Israeli activist says peace is possible

Natan Sharansky speaks at Chico State, offering ideas of freedom from fundamentalism and dictatorships

GIVE PEACE A CHANCE <br> Natan Sharansky, who lives in Jerusalem, says he believes there will be peace in his land—but it will take hard work and determination.

Natan Sharansky, who lives in Jerusalem, says he believes there will be peace in his land—but it will take hard work and determination.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Israel and Palestine have been on the minds of many in Chico these past few weeks, especially following the visit of pro-Palestinian speaker Norman Finkelstein just two weeks ago. This week brought to Chico a man from the other side of the fence, both literally and figuratively.

“I believe that peace is possible,” Natan Sharansky cried out Monday night (May 4) to a mostly older crowd in the Harlen Adams Theatre on the Chico State campus. His booming voice echoed, and while his message seemed to get across, his thick Russian accent made some of his words difficult to understand.

Sharansky, who has spoken at more than 70 universities over the past decade, had a commanding presence. He was striking, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and no tie (“I like California because it’s laid back, I don’t have to wear a tie,” he had said earlier in the day). He was almost intimidating, an interesting fact considering his barely 5-foot-tall frame and his bald, shiny head. Sharansky was reminiscent of one of the Three Tenors, only his song was peace and democracy in the Middle East.

The focus of his speech Monday night was labeled a “dialogue about human rights, freedom, justice, democracy, peace and the Middle East.” Despite his somewhat controversial subject matter, the crowd remained mostly silent and respectful. He discussed the future of Israel, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East.

“[Palestinians] are as courageous and willing to fight as we are,” Sharansky said. “The process of building democracy in the Middle East has to start from the bottom up, all the while learning from our past and recent mistakes.” His goal is “developing, defending and broadening civil societies.”

A lot of U.S. disagreements with Middle Eastern countries stem from our mutual lack of understanding and preconceived, ill notions about the other, he said.

Sharansky grew up in the Soviet Union, in what’s now the Ukraine, and spent nine years in prison as a political dissident (he became a leader in the Jewish and refusenik movements in Moscow after being denied an exit visa to Israel). When he was finally released, in 1986, he was given a grand entry into Israel and went on to spend many years in the Israeli government.

Three years ago, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George W. Bush, and just last month he was nominated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to head up the Jewish Agency, which aids immigrants to Israel.

Sharansky’s experiences in prison, dealing with both his political views and religious identity being stifled, led not only to his writing the book Fear No Evil, but also to his many strong views on human rights and freedom that he speaks about today.

In a conversation prior to the speech, he spoke with the CN&R about Israel’s role as the only democracy in the Middle East, the fight against terrorism and how to reach peace in the divided region.

Sharansky says that Israel is actually fighting three wars: a war against dictatorships, which rule much of the Middle East; a war against fundamentalism, which creates suicide bombers and extreme hate for others; and a war to ensure Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish country, which many in the Middle East challenge. “Nobody questions the right of Spain to exist,” he offered.

“I want to bring attention to this idea of two states for two nations,” he said, referring to Israel and Palestine coexisting. He likes the fact that Palestinians and Israelis can cross the borders—in fact, he resigned from the Israeli government because of his belief that Jews should not be forced to leave the Gaza Strip.

Sharansky also strongly believes in holding onto one’s identity—whether Jewish, Muslim, Palestinian, Israeli—but not getting to the point at which you’d die for it. “That’s fundamentalism,” he said, and it’s caused many problems in the Middle East.

“In any part of the world, in order for peace to prevail, the terrorists must be defeated.”

The road to harmony in that region of the world will be a slow and bumpy one, he said. Dictators must be overthrown in favor of democracy. Fundamentalism must be quelled. But when asked if he believes that peace will someday come to the Middle East, Sharansky said confidently: “I’m sure it will. But I’m an optimist. I’ve always been an optimist.

“I believe that civil society and peace will be restored.”

Katie Booth contributed to this report.