Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Israel does not deserve its reputation on some college campuses as a human rights violator but should instead be lauded as the Middle East’s lone bastion of democracy, Knesset Minister and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky said yesterday.

“You must be proud Jews and proud of a Jewish state that gives a unique example in history of democracy,” he said.

His 40-minute speech to 150 students packed into the University of Maryland’s Hillel Center went unchallenged by his heavily Jewish audience.

“The depth of all concessions should only be [comparable] to the depth of democracy on the other side,” he said, adding that Arab countries can embrace democracy.

After all, he said, political analysts used to say Japan and Russia were not capable of democracy either.

“And we know now how wrong they were,” he said. “Democracy can have different forms: Muslim democracy, Western democracy, Russian democracy; it means one thing: People living without the fear that if they speak their minds, they will go to prison.”

His weeklong whirlwind tour of 13 U.S. and Canadian college campuses included stops yesterday at Georgetown and George Washington universities.

“I am representing the country that is the real champion of human rights,” he said. “On one hand, so many people feel Israel is a big violator of human rights but I know Israel demonstrates more sensitivity to human rights than any other democracy in the world.”

His years in Soviet prisons from 1977 to 1986 as a “refusenik” taught him the right to speak one’s mind, follow one’s faith and try to convince others of one’s position are the basics of human rights.

“In the Middle East,” he said, “there is only one country in that part of the world which allows human rights. You can be very right wing or left wing, for private economy or socialist economy. … Individuals there are protected by an independent court, by opposition newspapers.

“Only in Israel, women have full rights; in the other countries of the region, women cannot travel without the permission of their husbands. People of different sexual orientations [are protected]. Only in Israel, Arab members of Parliament can freely criticize their country.”

Mr. Sharansky defended the April 2002 Israeli offensive on the West Bank town of Jenin, which claimed the lives of 23 Israeli soldiers and 54 Palestinians, all but two of them terrorists, he asserted. Palestinian spokesmen have said hundreds of civilians perished in the assault.

“We had no choice,” Mr. Sharansky said. Jenin, he added, was producing more terrorists per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Suicide bombers have made everyday Israeli life so hazardous, he said, that school children stow away “love notes” while they are at school.

“What’s behind this,” he said, “is the thought maybe we may not meet in the evening.”

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