TORONTO — In reminiscing about the Soviet Jewish struggle that bound them together, former dissident and political prisoner Natan Sharansky, and Irwin Cotler, the human rights lawyer and politician who helped free him, underscored the sense of embarrassment they say many young Jews today feel about Israel.
Both stressed that the shame many Jewish university students feel now that support for Israel puts them on what Cotler referred to as “the wrong side of the cause, of history,” stands in sharp contrast to the days when the Soviet Jewish cause was, he said, “the prototype for human rights as a whole.”
At an event held at Beth Tzedec Congregation July 15, Sharansky, for years an Israeli politician and now chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, talked to Cotler, Liberal MP for Mount Royal and former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, about their shared history, as well as weighty topics like identity, human rights and anti-Semitism.
Over 1,300 people crowded into Beth Tzedec’s sanctuary to hear the two men – lauded as heroes by many in the Jewish community – engage in a conversation moderated by the synagogue’s Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl.
The talk was co-sponsored by Beth Emeth and Temple Sinai Congregations.
Sharansky was born in Donetsk, Ukraine and incarcerated in a Soviet prison from 1977 to 1986 after he was denied an exit visa to Israel and charged with spying for the United States. He recalled how his life as an assimilated Jew raised in the U.S.S.R. was transformed after the 1967 Six Day War, when Soviet hatred of Israel was prevalent and he and fellow Soviet Jews began to feel increasingly connected to a larger Jewish community, and to Israel.
“We discovered a unique history that, if we wanted to, we could be a part of, and that there were Jews all around the world who were like family, and wanted to help us…When you discover that you have identity and history and people and a state, that gives you strength to fight,” he said.
The powerful sense of purpose he gained wasn’t one-sided, but a struggle that unified Jews worldwide, Sharansky emphasized.
“It became a movement stronger than the most powerful totalitarian state,” he said.
Cotler affirmed this, explaining that the struggle for Soviet Jewry had an immense impact on his own life, spurring him to fight for Sharansky’s freedom before the two had even met.
“It wasn’t just part of my life in law, but it became part of my identity.”
They both expressed profound concern that the pride their generation had for Israel and the way they linked it to a larger human rights struggle is wildly different from what the young generation of Jews experience.
“I think the most important battlefield for the [Jewish] future is [North] American universities,” Sharansky declared.
Not only must the Jewish community address how to help Jewish students deal with what he called “the awful hypocrisy” of the prominent on-campus boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which singles Israel out, but also the embarrassment and fear that keeps these young Jews from speaking out or identifying with Israel.
“As they start to feel ashamed they say, ‘I’ll be silent for a couple of years,’ but that’s the beginning of the end. They distance themselves from the Jewish community and disappear. We have to fight for them, make them feel not ashamed but proud,” Sharansky said.
Cotler agreed, noting that campus culture holds the Palestinian cause as the poster child for human rights and the Israeli cause as the antithesis of that.
Hiding behind the authority of international law and the fight against racism, he said, students falsely portray Israel as “the repository of all that is evil,” a phenomenon that corrupts the actual culture of human rights and demeans the struggle against “real racism,” he added.
To counter this, the community must encourage Jewish students to become engaged in larger campaigns for human rights, showing that being pro-Israel doesn’t contradict the former.
“When we work with students, we can’t just make it about Israel,” he said. “Just as Soviety Jewry was part of a larger struggle for human rights on campuses, we need to make sure our Jewish students are also involved in human rights issues like gender inequality, social justice the environment – this way, we’ll expose the falsity of the delegitmization [of Israel] and attend the real struggles of human rights causes for which we should be engaged.”