Tuesday, November 20, 2001

“I was born in the same year as Israel, in 1948,” his story begins. A short, quick-talking Soviet Jew who has been a leading figure among his people for the last 30 years, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky’s birthdate is appropriate. He came of age with Israel, though he was born and raised in the Ukraine. Now, as he helps lead his country through a new era of terrorism, he is confident. Not that the terrorism will stop any time soon. No, his people have grown old with the sound of suicide bombers killing women and children in public squares and with military aggression against his tiny state from its much larger neighbors. But he will survive, and so will his people, driven by a vibrant spirit of determination that has been refined through years of suffering.

In the wake of September 11, Americans were able to feel for the first time the insecurity Israelis have had to face for years. Mr. Sharansky’s story of endurance offers Americans hope as the nation recovers.

When Israel discovered its might in the 1967 war, so did he. In Washington last month to meet with officials on the Hill, Mr. Sharansky remembered his first awareness that his identity lay first and foremost in the fact that he is a Jew, and that Israel is his homeland: “I was a second-generation assimilated Soviet Jew. There was the Six Day War. It changed a lot in our lives. Suddenly, you see anti-Semites around you maybe treat you with the same hatred, but definitely with more respect. The fact that Israel, small Israel despite all the expectations of the Soviet Union defeated the Arabs and humiliated the power of Soviet weapons, caused a lot of outrage in the Soviet Union, but also caused some kind of respect. The word ‘Jew’ had only negative context for our lives. Suddenly, we understood that there was something much bigger than this. And that’s how we discovered for us this Israel. Then, we discovered our Jewishness,” he said. That was also the beginning of his involvement in an underground Zionist movement.

“Suddenly, you find out … the connecting of yourself to your roots, to your people, to your history, to your country. You have a lot of inner power to be proud to resist this regime,” he said. Mr. Sharansky became one of the founding members and the spokesman for the Helsinki Monitoring Group, a human-rights group honored by President Reagan in 1982 for its courageous attempt to stand against communism despite the imprisonment of many of its members.

By the time the Soviets were backing Egypt’s and Syria’s invasion of Israel in 1973, he had been condemned as a traitor by the Komsomol, the communist youth organization. In 1977, he was arrested by the KGB and charged with espionage for the CIA and treason, and in 1978 was found guilty. As Israel fought for its freedom in the turbulent 1970s, Mr. Sharansky’s wife began leading a world campaign to gain his freedom from prison. But he does not consider his eight years of imprisonment, which lasted until 1986, to have been wasted.

“I have a lot of positive memories from the prison, because that is where we emerged victorious,” he said. “That is the place where everything is morally crystal clear. Say no to the KGB, and you fulfill all your moral obligations.” That moral clarity changes the moment one passes from the confines of the prison, he said.

Now the world needs a new set of absolutes, ones that will protect Israel and America from a greater terrorism. For Mr. Sharansky, any war is about two paradigms, or two opposing forces. One is the paradigm that human life is of the highest value. The other believes human life is a tool to be used as blackmail.

“There are no different types of terrorism,” he said.

So why has the Bush administration included those who sponsor terrorism against Israel in its anti-terrorist coalition? Mr. Sharansky says the Israeli-American relationship has not been harmed through the administration’s actions, but he is worried about what signals it may be sending to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The United States called on Israel to pull back from its incursion into the West Bank after Israel launched an offensive following the murder of its tourism minister. A consequence of the U.S. effort to keep other fronts quiet while it sends its soldiers to Afghanistan is that Mr. Arafat is being encouraged to continue in a “double role” of peace negotiator without wanting peace and sponsor of terrorism, Mr. Sharansky said.

Europe and the Middle East alike are waiting to see whether Washington will hear the voice of Israel again. Maybe, through its own new self-awareness, it will begin to do that. Perhaps by finding our own identity as Americans one nation, under God we will find the strength to resist the terrorism that plagues not only our people, but which still jeapardizes democracies the world over.

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times. E-mail: smeans@washingtontimes.com.

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