Natan Sharansky on the lessons of Oct. 27
search
Natan Sharansky speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine on Oct. 6, 2021. Photo courtesy of Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center
Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. Natan Sharansky speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine on Oct. 6, 2021
Fighting AntisemitismJewish peoplehood is paramount, he said

Natan Sharansky on the lessons of Oct. 27

Three years after the attack, Pittsburgh continues offering instruction

Main image by Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. Natan Sharansky speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine on Oct. 6, 2021

Israeli politician and human rights activist Natan Sharansky sees several lessons stemming from the Oct. 27 antisemitic attack and its aftermath. Not only was it a horrific example of rising antisemitism in the U.S., but it also demonstrated the ability of Jews from disparate backgrounds to stand in unity — as well as the tendency of some to politicize tragedy.

During an Oct. 6 address in Kyiv, Ukraine, to commemorate 80 years since the murder of 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar, and during his recent conversation with the Chronicle, Sharansky recounted an evolution of antisemitic activity and shared his thoughts on Oct. 27.

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was a wake-up call for many American Jews, he said, but it also “reminded everybody how united the Jewish community of Pittsburgh is.” National and international television highlighted the outpouring of “love, sympathy and support” to the Pittsburgh Jewish community, Sharansky said. Publications and speeches in the aftermath of the attack also showed a deep connection between Jews and the general public, as people of diverse faiths stood together and expressed “solidarity, sympathy and a readiness to fight against extremism.”

Unfortunately, Oct. 27 also exposed rifts within the Jewish fold, Sharanksy said, including “infighting” about whether community members should meet with President Donald Trump, and whether Minister of Diaspora Affairs and current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett should visit Pittsburgh so soon after the attack. The finger-pointing between political camps was both “unfortunate and very dangerous.”

In earlier generations, antisemitic activity typically unified Jews: The 1840 blood libel in Damascus, the Dreyfus Affair and the Beilis Trial each led to global Jewry standing together. Pittsburgh, however, showed how “political questions” could create fissures, Sharansky said. “I think Pittsburgh emphasized all the good that we can see in America, and the Jewish community, and the Pittsburgh Jewish community, but it also shed light on the challenges in the fight against antisemitism, and how the most obvious and clear cases can be used for political rivalry,” he said.

Natan Sharansky. Screenshot by Adam Reinherz

For nearly 50 years, Sharansky has studied, and experienced firsthand, antisemitic activity. As a young man, following his efforts as a refusenik to promote Soviet Jewry, he was convicted of treason and spying on behalf of the United States and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor. At that point in his life, Sharansky thought antisemitism was “a direct result of repressive totalitarian regimes,” he said. “A totalitarian regime needs scapegoats, a totalitarian regime needs external enemies in order to keep its own people under control.”

Yet after arriving in Israel in 1986 — following an international campaign for his release — Sharansky’s perception of antisemitism shifted “to something of a much broader phenomenon,” he said.

Within the free world, antisemitism, as he came to understand, involved “delegitimization, demonization and double standards.” These “three Ds,” Sharansky said, were hallmarks of “classical antisemitism and antisemitism towards the Jewish state.”

He said Jews worldwide are experiencing increased threats from various political camps and ideologies. There is Islamic antisemitism, as espoused by Iranian leadership. From the political left is the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, and “insistence that Israel, the Jewish state, has no right to exist by some representatives of the academic world,” Sharansky told the Chronicle. Pittsburgh and Toulouse, France — where a teacher and three children at a Jewish school were murdered in 2012 — are the “face of antisemitism on the right.”

The attacks in Pittsburgh and Toulouse mobilized Jewish organizations to provide strategic defenses, Sharansky said. While serving as head of the Jewish Agency from June 2009 to August 2018, Sharansky oversaw the creation of the Jewish Agency’s Security Assistance Fund, which distributes funding to synagogues, community centers and Jewish schools for use toward bettering security measures.

Oct. 27 likewise served as “a warning signal” for Jewish Federations and umbrella organizations to “intensify the self-protection, or self-defense, of Jewish institutions,” Sharansky said.

On March 12, 2021, Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, announced that Pittsburgh’s Federation and the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition had successfully lobbied the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to grant the Pittsburgh Jewish community $1,052,692 — more than 20% of a $5 million pool available to all Pennsylvania nonprofits — toward “specific target hardening” of 20 different synagogues and Jewish agencies.

Moving forward, Jews in Pittsburgh, and across the globe, must not only be willing to recognize antisemitic threats emanating from both the left and right, but prioritize Jewish peoplehood and geographical belonging, Sharansky stressed.

“It is very important for every Jewish community, and for every Jew in the world to strengthen their connection with the Israel state — whatever their political views, whatever disagreements with this government or that government,” he said. “All of us have a lot of disagreements among ourselves, but it shouldn't stop us from strengthening our bridges between communities and with the state of Israel. The best guarantor of the continuity of Jewish people is the fact that there is a Jewish state.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more:
comments