This week, 20 Questions hosts Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency.
Revolutions in the Arab world in recent months were “inevitable,” Sharansky said, and the question, at this point, is “whether we will be wise enough to become allies of these people who want to change.”
“If you can go into the center of your town and express your thoughts publicly” without repercussions, that’s a free society. However, “if you are punished for expressing your views, that is a fear society,” said Sharansky. In the Arab Spring, millions of people decided “they don’t want to live in a society of fear," he added.
Responding to concerns over extremist factions replacing deposed Arab dictators, Sharansky put the mantle of responsibility on the free world. “If there won’t be forces trying to help the millions of the people of the Facebook generation who went to the demonstrations and organized themselves into a political power... the result will be takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood or the army,” Sharansky told 20 Questions.
However, Sharansky continued, it is certainly within the free world’s interest to aid the Arab nations in building their future society.
Sharansky also addressed the seeming contradiction of a Jewish and democratic state, saying that “this idea that democracy should erase identity is absolutely wrong.”
He posited that the “two basic desires of people are to belong and to be free; and they have to go together, they have to strengthen one another.”
Drawing on recent events, Sharansky highlighted the Arab world, on the one hand, which is subsumed with a strong identity but just now discovers it also needs freedom; and Europe, on the other hand, which now learns that to protect its freedom from enemies it has to recover its lost identity.
“The desire of the Jewish people,” Sharansky asserted, is to combine both aspects of national existence. “Beginning with leaving Egypt, we became people when we became free.”
In fact, this current fight “for our right to be a Jewish democratic state is in fact one of the central problems and challenges of modern life,” said Sharansky.
Sharansky emphasized the importance of differentiating between “new anti-Semitism" and “legitimate criticism of Israel.” He explains that any discourse that identifies with either one of the "three D's" - demonization, de-legitimization and double standards pertaining to Jews - is anti-Semitic in the classic sense.
The way to combat de-legitimization of Israel among Jews themselves, said Sharansky, is by strengthening the younger generation’s connection to Israel.
“There’s a need in the young generation to find meaning in their life and they’re doing it through discovering their identity.” Sharansky asserted that this is the role of “the Israel experience programs [that] are so powerful and so important [that] they’re practically changing the state of Jewry today.”