Daily Archives: February 25, 2011

My Interview with Natan Sharansky.

Natan Sharansky: Chairman of Jewish Agency and former Soviet Prisoner

Natan Sharansky: Chairman of Jewish Agency and former Soviet Prisoner

On the 25th anniversay of his release from a brutal soviet gulag, Natan Sharansky spoke to me about Russian immigration, Egypt and chess. (The interview appears in this week’s Jewish News).

What is your greatest personal achievement of the last 25 years?

Apart from becoming a grandfather twice-over this year, one million Jews moved to Israel since the Soviet Union fell apart and have successfully integrated. I was heavily involved in that.

This has also been Israel’s greatest achievement during this time. I don’t know of another country that has increased its population by 20% and where those immigrants have been as successful as anyone else in society.

And Israel remains a vibrant democratic Jewish society, with one of the most successful economies in the world, despite being surrounded by dictatorships and fundamentalists and being demonised in the free world.

How important is the Diaspora to Israel?

Israel is an important part of the Jewish identity for all Jews. I’m very happy for Jews to move to Israel, but Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews are all part of the same important process.

Are you worried by current events in Egypt?

There’s always reason to be worried. We always have to be ready to defend ourselves against our enemies. But events in Egypt are also a unique opportunity.

The 100-year pact between the free world and Arab dictators to keep the Arab street stable has finally been broken. I have always believed in the power of democracy and the desire of people to live in freedom.

Yes, but democracy led to Hamas governing Gaza.

Islamic fundamentalism has more chance of succeeding the longer the Arab world is ruled by dictators, including the likes of Yasser Arafat. Democratic dissidents from places like Egypt have been telling the free world for a long time that they are the only true partners for peace, not the dictators. Now that millions of Arabs are saying the same thing I hope the leaders of the free world will, finally, embrace this call.

So what is happening could be good for Israel?

Much depends on whether the leaders of the free world link the assistance they give to Arab leaders to democratic reforms. The people of the Middle East have made their choice. But if the free world doesn’t support them we could end up with more dangerous regimes like Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Will the Arabs ever accept a Jewish state in the Middle East?

Initially, it isn’t easy for people to lose something they believe is theirs. On the other hand 63 years of a Jewish state is long enough for it to be accepted. Middle East dictators have kept Israel as an external enemy for their own internal stability.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the free world, including Israeli leaders, did not, or chose not to, understand that it was important for these dictatorships to encourage hatred towards Israel. Tunisians and Egyptians have now demanded a new life, but haven’t been mentioning Israel.

If Middle East leaders now concentrate on improving their citizens’ lives, instead of encouraging hatred towards Israel, the chances of Israel being accepted will improve. Democracy will encourage this, so it’s in Israel’s interests for democracy to succeed in the Middle East.

Are you critical or supportive of Avigdor Lieberman?

He is part of our democracy. I don’t agree with him on everything but his demonisation is part and parcel of Israel’s demonisation. As long as he is acting within the framework of Israeli democracy he cannot be a threat to that democracy.

Finally, did you really beat Gary Kasparov at chess?

Yes! I had many years of playing chess in my head while in prison in the Soviet Union, so I was very well prepared!