Sharansky draws 1,500 area emigres to talk on crisis

The fence under construction to separate Israel from the West Bank and Gaza is a tool to fight terror, not a political ploy, said Israel's best-known ex-USSR refusenik during a visit to San Francisco on Sunday.

While some are concerned that the fence appears to impose a border, Natan Sharansky, Israel's housing and construction minister, insisted the barrier is "merely a tool to help the Israeli army protect us from terrorism. It has no political meaning."

Sharansky, who was in the city for a brief visit, discussed his perspective during in an interview at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. Later in the afternoon, he spoke in Russian at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El to an enthusiastic crowd of more than 1,500, primarily Russian Jews who immigrated to the Bay Area. He rushed back to Israel soon after to attend a meeting of the country's Security Cabinet.

"We have a war on our hands," he said, explaining his hurried departure. "We will be making some principal decisions."

Sharansky — who spent nine years in prison for his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry — was freed in 1986, moving to Israel. Since then he has unified Israel's approximately 500,000-strong emigre community, founding Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, the immigrant rights party.

He said new immigrants suffer a "very high percentage of losses" as a result of the ongoing violence because they make up at least 25 percent of the Israeli Defense Force's combatants, and because they don't usually have cars when they first arrive, they often ride public transit.

"There is no doubt that everybody is suffering, but immigrant families also have additional problems like adjustment and integration."

But it hasn't dampened the determination of most ex-Soviet Jews who make aliyah. "As a rule," he said, they know they are fleeing one hardship to endure another. They are suffering "no illusions."

"They knew they'd have to fight and are absolutely determined to be part of the struggle for Israel. Russian Jews, and every Jew of the diaspora who immigrates to Israel, has much more feeling of our common fate, destiny and future, much stronger than those born in Israel."

Ex-Soviet Jews also are more likely to share Sharansky's own strong belief that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat is "a corrupt dictator" who will never bring peace to the region.

"The experience of Russian Jews living under a dictatorship gives them an understanding of why you can't rely on it, why a dictator cannot be your partner for peace. No reforms can be launched by a corrupt dictator — a dictator's way of survival is war and violence."

Sharansky said he shared this view with Vice President Dick Cheney during a private meeting in Colorado on Saturday. He also stressed that "there needs to be a democratic process on the Palestinian side."

To that end, Sharansky recently offered a proposal for "a new kind of Palestinian leadership" to Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In it, he proposed that Egypt and Jordan, the "Arab countries that recognize Israel," should appoint a new Palestinian administration. Then, after several years of mobilizing the Palestinian economy, dismantling refugee camps and modifying the educational system, the Palestinian people could elect new leaders.

"With these leaders who represent the needs of the Palestinians we can definitely reach compromises and peace."

Rabbi Shimon Margolin, an emigre who lives in San Francisco, said Sharansky's speech at Emanu-El was "definitely the event of a decade. He is a legendary figure for us — the pride of the Russian community."

Many of the emigres in attendance have been actively mobilizing behind Israel since the outbreak of the intifada, said Margolin. He added that Sharansky's visit — sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation — has provided "a turning point" as one of the "final steps to get our community really organized" in these attempts.

"American Jews were at the forefront of the struggle for Soviet Jewry so many years ago," said Margolin. "What we heard at this meeting with Sharansky is that now, so many years later, Russian Jews stand shoulder to shoulder with Israeli Jews."