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Prophet without honor in his own country

AS A courageous refusenik in the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky became a hero to free people everywhere -- nowhere more so than in Israel, the country to which he yearned to emigrate. His fight for human rights cost him nine years in the KGB's dungeons, and when, in February 1986, he finally arrived in the land of his forefathers, it was to an ecstatic welcome by thousands of cheering Israelis. Sharansky was embraced on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport by Israel's top leaders, including Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

''He has fought heroically alone under tremendous pressure, against so many difficult odds, as a proud Jew, as a freedom-loving person, as a man with a mission, as a devoted Zionist," Peres said. ''We receive here a great and heroic man, who . . . is made of unbreakable material and unbreakable spirit."

Inside the airport, Sharansky placed a phone call to Washington, D.C. ''I know how great was your role in this greatest event of my and my wife's life," he told President Ronald Reagan, who had made Moscow's abuse of dissidents a pressing issue on the superpower agenda. ''I know very well how deep is the concern of all of your people in the cause of human rights."

Nineteen years later, Sharansky is still a hero to many. Crowds still throng to see him, as they did at Harvard University, where I heard him speak last week. American presidents still pay attention to his words -- President Bush effusively praises his new book, ''The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," and openly acknowledges its influence on his inaugural and State of the Union addresses.

Sharansky's great themes mesh with the Wilsonian ideals Bush has been articulating since 9/11: that liberty and self-rule are universal aspirations, that freedom has the power to pacify hostile regimes, and that the best way to promote global security is to advance democracy and human rights.

These views have acquired so much traction in Washington that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explicitly invoked them last month. ''The world should apply what Natan Sharansky calls the 'town square test,' " she said. ''If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society."

But if Sharansky's thinking carries great weight in America, in his adopted homeland it carries none at all.

''I understand that in the Soviet Union your ideas were important," Israel's current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has told him, ''but unfortunately they have no place in the Middle East."

No place, in other words, for the idea that peace between Israel and the Palestinians depends not on unilateral Israeli concessions but on the transformation of the Palestinian Authority. No place for the idea that freedom and democracy can have the same power in the West Bank and Gaza that they have had in Japan and Germany since World War II. No place for the idea that Palestinian terror and violence will never cease until Palestinian dictatorship and repression cease.

For years Sharansky has been trying to get Israeli policymakers to understand that the road to Israeli-Arab amity must be paved with tolerance and human rights. And for years his pleas have been ignored, as prime ministers of every ideological stripe have instead pursued a strategy of strengthening Palestinian strongmen -- first Yasser Arafat, now Mahmoud Abbas -- and counting on them to crack down on terror. In vain Sharansky has argued that the prerequisite to peace is not to stifle the Palestinian people but to liberate them. Not to empower dictatorial Palestinian rulers, but to remake the Palestinian Authority into a free society.

In ''The Case for Democracy," Sharansky writes about Omar Karsou, a Palestinian who secretly contacted him after reading an article he had written about the need for Palestinian democracy. As an Arab in Ramallah, Karsou yearned for freedom no less ardently than Sharansky had as a Jew in Moscow. For all their differences, Sharansky honors him as a genuine Palestinian dissident.

''Every time I listen to Omar, I am reminded of my own past," Sharansky writes. With one crucial difference: Soviet dissidents drew strength from the knowledge that the free world heard their voices and supported their struggle. For Palestinian dissidents there is no such solidarity. Their voices are barely audible -- not because they don't exist, but because the free world isn't listening.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is 

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