The refugee turned celebrity-dissident, Natan Sharansky, and re-reading the Exodus novel

Natan Sharansky, right wing Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident, was awarded the 2020 Genesis prize in Israel. A prestigious award, it is given to prominent personalities for their promotion of human rights. Sharansky, born in what is now the Ukraine, gained international fame and recognition as a courageous human rights and democracy advocate in the 1970s and 80s. A famed prisoner of conscience, his ostensible lifelong advocacy of human rights does not extend to the Palestinians.

Let’s unpack this subject.

Sharansky, a maths whizz and chess prodigy, became known as a refusenik – a description given to Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate to Israel. Imprisoned by the Soviet authorities in the early 1970s, Sharansky’s cause for freedom was taken up by numerous conservative heavyweight politicians in the United States, West Germany and other nations. Spending time in solitary confinement, Sharansky was released in 1986 as part of a prisoner exchange.

He became a celebrity dissident, writing books and giving lectures about the triumph of individual liberty over government tyranny. The Sharansky cause célèbre seemed to achieve vindication in the late 1980s, when former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev permitted Soviet Jews to emigrate. Sharansky’s status as a hero of our times seemed assured.

Sharansky’s career as a political operator in Israel since the 1990s undermines his portrayal as a human rights hero. His politics is that of the ultranationalist and religious chauvinist Right, based on the large Russian Jewish constituency. Quashing any kind of compromise with the Palestinians, Sharansky has promoted the cause of ultra-rightist nationalism in Israel, and has encouraged annexationist policies in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Sharansky, and his staunch ally Avigdor Lieberman (a similarly former Soviet Jew) have voiced hateful sentiments about the Palestinians and Arabs in general, have protested any moves by Israeli governments to withdraw from Palestinian territories, and have advocated near-genocidal policies with regard to neighbouring Arab states. For instance, Lieberman, a former settler and defence minister, suggested that Israel bomb the Aswan dam to force concessions from their Egyptian counterparts.

Sharansky has consistently and enthusiastically supported the Israeli government’s hostile and discriminatory policies towards African Jewish refugees. While Tel Aviv has presented itself as a friendly homeland for the Jewish communities in the diaspora, its mistreatment of Ethiopian and African refugees indicates otherwise. African asylum seekers, Sharansky stated, were not welcome in Israeli society, were unassimilable in his opinion, and constitute an unnecessary drain on precious financial resources.

Every person has the right to express themselves without fear of persecution, including Sharansky. If he wishes to write books and give lectures – good luck to him. During the Cold War, anti-Soviet dissidents were glorified, even though many of them had ultra-rightist and racist views.

When a person is elevated to a status of a human rights icon, upheld as a courageous advocate for democracy, we have the right to expose and denounce their hypocrisy. If Sharansky’s politics make him a solid ally of the American neoconservative Right – the politicians who advocated for war against Arab-majority nations – then Sharansky deserves condemnation for his pro-war views.

Sharansky’s contemptuous view of, and racialised hostility towards, Arabs and Palestinians in particular is not uncommon in the wider Israeli society. In fact, the heroic view of Jewish immigration to Palestine – framed as the Aliyah – has served to disguise the colonising project of Zionist ideology. That template of Jewish return to Palestine has also defined Anglo-American (and Australian) attitudes to the Palestinian question.

Leon Uris, the late Zionist writer, set the tone for Western audiences with his best-selling 1958 novel, Exodus. The latter was made into an award-winning movie in 1960. The novel sets out a fictionalised version of escaping Jewish refugees, who fight official British intransigence and indifference, to make their way to Palestine. Upheld as heroic settler-pioneers, the novel and subsequent movie have formed the basic framework through which audiences have interpreted the Israeli settler state.

It has been an exceptional work of propaganda, and it is its depiction of Arabs that most concerns us here. While the Israeli settlers are portrayed as valiant, dedicated fighters for the cause of liberation, the Arabs (if they rate a mention) are portrayed as dirty, uneducated, irrational savages. The Israelis of Uris’ imagination – generally white-skinned and blond – are resourceful in developing the land. The Arabs in contrast, are stuck in medieval ways, live in unsanitary conditions and are motivated only by an obsessive and fanatical anti-Semitism.

When the colonised people are dehumanised – the word ‘Arab’ is consistently prefaced with the adjectives ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ – their humanity as a people is denied. There is an abundance of Palestinian writing – novels, short stories, poetry, academic books – that articulate the experiences of dispossession and exile. Their suffering is ignored or minimised, and their works do not receive corporate or government largesse available to Sharansky.

While the Palestinians have appealed for international support from antiracist groups, such as Black Lives Matter, Sharansky has shown where his sympathies lie – with the Hong Kong ultranationalist protesters. The latter have consciously allied with far right American politicians, as well as the Trump administration, who advocate the suppression of BLM and the antiracism protests.

A commitment to human rights cannot exclude the demand for Palestinian self-determination. The hypocrisy of at the heart of Sharansky’s perspective stands exposed.

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