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A Conversation with Natan Sharansky

Former Israeli politician and refusenik, Natan Sharansky, speaks about his correspondence with Alexei Navalny and his nine years in USSR prisons.

· 19 min read
A portrait of Natan, a Caucasian man in his 60–70s, bald, with blue eyes.
Natan Sharansky.

This interview was conducted by Pamela Paresky in Israel in February 2024.

Pamela Paresky: Given the current events, I wanted to start by asking you about Navalny. What do you think happened?

Natan Sharansky: Putin killed Navalny. Whether he did it by poisoning him, or he did it by beating him to death, or simply through permanently keeping him in a punishing cell, and it was slow.

It does not matter. What’s important is that Navalny did more than anybody in the world to unmask the real nature of this regime, the dictatorial and corrupt nature of the regime and Putin personally, and he showed unbelievable courage and moral clarity doing all this.

Putin is a very revengeful dictator. He saw real danger in the influence which Navalny had on the minds of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. Putin decided to kill him long ago and Putin didn’t succeed by poisoning him. To the contrary, this poisoning turned into the biggest humiliation for Putin. So Putin did it a different way. But that was the way it was. It was revenge.

PP: When you say punishing cell, what is that?

NS: A punishing cell, or car cell, is a small room, two or three metres, it’s very cold, and they take away all your warm clothes and they give you three pieces of bread and three cups of hot water a day, and there’s nobody you can talk to. You are in full isolation.

Navalny wrote to me from prison, and I answered him, then he wrote again. In our exchange of letters, there was such a black humour. I told him that I spent 405 days in a punishing cell and that was a record, but I was afraid that he was going to beat it, and we were laughing about it.

He didn’t beat my record because Putin killed him too early for this, but he spent more than 300 days in a punishment cell and that’s very, very difficult. I never heard about such a thing. And just a day before, he was brought to trial for another 15 days and he was joking. He was very strong and he never lost his ironic sense of humour, making fun of all these guards.

I don’t know what happened the day after this. Maybe Putin simply saw his smile and said, “How long can this guy smile?”

Once, when I had spent 100 days in a punishing cell, I fell unconscious and they took me to the hospital and then brought me back. In my case, Soviet leaders didn’t want me to die. They were very sensitive to the pressure from the West. Today Putin is not sensitive because he’s already burned all his bridges.

PP: Do you think that Navalny embodied a commitment to something greater than his own survival and his own self-interest? People will say it’s about sacrificing your life, but I think it’s more like something to give your life for.

NS: Yes. By going back to Russia, knowing that almost for sure he’d be killed, but definitely that he would spend many, many years in prison, Navalny showed clearly that physical survival is not the highest value, and he gave a message to all Russians: “I am not afraid, you also should not be afraid.”

It is very important when you’re in prison, when they threaten you with death, to see that if your aim is physical survival, then you can confess to anything they want. That’s why the aim cannot be your physical survival. The aim is that even though you don’t know how long you will be alive, you know that until you die you will be a free person. That depends on you.

PP: You’ve talked about freedom and belonging and that these are fundamental needs. You also spent time where people would have said you weren’t free but, for you, you were free. What is true freedom?

NS: Freedom is that you say what you believe in and do things which you want to do and all your life is in accordance with your beliefs. That’s freedom. You can be restricted physically. You can be put in a punishing cell. They can try to humiliate you in different ways. But you know that they cannot do it. They cannot humiliate you. Only you can humiliate yourself if you betray this idea of freedom that you are living with.

PP: And what does belonging mean?

NS: Belonging means seeing that life has meaning above your own existence. Because if there is no meaning except from your own existence, then we’re like animals. There must be some ideas which are as important for you as your own life and maybe even more, like that you belong to some group of people or to some religious philosophy or you’re professionally involved with a big group that is very interesting for you. It’s very natural. People want to belong to something bigger than their own individual life. That’s identity. These are two very fundamental feelings. Desire to be free means that nobody will tell me what to think and that we belong when there is a group of people who think like you and with whom you have a common mission in this life.

PP: What did you start to notice on college campuses 20 years ago and what do you think is happening now?

NS: In 2003, being a minister in the Israeli government, I had a tour over the universities because I was looking for the roots of antisemitism.

It was the time of the Second Intifada. In Israel, we felt that we were fighting against terror and defending all the world. There were terrorists attacks and suicide bombings practically every day in the streets.

On the other hand, I saw a lot of students who believed in all these lies. There was a film, Jenin Jenin, which was inventing the lie that Israel was committing genocide in those days. I heard from one student. She was a postgraduate student in Harvard business school and she explained to me that she wanted very much to sign a letter in support of Israel but she knew for sure that there would be three professors who were very important for her career who would not like it. That’s why she decided to be silent for a few years until her career was guaranteed.

I remember I thought, “My God, it’s not just in Moscow University in my days when people were double thinkers, it's here in the free world.” I saw and I heard it more and more on different campuses, how people are afraid to identify themselves with Israel. They can deceive themselves that it’s only for the time being at the beginning of their careers, but in fact from now they will be double thinkers, like Soviet citizens who were double thinkers. I came and I said to Ariel Sharon that I really believe that the most important battlefield for the future of the Jewish people is American universities.

All these postmodern, neo-Marxist critical theories emerged in addition to anti-colonialism and as a result, Israel became not only the last remnant of colonialism, but so did Jews, this white, successful part of population. It was part of the theories which divide the world into oppressors and oppressed, where the oppressors are always wrong and the oppressed are always right. That’s what politically correct means: that you should not permit the oppressors to speak and to make the oppressed feel uncomfortable. All this cancel culture, it’s all different sides of the neo-Marxist world in which I grew up.

It was clear that always in these theories, Israel and Jews will be on the wrong side of history, and Palestinians will be always on the right side of history. That was the base of this new antisemitism, which puts together classical demonisation, hatred of Jews, with this newly-born progressive demonisation of Israel. I saw it beginning 20 years ago.

I started a number of projects later, but there’s no doubt that today this classical antisemitism on the wings of progressive theories went and turned into the powerful, aggressive, anti-liberal movement in the world today.

PP: I’d like you to say a little more about doublethink because doublethink is obviously something that’s necessary in a communist environment and now we’re seeing it in the neo-Marxist environment. Can you say more for people who don’t know what doublethink is?

NS: In every dictatorial regime, there are three categories of people.

There’s true believers, those who believe in the ideology, whether it’s Marxist ideology or some other ideology, but they believe that’s the only way the authorities should deal with these people. They are loyal citizens.

Then, there are dissidents, those who speak openly against the regime and are ready to pay with their freedom, or sometimes their life.

Then there is the third class of people who don’t believe in this ideology and who think that this is a bad regime, but they’re afraid to speak, and pretend they’re loyal citizens. They behave like loyal citizens and they’re all marching on demonstrations in solidarity with their leaders. They’re the doublethinkers but you cannot really say, if you cannot look into the minds of these people, who is a loyal citizen and who is a doublethinker.

What you can say, or what I said in my book, The Case for Democracy, almost 20 years ago, is that the longer a dictatorship lasts the bigger is the number of doublethinkers because more and more people feel the restrictions of the dictatorship and are unhappy with these restrictions, and they’re becoming doublethinkers. Revolution is when big masses of doublethinkers cross the line and become dissidents.

I propose a test for if you live in a free society. It’s the town square test: if you go to the centre of the town and can say whatever you think and you will not be put into prison or punished then it is a free society. You can have many problems in that society but you can speak freely.

I felt uncomfortable seeing 20 years ago that this phenomenon of doublethink had come to the free society and today many polls and studies show that more and more Americans, especially young Americans, prefer not to express publicly their views on one or another question. That means that America is becoming a society of doublethinkers. That’s very dangerous. The moment citizens are ready to sacrifice their freedom, nothing will stop the regime from becoming illiberal or even anti-liberal. We cannot afford to lose America as a liberal country because that’s the only hope for the world to stay free.

PP: You resigned over the withdrawal from Gaza. Say more about what that was about for you. You were prescient in that you said that just having a separation between Israel and the Palestinians is not going to allow for peace and that we have to care about a Palestinian free society too.

NS: I didn’t agree with this approach, which started from Oslo, that it’s not our business and it’s not important for us what kind of society Palestinians live in, and that what is important for peace is that we find a dictator who can guarantee our stability. That was the idea of Oslo. We are bringing Arafat. We know that he is a ruthless dictator. We say to Palestinians, whether we want it or not, he will be your leader. We say to ourselves, our prime minister said, that it’s good that he is not restricted by democracy because that’s how he will defeat Hamas much quicker than we can do. He doesn’t have the free press and the Supreme Court and human rights organisations. That’s what was said.

I immediately said it was a big mistake because the only way a dictator can survive is to make his people hate us because he needs an external enemy. What other external enemy will he have except us? But the approach was that in order for him to be our dictator, we decided to give him a lot of money, a lot of public money, we’re giving a personal account to Arafat, so he will be loyal to us. It failed big. Not only did he not defeat Hamas, Hamas defeated him.

So the next idea was: let’s separate us from them. We can’t really influence what kind of society they’ll be. Ariel Sharon was explaining that to me when I decided to resign. He told me, “You are taking us to places where nobody takes us, and I like it. Stay with the government even if you disagree.” He explained his thinking as they’re there, we are here, we build a wall, and if they fire one shot in our direction, we can destroy them and the world will be with us, because the world sees how we gave them full independence. “For 10 years, the world will not press us,” he said. I told him, “We don’t have 10 years, we don’t have maybe 10 days.” Well, we had a couple of months, in fact.

Instead of this, I was saying that we have to see to what extent we can encourage development of some civil society. We cannot do it for them, but we have to look for the allies who will do it.

We started this stick-and-carrot policy. When they attack us, we have to attack them strong and give them a disincentive from attacking again. On the other hand, we permit Qatar to give them a lot of money, because after all, they also have to live, and that’s what will make them wish to coexist with us. Everything that Qatar did went to build the most powerful fortress under the earth and to prepare the October 7th attack.

The concept that it’s not our business what’s happening inside Palestinian society was absolutely wrong, and we are paying a very big price for our attempts to become partners of totalitarian terrorists. We have no choice now. If we want to continue to exist as a state, we have to destroy Hamas and we have to take control over the security, but we have to immediately start looking for the partners who can make sure that Palestinian society will be developing differently after this.

PP: How is Israel going to find partners given that the United Nations and the apparatuses of the United Nations have been overrun by terrorists?

NS: Well, the United Nations have proved again and again that they can’t be partners in any way. The United Nations are behind the Durban Conference, which started all this awful antisemitic campaign, saying that Israel is an apartheid state.

PP: Can you say more about the Durban Conference for people who don’t know about the conference?

NS: It was the first antiracist conference prepared by the United Nations. The United Nations spent a lot of time, like three years, preparing this conference with special committees preparing different programs.

When the conference really did take place, the only topic which went out is that there is one state which continues the policy of apartheid after South Africa and that’s Israel.

It was absolutely ridiculous. For me, as the one from the Soviet Union, it was something new because in 1975, the Soviet Union proposed a UN resolution that Zionism is racist. The Soviet Union, with the other dictators and with the puppets from the third world, were voting for it, but the free world, of course, was against it. That’s why the resolution fell apart.

Here, what was really alarming was that many free countries, many Western countries, were at least neutral. They were afraid to take a position. The chairman of this conference was Mrs Robinson, I think from Ireland, who was really sympathetic to these awful new blood libels against Israel.

After this, I proposed my three Ds about how anti-Zionism can become antisemitic: delegitimisation, demonisation, and double standards towards Israel. It’s the same as what antisemites do towards the Jews.

Coming back to our situation, the moment Hamas are defeated is the moment we should try through other Arab countries to directly appeal to Palestinians. We should tell them: whoever will be leading you, you decide, but we only insist that there’ll be no education of hatred and we don’t want refugee camps. We want to help build normal housing for everybody and we are ready to be partners in developing your economy, but only free private economies, not the one which belongs to the leaders because it immediately becomes a way the leaders control the lives of the people. Also, those who want to have independent newspapers or human rights organisations or whatever, will be protected.

Whoever is ready to run that society fulfilling these four demands, we will work with you. That’s what I was proposing to Ariel Sharon and before to Ehud Barak. With such restrictions, the main demand of course is what kind of education will be there. That was our demand for the last 30 years, which was never taken seriously. This time we have no choice. I hope we now change our perception that it is important for us what kind of society will be there.

PP: My understanding is that it was just hours after the withdrawal that the first rockets happened in 2005. By 2007, when Hamas took over, there were something like 2,000 rockets that year. Why wasn’t there an overwhelming response militarily in the beginning to defeat the capability to create this military apparatus?

NS: It was this idea that for every rocket they send, we’ll send 10 rockets or if they kill one of our citizens, we’ll try to kill as many terrorists as possible, but after this, let’s give them another chance and let’s give up to the pressure of the world to give them some more help.

That started from the Palestinian elections. President Bush believed that elections were the highest moment of democracy. All the time, I was explaining that if you don’t have a free society, elections are just a continuation of tyrannical power and really what happened as a result of these elections was that Hamas not only came to power but they threw from the roof, and they killed in the most awful ways, all the representatives of Arafat and became even more ruthless.

There was an initiative of Jewish philanthropists to pay Israeli agriculture firms money in order to keep their farms in Gaza in good shape and give them to Palestinians. One of my friends then called me to say that he was going to give this money and he asked me what did I think about it. I said: “Whatever money can be given to Jews who are leaving Gaza, they will need it, but if you really hope it will help Palestinians, you’ll seen in one year it will be destroyed.” I was absolutely wrong. It took 48 hours before Hamas burned down all the farms which Jews left to them because this new regime needed full control over the people. They didn’t need them to have private agriculture. Unfortunately, the industrial zone, which I helped to build as a minister of state, was fully destroyed and burnt down. So, even before attacking us, they made sure that nothing remained of the normal life which Jews left. All those Jewish settlements were turned into launching sites for missiles.

PP: For people who aren’t familiar with the blood libel, can you explain what that is?

NS: Well, from the very early centuries of Christianity, one of the first accusations against Jews was that for their matzah and their seder pesach, they’re using the blood of Christian babies. It was an absolutely crazy idea, but it became very popular. I lived in the Soviet Union when Christianity had no influence but I met some intelligent people who were telling me, “Well, of course we understand that you are not drinking the blood of Christian babies but you know why you’re celebrating seder pesach with red wine? Because your ancestors, hundreds of years ago, did use blood for that.” The fact that it could survive for a thousand years says something.

It was actively used in early Christianity. There was the idea that now Christianity is replacing Judaism and Judaism has no place in this world and all these blood libels were needed to demonise the old religion.

To the end of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, there were trials like Beilis’s trial in the Russian Empire against Jews who were using the blood of Christian babies. It’s one of the deepest libels against Jews, which survived for thousands of years.

Now, people are speaking about a new blood libel where some Palestinian terrorists accuse the Israeli army of going to Haiti not to help them against earthquake, but to harvest the organs of Haitians or harvest the organs of Palestinians and to sell them. That’s the modern blood libel, and it’s a modern blood libel to say that Israel is an apartheid state when Arabs are in the Supreme Court and and an Arab judge is sending an Israeli Jewish president to prison for sexual violence.

These are typical, awful prejudices, extreme prejudices, which have nothing to do with reality. But there are hundreds of millions of people who believe them.

PP: I remember a Muslim brother said that a true believer is obligated to finish the work of Hitler. There’s now this merging of Hitler’s ideas about Jews with Arab antisemitism. You have a society that believes these things and you’re saying that you have at least a hope, if not optimism, that can be undone after this war?

NS: You cannot finish with antisemitism. It exists for a thousand years and probably shows that people need some Other who is like Satan. Jean-Paul Sartre said that for antisemites, Jews are the closest to Satan. For a thousand years, Christian Europe didn’t have any one else living among them who was as good a symbol of Satan as the Jew. The fact that in modern society, now even in America, we have this prejudice against Jews coming back shows that it’s something very deep.

That’s why I don’t think that our task must be to eliminate full antisemitism. Our task must be to make sure that antisemitism is not dangerous, it’s not killing, and that we are stronger than antisemites.

We are appealing to people to understand how antisemitism is dangerous for society itself. The first warning that your society stops being liberal is antisemitism. Europe and America is now getting a very serious warning about themselves and about their future.

Alan Finkielkraut is a French Jewish philosopher and once I asked him, “Do you think Jews have a future in France?” He said, “I don't know because I am not part of the Jewish community, but my concern is if there is a future for France in France.” So based on the antisemitism which is growing in France, he’s concerned about French culture and French society.

The traditional antisemitism was Hitler’s antisemitism. It was a big danger, but somehow the world at least once understood how dangerous it is. I heard even in the Soviet Union from some people, “Oh, it’s a pity that Hitler didn’t finish his work.” I think we are at the stage when these people by themselves are not dangerous because the society is much stronger than these people.

As to Arab antisemitism, I have to remind you that historically in Arab society, Jews felt themselves more comfortable than in Christian society. When Jews were expelled from Spain, the best haven which they could find was Turkey. When Zionism came and said that part of the territory which is under the control of Muslims will become the territory which will be under the control of Jews, that was the beginning of this new struggle against Jews. Israel learned how to fight it.

What is so dangerous is that the liberal world, the free world, starts betraying us. That these so-called progressive views, which have nothing to do with liberals by the way, and these neo-Marxist ideas, spread over the world and set oppressors against oppressed, where Jews and Israel will always be among the oppressors. What makes it so potentially explosive and dangerous is that we can fight against antisemitism with the help of liberal ideas and only with the help of liberal ideas but not if the liberal world becomes illiberal, betraying its own liberal ideas in favour of so-called progressive, in fact, neo-Marxist ideas.

PP: On October 8th, 9th, 10th, we saw on campus and off campus students who were rallying for Hamas. They were saying that, “It’s not terrorism, it’s resistance,” and “Glory to the martyrs,” and “From the river to the sea.” Now, some of these kids don’t know what river, what sea they’re talking about, but there are people on campus who do know that they’re calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and globalising the Intifada. What do you make of this?

NS: Israelis were absolutely shocked by what happened on the 7th of October. We have to make very serious research about what happened with our army, what happened with our intelligence, what happened with our politicians, where we made mistakes. I believe that we started making these mistakes from Oslo and up to the last months.

But the immediate conclusion was that Israel as a society was absolutely united and is fighting now and hopefully winning against this awful enemy. But no less shocking was the first reaction which we received from the free world. President Biden was immediately saying that, “We’ll send an army,” but then there was the letter of 31 students from Harvard 48 hours after, saying that only Israel can be blamed, in fact saying that October 7th was the beginning of liberation. Even more important than students, there were professors, teachers, who are teaching about microaggressions, how it is important to be politically correct, and they were welcoming October 7th as the beginning of liberation.

I hope that it finally showed that the most important struggle in America is not between left and right but between liberals and progressives. The progressives are not allies, they are enemies of liberals. It was very difficult for many organisations, especially for Jewish liberal organisations, to accept it.

I remember how again and again women’s organisations, Jewish women’s organisations, had to decide whether to participate in a march of one million women on Washington that was led by open antisemites. After some discussion they said that it doesn’t matter that these people hate Israel and some of them hate Jews, but the very idea of the struggle for women’s rights is so important that we have to use all the allies we have. The most awful violation of women’s rights, the most awful rape pogrom, took place on October 7th and these organisations are not ready to say a word. They are silent. Why? Because those who are raping are on the side of those who are oppressed and those who are raped are on the side of oppressors. So it’s very difficult for them. That is the best proof that progressive organisations are not liberal organisations.

I hope, first of all, that liberals of America, those for whom liberal values are important, will understand who are their real allies and who are their enemies. But the second thing which has to be learned, has to be understood from this, is that the idea which is so dear to so many professors is that the world will be liberated by the revolution of the oppressed. When thousands of students and professors are marching under the slogan “From the river to the sea,” they say, “Well, they don’t know where the river or the sea is but it doesn’t matter because they want liberation of all the world from oppressors and from every river to every sea.” It’s exactly like this idea of the old communist revolution, which brought the most awful tyrannical regimes of the world. There is a danger that so many intellectuals believe that the real liberation will come through the world revolt of the oppressed against the oppressors. They’re going back to the most primitive of Lenin’s Bolshevik theories. The fact that it’s happening not in Russia, which didn’t know in its history what democracy is, but in the centre of intellectual power in the United States of America, the most free place in the world, that’s really alarming. So that's what concerns me, much more than antisemitism, in the Christian and Muslim worlds. Because we know how to deal with that.

PP: You said that Israeli society came together after October 7th. Before October 7th, there was a lot of division. How will Israel maintain that sense of unity and not fall back into the polarisation and infighting that happened before October 7th?

NS: We were speaking in the beginning about the importance of this feeling that there are things that are more important than your own existence. I think it’s very strong and very deep in Jewish people in general and in Israelis.

That Jewish people are very true to their mission in this world, and very true to the idea of a Jewish state as the only way to continue our mission. And with all the scepticism and cynicism about the young generation, the young generation of Jews today shows to all the Jews of the world what idealism is and that there are things more important than your physical survival. I hope that they will bring that new spirit of unity to all the other spheres of our life, including politics.

PP: Thank you very much.

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