Natan Sha­ran­sky opens up about world Jewry

Natan Sha­ran­sky dis­cusses the resur­gence of na­tional iden­tity around the globe, Europe’s pop­ulist par­ties, Is­rael and the Di­as­pora, Don­ald Trump and the Pitts­burgh sy­n­a­gogue at­tack

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONTLINES - • By JEREMY SHARON

There can be no doubt that re­cent years have brought po­lit­i­cal tur­moil to the Western world, which has wit­nessed a strong back­lash from many cit­i­zens in Europe, the US and be­yond against glob­al­ism, mass im­mi­gra­tion and per­cep­tions that scorn or de­ride na­tional and re­li­gious iden­ti­ties.

Th­ese pro­cesses have also af­fected both Is­rael and the Di­as­pora in nu­mer­ous ways, lead­ing to in­ter­nal di­vi­sions among both en­ti­ties as to how to deal with th­ese phe­nom­ena.

Natan Sha­ran­sky, a for­mer Soviet dis­si­dent, re­fusenik, Is­raeli govern­ment min­is­ter and chair­man of the Jewish Agency, who has also au­thored sev­eral books on po­lit­i­cal thought, spoke this week with The Jerusalem Post about what he de­scribed as the hol­low­ing out of na­tional and re­li­gious val­ues in the Western world in re­cent decades, the re­ac­tion to th­ese phe­nom­ena and their con­nec­tion to the rise of pop­ulism, and the ne­ces­sity to bring a bal­ance to the val­ues of iden­tity and clas­sic lib­er­al­ism to pre­serve global sta­bil­ity.

In re­cent years, Europe has seen a dra­matic rise in the ap­peal of pop­ulist par­ties, mostly on the far Right, but also on the far Left of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, with sev­eral of th­ese par­ties scor­ing sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal suc­cesses and even en­ter­ing coali­tions in coun­tries such as Aus­tria, Italy, Greece and be­yond.

The rise of th­ese par­ties has pre­sented a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem for lo­cal Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, since many have ad­vanced or pro­moted poli­cies to re­strict or con­trol Jewish prac­tices such as re­li­gious slaugh­ter and cir­cum­ci­sion, and have as­so­ci­ated with an­tisemitic el­e­ments.

Some mem­bers of such par­ties have also ex­pressed an­tisemitic opin­ions and en­gaged in Holo­caust de­nial or re­vi­sion­ism.

At the same time, sev­eral of th­ese par­ties, such as the AfD in Ger­many and the rul­ing Fidesz Party in Hun­gary, have ex­pressed strongly pro-Is­rael at­ti­tudes, which has at­tracted diplo­matic in­ter­est and en­gage­ment from Is­rael that has in some in­stances up­set lo­cal Jewish com­mu­ni­ties.

“Un­like lib­er­als who can­not feel sol­i­dar­ity with Is­rael be­cause it is a na­tional state, th­ese par­ties wel­come Is­rael [pre­cisely] be­cause it is a na­tional state,” says Sha­ran­sky.

Sha­ran­sky as­serts that not all pop­ulist par­ties, on the Right or Left, should au­to­mat­i­cally be re­jected by Is­rael, and that there are ob­jec­tive tests by which such par­ties can be eval­u­ated.

“Do they sup­port Holo­caust de­niers? Do they sup­port leg­is­la­tion against Jewish life, rit­ual slaugh­ter and cir­cum­ci­sion? Do they use an­tisemitic stereo­types?” he says, and points to his three D’s def­i­ni­tion of an­ti­semitism – de­mo­niza­tion, dele­git­imiza­tion and dou­ble stan­dards to­ward ei­ther Jews as peo­ple or the State of Is­rael – as a good barom­e­ter.

But he cau­tioned against re­ject­ing po­lit­i­cal par­ties due to ide­o­log­i­cal or po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences lo­cal Jewish com­mu­ni­ties may have with them.

If a lo­cal Jewish com­mu­nity and its in­sti­tu­tions are lib­eral and take of­fense at cer­tain poli­cies by a par­tic­u­lar party, such as re­stric­tions on im­mi­gra­tion, this is not a rea­son for Is­rael to refuse en­gage­ment with them, he ar­gues.

On the other hand, he adds, “It’s im­por­tant that Is­rael doesn’t get in a po­si­tion of say­ing “their pro-Is­rael plat­form is so im­por­tant to me that I will ig­nore the fact that they are against Jews.

“We don’t want to be friends of those who hate Jews and love Is­rael, or those who hate Is­rael and love Jews. There must be space for le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ment, whether on the Left or the Right.”

Sha­ran­sky con­tends that the West is see­ing a back­lash against mass im­mi­gra­tion, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and the di­lu­tion of na­tional iden­tity and val­ues, which has spawned pop­ulist par­ties, and that this re­ac­tion is a nat­u­ral re­sponse to the loss of iden­tity many peo­ple in Europe and be­yond have felt in re­cent years.

“Af­ter the Sec­ond World War, there was a lot of anger against na­tion­al­ism, and it turned into a phi­los­o­phy that na­tion­al­ism brings about fas­cism, and that we in Europe had a few hun­dred years of re­li­gious wars and then na­tional wars, and that the time had come to be above reli­gion and na­tion­al­ism,” he says.

“The dream was a world where there was noth­ing to fight over and noth­ing to die for, but it meant that there was also noth­ing to live for.

“We must re­mem­ber that all peo­ple have two ba­sic feel­ings: they want to be free and want to be­long, and we should not weaken their feel­ing of be­long­ing. Pa­tri­o­tism, na­tion­al­ism and re­li­gious be­lief can be very pos­i­tive and a very nec­es­sary part of build­ing our lib­eral world,” Sha­ran­sky as­serts.

“When we take it away from our lib­eral world, then at some mo­ment lib­er­al­ism will be­come a hated word by ev­ery­body who is look­ing for their na­tional iden­tity, he con­tin­ues, adding how­ever that “there will then be bad peo­ple who use this sen­ti­ment to fight back.”

SHA­RAN­SKY, THOUGH, is ex­tremely cau­tious about com­par­ing the rise of the pop­ulist Right in Europe to the rise of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in Amer­ica, de­spite the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two phe­nom­ena, mostly it would seem due to the highly sen­si­tive and com­bustible na­ture and tim­ing of the topic.

Trump has, of course, not threat­ened any Jewish re­li­gious prac­tices, as some Euro­pean par­ties have, but has in­dulged in in­cen­di­ary rhetoric against im­mi­grants.

Crit­ics also point to his re­luc­tance to ex­plic­itly con­demn the neo-Nazis who staged a rally in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, in Au­gust 2017, his sub­se­quent com­ments that “there were very fine peo­ple on both sides” of the neo-Nazi rally and the coun­ter­protesters, and var­i­ous tweets and com­ments that have ei­ther tac­itly ap­proved of white na­tion­al­ist po­si­tions or failed to con­demn them.

On the other hand, and like the right-wing pop­ulists in Europe, Trump has been strongly sup­port­ive of Is­rael, trans­ferred the US Em­bassy to Jerusalem, sup­ported Is­rael’s se­cu­rity mea­sures against Pales­tinian vi­o­lence, with­drew from the Iran deal which the Is­raeli govern­ment op­posed, im­posed tough new sanc­tions on Iran, and re­frained from crit­i­ciz­ing IDF ac­tions against Gaza and Iran and its var­i­ous prox­ies in Syria.

With ten­sions in the US be­tween lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives, in­clud­ing among the Jewish com­mu­nity, ris­ing dra­mat­i­cally in the wake of the Pitts­burgh sy­n­a­gogue at­tack at the end of Oc­to­ber, many lib­er­als ac­cused Trump of hav­ing in­cited a toxic at­mos­phere re­gard­ing im­mi­gra­tion and specif­i­cally a mi­grant car­a­van from Cen­tral Amer­ica head­ing to­ward the US that the Pitts­burgh shooter specif­i­cally ref­er­enced on so­cial me­dia sev­eral times be­fore his at­tack.

Sha­ranksy was clearly ret­i­cent to make sen­si­tive as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween Trump and the anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric and na­tion­al­is­tic sen­ti­ment of Euro­pean far-right par­ties, given th­ese ten­sions, es­pe­cially when com­bined with the fevered at­mos­phere sur­round­ing the US midterm elec­tions.

He did, how­ever, as­sert in gen­eral terms the dan­gers of in­flam­ma­tory and pe­jo­ra­tive lan­guage di­rected against mi­nor­ity groups.

“We should be against any rhetoric which de­scends into stereo­types. If some­one says peo­ple from South Amer­ica are all drug deal­ers, of course this is bad,” says Sha­ran­sky, not­ing that im­mi­grants from the for­mer Soviet Union to Is­rael were smeared for bring­ing mafia and pros­ti­tutes to the coun­try.

“We don’t want stereo­typ­ing of any ‘other,’ whether it is about peo­ple of dif­fer­ent coun­tries or dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal views, or that all left­ists are be­tray­ers, or all right­ists are fas­cists. This rhetoric is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. And the higher the politi­cian who is us­ing this type of rhetoric, the more dam­ag­ing it is.”

He ven­tures cau­tiously that “there are many rea­sons for Amer­i­can lib­er­als to be ir­ri­tated with their pres­i­dent,” but adds that “there are many rea­sons for Is­raelis to be very happy with some de­ci­sions of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent.”

But Sha­ran­sky says very def­i­nitely that he does not be­lieve Trump’s po­lit­i­cal rhetoric and ac­tions had any­thing to do with the hor­rific Pitts­burgh sy­n­a­gogue mas­sacre, as

some have al­leged, or the rise in an­tisemitic in­ci­dents since 2015 recorded by the Anti-Defama­tion League.

“The ma­jor­ity of ha­tred against mi­nori­ties and Jews was there long be­fore Trump,” Sha­ran­sky opines.

“Trump came to of­fice as part of a global process of peo­ple see­ing the loss of their iden­tity as a bad thing .... I think Trump’s cam­paign took into ac­count the fact that peo­ple want to be much more proud Amer­i­cans,” he says, adding that the US pres­i­dent’s anal­y­sis of the US elec­torate was “much bet­ter” than that of The New York Times.

“It is the de­sire of peo­ple all over the world to be­long. That def­i­nitely Trump used. Whether he used such po­lit­i­cal lan­guage that was in­flam­ing, that’s an­other ques­tion. There are many peo­ple who think he did.

“Whether it caused an­ti­semitism in the US, no, I don’t think this has any­thing to do with an­ti­semitism in Amer­ica. There is no con­nec­tion be­tween the US pres­i­dent and this shooter.”

He also pointed out how “new” an­ti­semites on the Left in the guise of anti-Zion­ism have cre­ated the con­cept of in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity to unite all op­pressed groups, but from which Jews are ex­cluded.

Yet Sha­ran­sky says he does be­lieve that the re­ac­tion to the forces of post-na­tion­al­ism has now swung too far in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. He says though that he is con­fi­dent that a cor­rec­tive bal­ance will even­tu­ally be found, cit­ing the thought of Mai­monides and Hegel by way of ex­pla­na­tion.

“You have th­e­sis, an­tithe­sis and then syn­the­sis, or as Mai­monides put it, peo­ple first go to one ex­treme, then to the other, and end up in the mid­dle,” he ar­gues, say­ing that the world is cur­rently in the midst of this very process.

“The re­ac­tion to the First World War and the Sec­ond World War was to erase all iden­ti­ties, and the re­sult was a deca­dent so­ci­ety with al­most no val­ues. Now there is over­re­ac­tion to reestab­lish iden­tity, and you’re afraid of ev­ery for­eigner, and there is a dan­ger there [as well].

“The sooner we will bring th­ese two ex­tremes to­gether and peo­ple will be able to en­joy a lib­eral-demo­cratic, na­tional world, the bet­ter.” •

(Marc Is­rael Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

NATAN SHA­RAN­SKY: We don’t want to be friends of those who hate Jews and love Is­rael, or those who hate Is­rael and love Jews.

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