Long before his entry into Israeli politics, Natan Sharansky was a figure of commanding moral authority around the world. For more than a decade, he refused to buckle under to the KGB in the face of every form of pressure.
What is surprising is how undiminished Sharansky's moral stature has been by contact with the fetid waters of Israeli politics. Never has his distinction been more evident than in the current election campaign.
From the beginning of the campaign, he was urged by his media advisor Motti Morel and Roman Bronfman and others on the Yisrael B'Aliya list to wage a no-holds-barred ethnic campaign against Shas, particular, and haredim, in general.
As a strategy to garner the greatest number of seats in the next Knesset, that advice appears sound. Of the 800,000 Russian immigrants since 1990, between 25 and 40% are not Jewish. For them, Judaism has no particular importance, and the traditional Zionist conception of a Jewish state can be easily portrayed as inimical to their interests. In fanning the flames of hatred for religious Jews, Sharansky could have consoled himself that he was doing nothing more than reflecting the desires and interests of his constituents.
Yet he refused. The price in terms of his core beliefs was simply too high.
When Tommy Lapid tried to bait him on TV into condemnation of haredim, Sharansky repudiated him and his politics of hate. And when the Left, for its own political purposes, attempted to paint the battle between Shas and Yisrael B'Aliya for the Interior Ministry as one between the religious and secular, between Moroccans and Russians, Sharansky took to the air waves to disassociate himself and his party from such an ethnic conflict, and to focus exclusively on the administrative deficiencies in the Interior Ministry.
Even when Shas threw down the gauntlet with outrageous ethnic stereotyping, Sharansky refused to pick it up. His only response: We will go on working to build this country together with Shas and every other group. The contrast could not be more stark between him as a leader and Aryeh Deri, who no longer cares what is destroyed, including hope that 800,000 Russian speakers will not become haters of Judaism and religious Jews, in his desperate attempts to save himself.
Sharansky has consistently fought to prevent his constituents from being used as pawns in battles between secular and religious, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Left and Right, and to strengthen the ties that bind the country.
To understand why Sharansky has refused to be moved by short-term political gain, it is important to understand the principles that have guided him since he first stepped onto the world stage. His career as a refusenik and aliya activist grew from a profound awakening of his own Jewish identity.
Few religious Jews could be confident of showing the same courage and determination to fight for a book of Tehillim (Psalms), as Sharansky showed fighting the KGB for his. And most of us would be thrilled if King David's words spoke to us with the same emotional intensity that they did to Natan Sharansky in the Gulag.
There is probably no Israeli politician today for whom the idea of a Jewish homeland resonates so strongly. Nothing could be more antithetical to his beliefs than a 'state of its citizens,' in which Jewish identity ceases to provide the social glue. Shimon Peres' dichotomy of the Israeli population into 'Israelis" and 'Jews" is anathema to Sharansky.
He has not hesitated to tell American Jews - many of whom labored arduously on his behalf when he was in prison - that the American model of separation of state and religion cannot be Israel's, for without a common Jewish identity Israel has lost its raison d'etre.
'If Israel is to remain a Jewish state,' he wrote recently, 'it must have state laws concerning marriage, divorce and conversion. The Jewish state will not long survive if we have different classes of Jews." In contrast to the common Israeli attitude that power should be used to bury one's political opponents, and that 50% plus one is enough to ram through any policy, Sharansky has consistently sought to find practical solutions that enjoy widespread support. By working closely with the Chief Rabbinate, Yisrael B'Aliya has succeeded in establishing sections in over twenty cemeteries in which Jews can be buried near non-Jewish spouses, without violating halachah. And programs have been developed for the training of Russian-speaking rabbis capable of rekindling a sense of Jewish identity among hundreds of thousands of Russian- speakers who were never exposed to Judaism.
At the same time, Sharansky resisted intense Orthodox pressure to vote for Religious Councils bill because he shared the view of Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron that the Councils are bloated bureaucracies, whose services can be provided more efficiently and cheaply in other ways.
Even Yisrael B'Aliya's quest for the Interior Ministry does not arise out of a demand for any changes in the standards of determining Jewishness, but out of a simple insistence that Jews and non-Jews alike are entitled to be treated with respect and to receive expeditious determinations as to their religious status. The immediate trigger for Yisrael B'Aliya's demand was Interior Minister Suissa's opposition to a proposal to expedite determinations of personal status by coordinating the activities of the Chief Rabbinate and the Interior Ministry under one roof.
Sharansky is not perfect and his halo has not emerged completely unsullied.
He should have recognized the potential for fanning religious and ethnic hatred in Yisrael B'Aliya's original attacks on Shas. Having let the ethnic genie out of the bottle, however unwittingly, he will not easily get him back inside. And he should have made sure that his instructions were followed and the ad not aired a second night. But as soon as he realized what had happened, he moved with full vigor to make clear that he and Yisrael B'Aliya will not be party to religious and ethnic war even if it will lead to greater success at the ballot box.
The three leading candidates for Prime Minister has each repeatedly demonstrated his physical courage. Moral courage, however, is a different matter. None of them has convinced us that there is anything they would not do or say if their pollsters and spinmeisters told them it would improve their chances of being elected. The naked desire for power proceeds and overwhelms any concern for the goals to which that power might be applied.
What we need now is more figures like Natan Sharansky for whom there are values beyond personal vanity and ego, and for whom Jewish peoplehood and unity still mean something.