How Chinese dictators downed a Jewish hero

The death of 92-year-old Deng Xiaoping was the top news story around the world last week. Of course, there wasn't much of a Jewish angle to the tale of the little man who helped subject a great nation to communism, became a victim of its excesses, was rehabilitated and then opened up its economy while repressing freedom and massacring dissidents.

But lost amid the deluge of copy was one story that brought home the China issue for Jews. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on Feb. 20 that "Israel and China have agreed to boost bilateral trade and economic cooperation" during the visit to Israel by Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanqing.

Amid a growing movement to bring attention to the human rights abuses in China, the increasingly cozy ties between the Jewish state and China have not been disrupted by any Israeli or Jewish scruples about dealing with the regime that writer Michael Ledeen aptly described in the Weekly Standard as "the last of the great dictatorships of this century of wicked dictators."

There are those who have argued, with some justice, that Israel's position as a small country surrounded by enemies justifies its dealing with evil regimes in an effort to break its isolation. That made sense 20 years ago. But today, as the peace process continues, Israel is no longer isolated. And since even the current Likud government has embraced Oslo, it can no longer claim that the country's survival depends on a policy of making friends with anyone who will deal with the Jewish state.

Israel might be able to afford a moral foreign policy if it wanted one. Much like the United States on this same issue, it just doesn't want one.

News stories also quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogizing Deng as "one of the great leaders of the 20th century," while a wire service picture showed Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Li toasting the friendship between the two countries.

Levy is known as the sort of a politician who wouldn't know a principle if it jumped up and bit him, and while Netanyahu has been a great advocate of democracy and human rights in other contexts, his reputation for cynical realpolitik needs no elaboration.

In their defense, one might say that it is Netanyahu's and Levy's duty to kowtow to the Chinese. Separating China from Iran is a major goal of Israeli foreign policy. The Iranians are reportedly getting aid from China for their nuclear and missile programs. Ironically, at the same time, the Chinese have been cooperating on other military technology projects with Israel.

But it was the second paragraph of the JTA dispatch that stopped me dead in my tracks. It told of the meeting between Li and Israel's minister of trade and industry. According to the statement issued by the Israeli Trade Ministry, the minister expressed disappointment that the level of trade between Israel and China wasn't higher. Both the JTA story and a similar dispatch from the Jerusalem Post Foreign Service spoke of the cooperation planned in a wide variety of industries, especially electronics and telecommunications.

From the point of view of human rights advocates who have been pointing out China's repression of religious believers as well as its widespread use of slave labor in its export industries from its own gulag — the laogai — this is unsavory stuff.

The name of the minister doing the meeting and the planning? Natan Sharansky. Sharansky is a hero. Indeed, he is a hero to people who value human rights everywhere.

Sharansky was one of the most famous of the refuseniks who demanded the right to emigrate from the former Soviet Union to Israel. At his trial and sentencing 20 years ago when a Soviet court doomed him to decades in the gulag, his ringing assertion of Zionism challenged all of us to speak out in defense of all Jews trapped amid that anti-Semitic tyranny.

But what made Sharansky really dangerous to his Communist jailers was that he was more than just an advocate for Jewish rights. Sharansky was outspoken on behalf of all victims of Soviet communism, whether they were Jewish or not. He was a one-man model for the sort of selfless human rights activism that has characterized American Jewish groups who have been outspoken on non-Jewish human rights issues in countries like Bosnia and Rwanda. That's why Sharansky was such a potent symbol.

After his release and immigration to Israel, he continued to build his reputation. He became a spokesperson for his fellow Russian immigrants in Israel. Ultimately, he built a political party to represent them and led it to success in last year's elections and a place in the government.

Some say Sharansky lost his hero's laurel the moment he entered politics. I disagree. Even being a member of the latest Israeli Cabinet to earn the title "ethically challenged" has not besmirched his reputation.

Until last week, that is.

When he met with Li and angled for more Israeli involvement in the Chinese economy, did Sharansky remember the countless victims of the Beijing regime? Did he spare a thought for the Chinese Christians who are languishing in cold cells in the laogai, perhaps clutching a miniature volume of the Psalms, as Sharansky did in the gulag? Did he inquire as to whether any of the Chinese firms that export $160 million worth of products to Israel employ prisoners as slave labor? Did he ask about the release of courageous Chinese dissidents like Wei Jingsheng? Did he make a nuisance of himself by talking about human rights in the way so many Americans who dealt with the Soviets did when he was languishing in Soviet prison camps? Apparently not.

Does Sharansky know nothing of the laogai — which has been documented in books by Bay Area dissident Harry Wu and others? I hope this is the answer. Or does he just not care?

Say it ain't so, Natan. A call to conscience about Chinese human rights would redeem his legacy as an activist and bring honor to Israel and the Jewish people.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributing writer at National Review.