became an activist for Soviet Jewish emigration and went into politics. From 1996 to 2005, he served in successive Israeli governments in several cabinet positions, including internal affairs and housing.
He resigned from the Knesset in 2006, and in 2009, he became chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The CJN interviewed Sharansky, 67, prior to his appearance in Toronto July 15 at Beth Tzedec Congregation for a conversation with his old friend and advocate, Irwin Cotler.
The year 2014 saw a 32 per cent increase in immigrants to Israel, with most coming from France and Ukraine. What is the forecast for this and coming years?
The increase will be more moderate, but we expect 10 to 15 per cent more than last year, and France will continue to lead. We’re moving now from 7,000 to 10,000 arrivals from France. But Ukraine will reach at least 7,000. Russia, from where there will also be a serious increase, will reach 6,000. So altogether, we’ll have 30-plus thousand olim.
Of course, what is interesting is aliyah from the free world. These are people who have a choice. They can choose between Montreal, London, Australia, which wants them very much, and the United States. The fact that by far their No. 1 choice is Israel, that’s a real victory of Zionism. They’re coming to Israel not for shelter but as a magnet, as a place where they feel they can have a meaningful Jewish life.
In addition to those who make aliyah, you have a big increase in the number of young who are coming to the Masa Israel Journey program, [which connects Jewish young adults to programs in Israel]. Almost 90 per cent of them make aliyah.
What future do you see for European Jewry?
If the leaders of Europe do not take some very dramatic steps, this definitely will be the last century in the history of European Jewry. There are two major factors that make the lives of Jews in Europe so uncomfortable. One is what’s happening with a huge Islamic community. Europe doesn’t expect from them, doesn’t demand of them, doesn’t put as a condition of coming to accept fully the norms of a free society. As a result, it’s not big maybe, but there is a hard core of Islamic extremism, and that’s very frightening. The other thing is that liberal Europe became so anti-Israel. For those Jews who want to be assimilated, they can remain in Europe and be part of liberal Europe and disappear as Jews. But those who don’t want that and need this close connection with Israel, they feel extremely uncomfortable. As long as these two major factors are not changed, I don’t think Jews will feel comfortable.
We are witnessing a new, muscular, aggressive Russia. Do the country’s recent adventures in Crimea and Ukraine remind you of the Soviet Union?
It’s not the old Soviet Union. Under the KGB, practically 200 million people were controlled – not only their physical life, but their thoughts. There were millions of people working for the KGB, and practically every dissident was afraid of finding himself in a Soviet prison. It’s not at this stage now. But no doubt there has been a retreat from the liberal strain. Institutions of civil society are not becoming stronger. Independent courts have not become more independent, but less. But now there is aliyah from Russia, not because of economic situations, but mainly because people are afraid that Russia again will be isolated from the free world.
How did being a political prisoner prepare you for becoming a politician?
I don’t know if that was good for a politician or not. But it’s definitely good to feel you are independent-thinking and to feel that freedom and honesty are the most important things you have. Prison strengthens your desire to think big and to connect your life to the big ideals and not to this day’s immediate interests.
And your struggle for human rights. Did it make you more determined to envision and achieve a settlement to the Middle East conflict?
That’s one of the tragedies happening between the Middle East and the free world. The free world abandoned the linkage between human rights and peace. We speak about how to make peace, but we mainly speak how to find dictators who will be strong enough to sign a deal with us. That’s how it was with Yasser Arafat. I don’t believe in it. I think it has nothing to do with real peace, which goes from bottom up by strengthening civil society. The Palestinian leaders have to be blamed for lack of interest in a civil society, but I would say the free world is guilty in not trying to pursue it. So for me, human rights are a part of the struggle for a better world and for peace.
How has Israel changed since you arrived in 1986?
I was the first political prisoner who came through the Iron Curtain. But then there were other political prisoners and other Jewish activists and then the Iron Curtain fell. Then, one million Jews came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. It made Israel a much more open society, much more free, and much more competitive and self-confident. All good things.
Has Israel done a good job of integrating Soviet and Russian immigrants, and those from Ethiopia?
You have new immigrants on the one hand and society on the other. Israel is absolutely a unique society in which there are difficulties. It’s a country that welcomes new immigrants, whatever the economic difficulties. Never was any airplane with new immigrants stopped. There are many problems, but one generation after one million Jews came, practically every average family of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union is at least at the same level as the average Israeli family born here. People came with a lot of ambition and a lot of education, but with fear. When the population increases by 20 per cent and when there are many more doctors and engineers than are needed, there is a fear that there will be massive unemployment. There were some difficulties at first.
One generation later, you can see how deeply integrated Russian immigrants are. You cannot imagine any hospital, any university, any high-tech company without Russian-speaking Jews. So it’s an example of a successful absorption. Does it mean the government did everything right? Of course there were many mistakes. There was lots of fighting between activists and the establishment.
More than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews became equal citizens. You will not find any precedent in such relations between Africa and the modern world. It was challenging. They came almost from the Stone Age, opposite to Russians. They had no professional training. But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest is people who come from tribal life where everything is based on respect for elders and the elders are the source of power, respect and stability, and then they find themselves in a society where in five years, the young start speaking the language and become part of society, and elders are becoming the most helpless part of the family. So all these tribal relations are falling apart.
But today, Ethiopian Jews are successful in the army and the economy. Some of our most successful shlichim [foreign emissaries] are Ethiopian Jews. That says something about integration. Whether it is deep enough, it will take another 15 to 20 years to know.
Do you miss political life?
Oh, no. Never, even for one day. I was in prison for nine years and in the Knesset for nine years. In government, I resigned twice. I was in four prisons, and never resigned.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.