“Anti-Semitism is a very dangerous symptom; it says something is wrong with the society”

With Natan Sharansky, we talked about the new anti-Semitism, his views on Turkey-Israel relations and his observations on the Turkish Jewish Community

With a life story much more interesting than a Hollywood movie, Israel’s ex-minister of Trade, Natan Sharansky, visited Istanbul last week, as the guest of Limmud. Sharanksy, who spent nine years in prison for being a human rights activist in Soviet Russia, was saved as a result of an international campaign led by his wife, Avital Sharansky. After his released Sharansky, became a fighter against anti-Semitism around the world.

With Natan Sharansky, we talked about the new anti-Semitism, his views on Turkey-Israel relations and his observations on the Turkish Jewish Community.

You have an impressive life story, but what I’m really curious about is your life when you first moved to Israel? How was it to begin a new life?

First of all, it was a very dramatic change. From Soviet prison to Israel in one day straight. One morning, the Soviets took me to an airplane, and then American ambassador took me to the bridge which was at the border. After that an Israeli plane took me straight to Israel. One morning you’re in prison and that night you’re with all the people celebrating. So it was very dramatic. And it was a dream. Many times I had this dream in my sleeps in prison. Then I would wake up and find myself in prison again. I still believe I’m living the dream. I was blown straight from hell to paradise. With all the challenges we live in Israel, I enjoy every moment of it with my family.

On the other hand, it was not something absolutely new. Because it was the continuation of my life to freedom. I started my journey to freedom in Soviet Union when I started freeing my mind. So the biggest change was the liberation of my mind; I stopped living under constant fear.

Your release was a turning point in many ways…

My release was only the beginning for opening of the gates where more than one million Jews came to Israel from Soviet Union. So I helped the new comers with the adaption, integration to the society. Then they formed political party and even became a minister in the government. I also happened to be the ministry of industry and trade and signed a number of free trade agreements. It was our philosophy to have as many free trade agreements as possible.

You were the one, who signed the free trade agreement with Turkey. How do you evaluate the results?

I am really happy to see the results. Back then there were many demonstrations in front of my house from glass industry and some others industries. They were protesting the trade agreement believing that they will be out of work because of the competition with Turkish industries. That happened to be true. That’s the reality of the free trade agreements; everybody can choose the more competitive one. There were some things our local industries had to give up to Turkish industries. But there were also other consequences of the free trade agreement, for example high tech field was more open to the world. And during the last years, when we went through big crises between Israel and Turkey, the free trade agreement proved itself.

Turkey and Israel had a rough time…

It was very unfortunate that the friendship between Turkey and Israel was undermined. Turkey can be a gate opening to Muslim world. Turkey is more close to the ideas of open and democratic society than most of the other Muslim countries.

Recently many countries in Middle East realized that Israel is not their main enemy. They realized that they have deep strategic interests that coincide with Israel. Turkey could be a great partner in helping to bring the strategic interests together which now are between some important Middle East players and Israel. This would have tremendous benefits for all the sides. Unfortunately we are not there yet…

Turkey is now also facing serious terrorist attacks. We lived with this all of our life. We know what it is to fight against terror. We have everything to protect us from prominent terror attacks and missile attacks, from many places including Gaza. It is our interest to build much more deep and good relations with Arabs who live in Israel and in Palestinian Territory, but it is also our mutual interest with Turkey not to let terror of any type to terrorize our lives.

So depending on what happened in last years, to build much more healthy relations between Israel and Turkey is necessary.

What do you think about the Turkish Jewish Community?

This is not my first time in Turkey, I came before as a politician but this time I was with the community. Turkish Jewish Community is a small community. In the old times, for example in the times of Sultan Suleiman, it was very big. But Turkish Jews not like the other communities which were once big but became small because of the Holocaust. Turkish Jewish Community is one of the few communities in Europe which didn’t live the tragedy of the Holocaust. It’s not closed community but more isolated than other European communities.

Also it is an interesting community; it is not ultra-orthodox, but at the same time it is not assimilating. You don’t have a high number of mixed marriages. I visited communities all around the world, and I can say there are two anchors which protect Jewish communities from assimilation; one is religion and the other is Israel. And I think in this community there is emotional connection to Israel; to families, relatives… Relations on this level between Israeli Jews and Turkish Jews are felt very strong.

I visited the school as well. I think the school is very impressive, in terms of the level of studies. In many places around the world, people are afraid that if you send their child to Jewish school, that general studies will be much lower. If you want to go to a good university, do not go to Jewish school. That’s the general impression but it’s not the case here, you can feel it. On the other hand, unfortunately the Jewish school has to spend so much money for security, probably the most protected Jewish institution.

You’re always pointing out the rise of anti-Semitism in the West. With your new definition of 3D anti-Semitism, you’re pointing out the new forms of anti-Semitism. Is just anti-Semitism on the rise or can we say racism in general, including islamophobia, etc.?

There is racism everywhere in the world; that we know. But with Jews, there is always something in addition… 3D anti-Semitism is not a definition I proposed newly, I proposed it during the second intifada, 12 years ago. People in the West are telling me, “Don’t confuse our criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.” Look, Israel is full of criticism, it is such a vibrant democracy, every politician has to criticize otherwise his career will be finished. But 3D anti-Semitism clearly states double standards against Israel in criticism; meaning the rules that don’t apply to anybody but Jews. Also there’s demonization, Jews are turned into something like Satan, evil. And there is de-legitimization, denying Jews as a nation.

Today when we look at so called criticism of Israel, there is double standard which you will not find to any other country. If Israel is condemned because of violation of human rights more than all the dictators in the world together, where hundred thousands are killed and millions of refugees, where Israel is the only strong democracy with elections, the rule of law,  NGO’s, free newspapers, that means there is clearly double standards. If they condemn Israel with violation of human rights more than all other countries together, it means there are some kinds of other laws that apply.

The demonization is declaring that the refugee camp of Palestinians is Auschwitz of today. I went to refugee camps; it is very bad that they exist. We have to analyze how it happens, how they exist until now. But what it has to do with Auschwitz? When the cartoon showing Ariel Sharon eating Palestinians and blood dropping from his mouth (this was at the time of second Intifada), becomes the cartoon of the year and gets the first prize, it is demonization.

And unfortunately, issue of legitimacy is raised all the times in the international forums.

How can we explain it?

The anti-Semitism could not exist in the old form after Holocaust. But now there is Jewish state, which is a collective of Jews. And it was really challenging because Europe decided that nationalism is bad for stability and peace; national states were not proper. And Israel -as part of free world- insisted that it is a national Jewish state. In Middle East where we exist, democracy is not something accepted and we insist we are part of Middle East and we are a democracy. So we are really irritating everybody. We are part of the free world and we irritate many especially around in Europe. And in Middle East we irritate the ones that say ‘democracy is something very dangerous’.

So in Europe, as a result of denying every national identity, we have islamophobia, no doubt, very intense… Europe has to deal with it. But there is fear of strong identity. I speak in my book about the connection of democracy and identity. When strong identities connected with the principals of democracy they are not dangerous; to the contrary, strong identities can give meaning to the free life. When it is disconnected, or when you try to undermine freedom because you insist on your identity, or you are trying to undermine the identity of the people in order to have more free world, that is what is dangerous. So no doubt, the balance is broken somehow. We have two extremes, like many the countries in our area, people for the sake of their identity who are ready to destroy democracy or like mood in last 15-20 years in Europe, people for the sake of protecting freedom speak against any strong identity. That’s also very dangerous.

When anti-Semitism becomes a state policy how should we react to it?

Anti-Semitism is a very dangerous symptom; it says something is wrong with the society. That society can be dangerous for its own citizens and for the world outside. When the prejudice against Jews become part of the state policy that’s dangerous.

Anti-Semitism is one of the consequences of type of society you have. If the people are persecuted, if there is no freedom of thought, big economic crisis, the easiest scapegoat will be Jews. Jews are a natural scapegoat with authorities and for many people in the street. That’s why the condemnation of anti-Semitism is very important. You have to look who’s using it for what aim. Those who really don’t want to give freedom to their people, those who can’t meet their economic needs -or don’t want to meet the economic needs- are strengthening and encouraging it. Anti-Semitism exists anyway but the fact that there are political forces which are interested in using it, amplify it or not, is important. And usually those who want to use it are those who want to have control over the brains of their people.

Do you have hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace? In your opinion why Oslo failed?

As long as there is political and social stability and there are forces which are not trying to prevent the democratic institutions, but forces that encourage it, I personally believed and still believe in peace. I see it when working with many Arabs in Israel; overwhelmingly they want to be a part of the democratic society. They are the same Palestinians but simply live under the Israeli citizenship. The fact that there are some members of the Knesset who are Arab, shows the desire of the overwhelming majority of Arab-Israeli citizens to be a part of Israeli democracy.

My criticism starts about Oslo. What was the idea of the Oslo agreement? We take dictator, we take Yasser Arafat -who was absolutely against any democratic institution, bring him from Tunisia and tell the Palestinians “He will be your leader, want it or you don’t want it?”

A few weeks after Oslo agreement, I wrote my first article which was against it. They said, Arafat was a dictator, without Supreme Court, without human rights organizations and without free press; he will fight Hamas much better than we can do. But I said, without court and free press, as a dictator he will do anything for his people to hate us, that’s the way for the dictator to survive. And of course then Hamas defeated him. So all these hopes that we’ll find a dictator who’ll destroy all of our enemies and Palestinians will have no other choice to live under his dictator, are very naïve. Also it is very cynical attitude to Palestinians, to think that in order for us to have peace, they will have to suffer from another dictator! What I’m saying, instead of this, we will support every leader building civil society, building independent economy and education. These leaders, who would be elected through the democratic institutions, would be our best partners for real peace. Arabs, like other people, will not allow for the dictatorship. These dictators are not replaced with democracies because there is no encouragement, support. So in my theory, it will take more time.

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