S.F. audiences rally round Sharansky but not Likud

Nearly a decade since his last visit, Natan Sharansky reassured a San Francisco crowd Tuesday that he has not forgotten his comrades from the Bay Area who marched on Moscow while he languished in a Soviet gulag.

The Israeli minister of industry and trade addressed several gatherings, meeting with local Jewish leaders at a private dinner before giving a public lecture at Congregation Sherith Israel. The visit was part of a whirlwind U.S.-Europe diplomatic tour for Israel's 50th anniversary.

"San Francisco was one of the leaders in the struggle [to free Soviet Jewry]," said Sharansky at the dinner, quipping, "It's also a great place for big demonstrations because of the big Russian Consulate here."

Israel's best-known refusenik spent 13 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps on espionage charges before his release in a 1986 East-West spy exchange. His activism led to the mass exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

While Sharansky's growing role in the Likud-led coalition has not impressed the left-leaning Jewish community here, this week even his politics couldn't mar his celebrity as a folk hero.

Longtime supporters of the noted Prisoner of Conscience showed up with gifts. One man brought a personally dedicated photographic portrait of Sharansky on his first visit to San Francisco in July 1988, after his release from prison. Questioners prefaced their criticisms of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government with vows of devotion to Sharansky.

After his public address, former Soviets in the crowd swarmed the man who they believe was responsible for their liberation.

Despite Sharansky's popularity, his cautious rhetoric about the peace process and pluralism didn't assuage everyone.

During the dinner meeting, Ted Steefel of San Francisco challenged the politician's assertion that solutions to such problems could take years to iron out: "The American people are losing patience. If you say we have to wait [another] 50 years, we get very impatient."

Sharansky countered that the creation of the Ne'eman Committee, comprised of spiritual leaders from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, was a revolutionary step toward compromise on pluralism. But, he added, full cooperation among the major streams of Judaism would not happen overnight.

Dan Grossman, board secretary for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said he didn't share Sharansky's optimism on pluralism and the peace process.

"The most concerning thing for me is [Israel's] relation with the U.S. and [with] Jews" here, he said. "Will there be a power play that will harm the U.S.-Israel relationship?"

Sharansky said he does not worry about the souring of U.S.-Israel relations. But he fears that Israel's withdrawal from Hebron sent an erroneous message that Israel would, with time and international pressure, hand over all the territories to Palestinians.

"It's difficult for Jews in the diaspora to understand why peace in Israel is such a complicated process," he said, explaining that every 1 percent of withdrawal represents territory the size of Tel Aviv.

"The Palestinians must lower their expectations and cooperate with regard to terror. [A final peace agreement] may be another half or another three years."

In the face of his audiences' probing questions on pluralism and the peace process, Sharansky talked most enthusiastically about the absorption of emigres in Israel and his hopes for government support of the country's high-tech boom.

"Russians have doubled the doctors, teachers and scientists [in Israel]." He added lightheartedly, "There are 10 times the musicians and chess players."

But despite their skills, particularly in high-tech industries, Sharansky continues to be concerned about the integration of 60,000 Russians who immigrate to Israel every year.

Although Sharansky didn't convince everyone that peace and Jewish unity lie ahead, Rabbi Brian Lurie, head of the Jewish Museum San Francisco, voiced the most daring appraisal of Sharansky's role in that mission: "I have grave reservations about Israel today, though I have no reservation about the person who stands before us.

"You stand for something that has been so unique and special that we can't forget," he told Sharansky at the dinner meeting. "I believe in you."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.