Sharansky gives students ammunition to defend Israels reputation

When pro-Israel students on college campuses are challenged on Israel’s human rights record, Natan Sharansky has one recommendation: Tell them that the only country in the Middle East where people can freely criticize the government — and not end up in jail — is Israel.

That was the main point of a talk Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs delivered at Stanford University’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Wednesday, April 14. The audience was composed of more community members than students in the less than half-full 716 capacity room.

How can it be such a widely accepted opinion, Sharansky continually asked, that Israel is the major violator of human rights in the world, when, in fact, it’s the one country in the Middle East that believes in and fights for human rights?

Sharansky’s tour was sponsored by Caravan for Democracy, a project of the Jewish National Fund, Media Watch International and Hamagshimim — the student arm of Hadassah.

In his only Bay Area non-campus appearance, he spoke in front of about 800 people at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El on Sunday night, April 18, to commemorate Yom HaShoah.

It is only because Israel is living in a constant state of war, Sharansky stressed at Stanford, that its democracy is, in some cases, compromised. But the Western media is partially to blame, he said, for portraying Israel as a warmonger.

When the Israel Defense Forces went into the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in 2002 — for which it was accused of human rights abuses and massacre — he said, it was a necessary operation to prevent terrorism.

In the month preceding the operation, some 125 Israelis had been killed in suicide bombings.

“We had an agonizing meeting, where the government deliberated through the night until 6 a.m. what to do,” he said.

Describing the Jenin refugee camp as “the land of Hamas, where even the Palestinian police don’t enter,” he said that nonetheless, extreme pains were taken to save civilian lives. “We decided not to use tanks, we decided not to use huge weapons; we went house to house, to avoid mass killings,” he said.

At the end of the operation, 23 Israeli soldiers and 54 Palestinians had been killed, he said, “defending their terrorist factories. And this battle was called by the Western press ‘the worst massacre since the Second World War.'”

He continued, “This example should be studied in every school.”

Noting that a Palestinian account of the events showing Israeli tanks ruthlessly killing innocent Palestinian civilians — a documentary film called “Jenin Jenin” — is being viewed with regularity on college campuses, he said, “this is the reality in which democracy has to fight terror.”

Sharansky said it was indeed tragic that twice as many Palestinians had died in the conflict as Israelis, but noted, “For the Palestinians, every operation is judged by how many [Israeli] people are killed. Four is a failure, 20 is a success.”

Meanwhile, he said, when Palestinian civilians are killed in an Israeli military action, the Israeli government deems it a failure.

While some consider Arabs incapable of democracy — comparing the two to oil and water — Sharansky said this belief was racist. “The same used to be said about the Russians,” he said, adding that a solid middle class exists in Palestinian society that is ready for democracy more than any other Arabs.

Nevertheless, he remained steadfast that Israel has no one to negotiate with.

“Palestinians are taught from the age of 3 to be suicide bombers,” he said. “The middle classes are our hope.”

Sharansky told students they could make a difference, especially if they are “fighting for their ideals with moral clarity and courage.”


Unable to bring armed guards, Sharansky nixes SFSU speech

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."