Natan Sharansky and Palestinian Human Rights
The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror
Remembering Faisal Husseini
Natan Sharansky faced a public choice and made the wrong one. In the eyes of many, he has never been the same man since.
In 1986, several months after he had been released from a Soviet prison where he spent twelve years on false charges of being an American spy for his human rights work in Russia, Sharansky met with the Palestinian intellectual and political spokesman Faisal Husseini and several other Palestinians. They met with Sharansky, as an international champion of human rights, to present their views on the situation of Palestinian human rights under Israel’s occupation. In Israel, nationalist reaction to news of the meeting was a storm of anger. They did not believe that an ex-Prisoner of Zion whose cause they had supported should engage in discussions with Palestinian “terrorists” and accused Sharansky of betraying their work in his behalf.
Sharansky, seeing his political capital disappearing on all sides and apparently cowed by his own right-wing family, published large display ads throughout the Hebrew and local Russian and English-language press, distancing himself from his single meeting with Palestinians. Several months later, Faisal Husseini was arrested under an administrative detention order and imprisoned for six months in the Ansar camp in the Negev. There was no trial, only a military order signed by an officer. Even the Soviet kangaroo court that sentenced Sharansky provided more substantive legal process than the Israeli government gave Husseini. But Sharansky protested not a word when his former interlocutor, accused of no more than being an ardent Palestinian nationalist, was led off to prison without a trial to join thousands more Palestinians held under administrative detention orders.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Sharansky’s recent book The Case for Democracy, which George W. Bush reportedly found inspirational, entirely omits any mention of Faisal Husseini. There is a certain inconvenience to public memory of incidents that undermine or negate claims that one advocates for freedom. Even more, such neglected histories challenge Sharansky’s entire thesis that splits the world into two manichean categories, free and fear societies. Free societies are those that permit citizens to dissent without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm. These societies live in a blessed state of quintessential democracy, for even if they have significant social problems they possess the domestic freedom that enables resolution of such problems.
On the opposite side, according to Sharansky, fear societies control their subjects through physical coercion, ideological manufacture of true believers, creation of external enemies, inculcation of religious and ethnic hatreds, perpetual states of war, and fostering an illusory image of progress. Fear societies – as examples, Sharansky’s model classes together the profoundly opposed former Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia – will inevitably fall into stagnation, repression, regression, and collapse. This is a standard constructed upon the assumptions of nationalism. It avoids the specifics of labor rights and gender issues, intrinsic to human rights and notably absent throughout The Case for Democracy. Rather than consider that workers, women and minority ethnicities/races may live in fear in ‘free’ societies, Sharansky aggregates their lives into national entities and so they disappear conveniently from view.
For example, if we momentarily grant Sharansky’s paradigm and ask which regime the late Faisal Husseini inhabited as a non-citizen subject to Israeli occupation and arbitrary imprisonment, the response could only be an indictment of Israel as a fear society. But this is a profoundly inadequate explanatory model, for what Sharansky provides is essentially Cold War-style sovietology superimposed on the contemporary Middle East. There are no in-betweens or intermediary societies where some political characteristics are present but not others. A society is located either in the free camp or fear camp, with an absolute and fixed border between them. Freedom struggles towards inevitable success in the fear camp, and the free camp remains devoid of social fear as a means of governance. Rather, this is a deterministic zero-sum paradigm based on an either-or classification, one that promotes demonization no less than the Iron Curtain global division that provides the model’s ideological roots.
Aside from its hapless simplicity and naiveté as political theory, Sharansky’s would-be classification provides a mechanism to justify state actions irreconcilable with fundamental concepts of human rights. To justify administrative detentions without trial, he writes that human rights cannot be determined in a vacuum. “In a fear society, the entire system was a violation of human rights. In a free society, however, there are certain circumstances in which some rights may have to yield to defend other rights.” Balancing tests between rights are one of the fundamental concepts of constitutional law, but such balancing must occur in a qualified court of civil law, not through a military officer’s opinion, diktat and signature.
Instead of recognizing the massive injury done to the rule of law and democracy, Sharansky pins blame on critics of administrative detention, such as Amnesty International, for allegedly losing their moral compass and defending violent terror or repressive regimes. “By indiscriminately condemning a free society that upholds human rights but which is sometimes forced to encroach on certain freedoms to save lives, [human rights activists] do not advance the cause of human rights.” This is the same logic, no small irony, as once employed by Soviet officials who criticized human rights activists for distorting the record and defaming the Soviet Union. Blaming and maligning witnesses rather than accepting a responsibility to remedy such situations signals that Sharansky, like many others in Israel, remains entrapped in excuse-making.
Colonialism and Human Rights
Sharansky not only participates in the marginalization of human rights advocacy that has become so prevalent in Israeli society, but simultaneously provides an excuse for ignoring international legal norms. If a society is ‘known’ and classed as free and democratic, the specifics of its legal practices can be excused because of exculpatory privileges due to a free society. The legal protection of human rights in ‘free’ and ‘fear’ societies will not be judged to a common standard; rather, ‘free’ societies receive a grant of immunity because they possess an inherent power of self-correction. This divergent standard for neighboring parties protects the interests of theo-colonial expansionism in Israel, one whose practices have been overwhelmingly documented to systematically violate political and legal rights in every sphere of human activity in Palestine.
Sharansky relies on the truism that moral clarity demands context in order to obfuscate the issue, indeed to shift the burden onto Palestinians to prove that they deserve freedom from occupation. He proposes that the aim of Palestinian democracy should be manufacture of Palestinians more compliant with their own occupation and repression. Palestinian democratic reformers should resist their own government even more passionately than they resist an overwhelmingly more powerful Israeli government. The less resistant towards Israeli occupation that they become, the more suitable Palestinians become for self-government; if they violently resist military occupation and denial of self-determination, then they prove their incapacity for self-government.
As a government minister of a state that for decades of military administration denied elementary democracy to Palestinians, Sharansky remains blind to the contradiction of his position advocating greater internal Palestinian democracy, but this is a paradox that denominates late-stage colonialism. Prior to the British departure from India and during the Mau-Mau Revolt in Kenya, right-wing British parliamentarians and press claimed that widespread violence either questioned whether or demonstrated that the resistant natives were incapable of self-rule. Post-Enlightenment colonialism created a vision of colonial settlement and administration as a secular benefit to improved native self-government, even while depriving them of the same self-government to that colonial power’s economic benefit.
Sharansky differs little from this European rhetorical tradition. After President Bush’s speech on April 4, 2002 where he stated that Palestinians “deserve a government that respects human rights and a government that focuses on their needs – education and health care – rather than feeding their resentments,” Sharansky proposed disestablishment of the Palestinian Authority and its replacement with a neo-colonial administration comprised of international elements and Palestinian compradors (these presumably officials unconcerned with the probability of dramatically foreshortened life spans). Delay in the recognition of equal Palestinian rights comes in the form of an excuse that the natives need prolonged practice in democratic government when, in fact, it is Israel who denies rights of democratic national self-determination. The same above-quoted Bush statement on which Sharansky fixated might be refocused to call for an Israeli government that respects human rights and focuses on provision of education and health care equally throughout its population instead of feeding theocratic fantasies of a Greater Israel.
There is a context for the “moral clarity” Sharansky demands and inevitably that context must be Israel’s occupation. The clarity Sharansky refuses is an occupation that perpetuates daily violence against Palestinians. He reports going to Hebron to seek personal clarity before voting for redeployment of army forces in that city, an urban environment charged with the violent dynamic created by theo-nationalist and racist Jewish pogromists who view themselves as a vanguard for the eventual expulsion of the city’s Arab population. For every Shalhevet Pass, the Jewish infant in Hebron shot through the skull by a Palestinian sniper, there are many more Palestinian children dead at Israeli hands. The Jewish marauders who emerge fully-armed from Old Hebron and other settlements teeming with messianic racism routinely assault Palestinians, journalists, foreign citizens, and even the Israeli army itself, but face no systematic police action and almost no legal prosecution. Cossacks, move over: here come Gush Emunim and their ‘hilltop youth’. The moral map that Sharansky lays out does not include such daily infliction of violence against Palestinians, creating a mono-dimensionality that constantly afflicts his rhetoric by excluding consideration of Palestinian casualties.
These one-way ethics undermine chapters where Sharansky is correct. There is, as he states, a new anti-semitism that camouflages existential antipathy towards Israel as mere criticism of Israeli policy, employs grotesque hyperbole and vicious insult (chief among them comparisons to Nazism and apartheid), and that manifests racism, xenophobia, and exterminationist intent. The old xenophobia of the Arab League boycott has morphed into a neo-ghetto of combined economic, academic and cultural boycotts and divestment campaigns that cannot recognize their origin in the hoary anti-semitic belief that moral isolation will correct the Jews in the error of their ways. Boycotts in any direction between Israelis and Palestinians or against either are counter-productive towards shaping peaceful relations between neighbors who desperately need to open communications, not close them. The new anti-semites exploit lexicons of social justice and universalism in order to advance a much older anti-Israel agenda.
Unquestionably, there has been extensive practice of demonization, double standards, and de-legitimization directed against Israel, much of it coming from the Euro-American left. Yet each of those three negative phenomena have been employed by Israel against Palestinians to demonize them as a terrorist collectivity, apply double standards between ‘our’ state and ‘their’ non-state violence, and de-legitimize Palestinian national existence. Sharansky participates in these double standards and his post-aliya political history emblematizes a refusal to apply a single standard of human rights, one that affirms Palestinian and Israeli equality. Sharansky’s career as a fallen human rights activist affirms that one-way ethics are dead-end ethics.
Freedom to Fear
If Sharansky’s failings are manifest, they are nonetheless important for having popularized a false terminological division between ‘free’ and ‘fear.’ This definitional bifurcation perpetuates political conflict between opposites; it creates a heaven and hell of freedom and anti-freedom. The ‘free’ will always define the ‘unfree’ as a threat, making the ‘unfree’ category a self-fulfilling threat. This split creates a definitional cycle rather than a continuum. It is a cycle of ‘I am free, they are not, and I will make them free’ rather than a continuum of ‘We all suffer from absence of freedoms and the presence of fear (poverty, violence, and class repression).’ Neither the states of ‘free’ nor ‘fear’ can become an absolute in the exclusivist manner Sharansky employs them, but assertions of absolute values are popular in the United States today and have clear political use for its right wing.
The absence of complexity, and particularly the lack of subtle understanding of inter-relationships between freedom and fear, marks this theory as political rubric-making rather than a serious effort at explanation. If its intellectual appeal resides in simplification, the theory’s current political appeal lies in its pseudo-moral framework for stigmatization of oppression in non-Western societies while relieving Western democracies (noting that Israel is more a syncretic Levantine society than ‘Western’) from engagement with sharp critical self-examination. This comes at a time when the manufacture of social fear has become a hallmark of neo-liberal democracy, the ever-increasing global poverty rates it creates, and the social command-and-control strategies that advance capital’s political power.
The explosive growth of social fear has become an even more central issue of political discourse in the United States since September 11. Appeals to fear have been used widely and repeatedly to mobilize the US public behind official falsehoods in order to support the Iraq War, to energize Bush’s now-quieted campaign for privatization of Social Security, and to provide a sustaining ideology to the Department of Homeland Security. So Sharansky has published his book in the United States at an opportune time, when the Bush administration has re-cast domestic and foreign policy as a dichotomy between fear and security. US national politics did not always employ such rhetorical dichotomies. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, certainly no radical but equally as certain a radical by comparison with contemporary US politics, called in his 1941 State of the Union address for a ‘freedom from fear’ – followed, crucially, by a ‘freedom from want.’ Roosevelt proposed political rather than specifically legal entitlements, yet his call had resonance in opposing the propagation of government by fear. It proposed a political standard where legal enactments would be judged by their positive effect in eliminating social fear. In addressing his call to Congress, Roosevelt recognized that foreign and domestic sources equally could create social fear. For Roosevelt, social fear – and especially an economic system that generated poverty and fear – was anathema, even un-American. One of the critical tasks of progressive government lay in minimizing such fears.
In the midst of the second Bush administration, that belief is one more New Deal antique for disposal. Such political, social and economic fears have been normalized, institutionalized, and thoroughly Americanized. Today the preposition has changed: it is now ‘freedom to fear’. Natan Sharansky is such an attractive read in the current White House because fear is one of its most useful political tools and a simplified theory of global fear is Israel’s newest ideological export.
Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University.
Published by Public Affairs Books.