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The Outsider

Natan Sharansky versus the Israeli mainstream.

This past March, Natan Sharansky—the onetime Russian dissident and former Israeli politician—appeared at a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to discuss the Arab Spring. It was around this time that the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force to help embattled Libyan rebels, the first signs of unrest appeared in the southern Syrian city of Dara’a, and Egyptians were preparing to vote on changes to their constitution. Meanwhile, politicians in the United States and abroad were trying to make sense of the new Middle East, in which stable dictatorships had suddenly been replaced by stirrings of democracy but also chaos and uncertainty. Sharansky was emphatic about which state of affairs he preferred. Sitting up in his seat, he glared at the committee members and said bluntly, “You were helping the dictators.”

It was a dramatic declaration, but not out of character. The theme that has most animated Sharansky since his 1986 release from Soviet prison is the struggle between what he calls “free societies” and “fear societies.” The only way to live in good faith, he argues, is to encourage those “double-thinkers” living under despotism to cross the line into dissent. Sharansky distilled this argument into a 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, which, shortly after its release, George W. Bush repeatedly encouraged people to read. Bush even told CNN that Sharansky’s book “summarizes how I feel.”

But today the famed fighter for human rights has arrived at an odd moment in his life. Sharansky was a hero in Israel, where he moved after leaving the Soviet Union, eventually founding a new center-right political party and holding ministerial positions in four different governments until his retirement from politics in 2006. Yet, ever since the start of the Arab Spring, he has found himself increasingly out of step with his countrymen on the issue about which he cares most.  

I'VE INTERVIEWED Sharansky nearly a dozen times in recent years, in person and over the phone, and have always found it hard to see the charismatic and gregarious man that former activists and journalists recall from 1970s Moscow. At 63, he comes across as listless, even uncomfortable. But, since the first burst of revolution in Tunisia, there is a focus and assuredness to his voice. He seems to have been revived by the moment.

“All people, in every culture, don’t want to live constantly in a state of fear and self-censorship,” he told me recently. He remained steadfast in his support of the Middle East’s democracy movements even as the various revolutions seemed to be faltering. “We have to look at it optimistically,” he told me one day in June, just after Syrian forces had killed at least 70 protesters in one of the bloodiest days of the revolt. “Realize that what happened in these countries was inevitable. We can’t expect that the people of the Arab world will forever agree to live under dictatorship only because it is more convenient for us.” When I spoke with him three months later, militants operating out of Egypt’s Sinai Desert had launched terrorist attacks into southern Israel, killing eight Israelis. I asked him if his hopes had dimmed. “I was never under any illusions that the process of building a free society would be a quick one,” he told me.

In the United States, Sharansky’s views have found a venue on the op-ed pages of all the national newspapers. Yet, in Israel, he is seen as hopelessly naïve. In the Israeli national security establishment, there is an almost uniform belief that the Arab uprisings are dangerous—the “replacement of parameters with variables,” says Edward Luttwak, the military strategist and writer who has consulted for the Pentagon and the State Department. Many Israeli thinkers are deeply skeptical that Arab states will become liberal democracies. “There is no universal value of democracy: There are one hundred and ninety-three states in the world, and only one-sixth of them are democracies,” says Mordechai Kedar, a scholar of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University and a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army. “Sharansky has never confronted the fact that you can bring down an oppressive regime and in the end you are going to get another type of oppressive regime,” says Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University and a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “He lives in a binary world, but unfortunately that’s not the real world.”

Sharansky himself has recounted with some relish that Ariel Sharon once told him, “Your ideas about freedom have no relevance to the Middle East.” A number of Israeli analysts told me that it was Sharansky’s inability to reconcile the two parts of his identity—democracy crusader and conservative Israeli politician—that led to the end of his political career.

So far, when it comes to the Arab Spring, Sharansky has directed his criticism at the United States rather than Israeli leaders. He told me that he could forgive Israel’s political and military elite for letting concern about the country’s security trump principle. Not so the “leaders of the free world,” he said, who “never believed this would happen and are failing to support the democratic forces.”

But, notwithstanding the merits of this caveat, Sharansky’s views seem destined to remain a tiny minority among Israelis, at least during this time of regional upheaval. As David Hazony, an American-Israeli writer and former editor of Azure, a journal of public affairs, put it: “Sharansky brought down the Soviet Union by focusing on the abstract concept of freedom. But, in Israel, all abstract concepts are subordinated to one thing: the collective saving of our asses.”

Gal Beckerman is the author of When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, which has just been published in paperback. This article appeared in the October 20, 2011, issue of the magazine.