OR: So you're fairly optimistic in the long term?
Sharansky: Well, I'm optimistic by nature, and when people say how problematic is what they see this year, I always remind them: let's look where we were 10 years ago, let's look where we were 30 years ago, let's look where we were 50 years ago. Do that, and you will understand that the trend is very optimistic.
But in between, there are moments of despair and suffering and persecution and repression, unfortunately.
OR: Do you have any thoughts on the rise in anti-Semitism globally, and on what can be done to stop the de-legitimization of Israel?
Sharansky: Anti-Semitism became almost impossible in free society after the Holocaust. Not simply politically incorrect. It's that anti-Semitism was connected with the huge, unbelievable crime of the Holocaust.
But this ideology of multiculturalism, which denied the value of nationalism, in fact undermined the value of the Jewish national state. And the Jewish national state in the beginning was the welcomed response to the Holocaust by all liberal society. But with time, some post-modern liberals started looking at it almost as the last remnant of colonialism.
Now, post-modernism also brought this idea of relativism. That all the cultures are relative, there is no absolute value. There are some cultures which have Western principles of human rights, there are others which don't have these principles, and we should not choose. We should respect everybody. This approach of relativism, which post-modernism brought inside it with such power, in fact opened the gates for millions of new citizens of Europe who were not asked to accept the principles of Western democracy.
Everything is relative. And the only absolute value is peace. Peace now, peace immediately. When the only value is peace — a slogan that the Soviet Union in the past used very carefully as a propaganda tool — then of course the existence of a Jewish democratic state in the Middle East becomes a problem.
That was the soil. Those were the changes, the transformation of a liberal world into a post-modern liberal world, which gave renewed opportunity for most classical anti-Semites — and especially to Jew-haters from the Middle East, who hated the idea of a Jewish democratic state — to become to some extent allies of the modern, liberal (I call it post-liberal or post-modern liberal) Europe and the rest of the Western world. And so, suddenly it's not Jews, but Israel, which can be chosen for de-legitimization and for the application of a double standard.
In 2003 I proposed a critical principle: if you want to identify whether any given statement is anti-Semitism or legitimate criticism of Israel, look at the same methods that were used against Jews, de-legitimizing them and demonizing them. If they can be used also against Israel then you see simply the transformation of classical anti-Semitism into the new one.
That's what's happened the last 20 years with Israel. Now, for 50 years we have controlled the West Bank and as a result we are in control of the lives of so many Palestinians. It's not good for us. But we are caught in this situation because we are not ready to commit suicide. And when the world demands peace from us immediately, it means to give up the fight for a Jewish democratic state in the Middle East. We are not going to do it.
So what can be done? I think, of course, we have to look for any partner in the Middle East who is interested in a peaceful solution. But I personally believe that the real peace will never happen here if we remain the only democracy in the Middle East. Building civil society in the Arab countries — that is the most important issue for increasing chances for peace. The fact is that the free world is practically abandoning this issue. Whether it was the Obama administration, whether it is the Trump administration, civil society in Arab countries is not an issue which is really seriously discussed. That's a problem in terms of looking for peace.
All these attempts to find quick solutions which are brought from the top down are simply impossible. In the meantime, if you don't want that, it will give more and more food to the new anti-Semitism. We have to continue presenting the world the case of real liberalism. People who keep continuing to think about themselves as liberals without noticing that they are partners and allies of almost every state in the world — that's something that we have to show. To keep this looking-glass in front of the free world, and insisting that while we are really fighting for principles of liberalism, the most difficult place in the world is the Middle East.
We expect our friends and allies to insist on imposing these principles of liberalism all over the world, in their own countries. But it means that everybody has to be treated with the same standards. It can be a very tough standard, but it must be one standard between America and Israel. And the moment it is done, then there will be no place for new anti-Semitism.
OR: Why did George W. Bush’s implementation of the “freedom agenda” go wrong?
Sharansky: I had only one serious disagreement with President Bush. He was a great admirer and supporter of my book; he was by far the best book agent that I ever had in my life. And in fact I liked and admired his readiness to work with democratic dissidents all over the world. I think he personally met with more than 100 democratic dissidents, and it's something that never was repeated by any other leader.
But there was one thing on which I disagreed: elections do not equal democracy. Free elections in a free society: that's democracy. And that's why you cannot expect that simply by changing a regime and demanding to have elections that you are bringing democracy. Democracy is a long process of building civil society.
Natan Sharansky is the chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency.