Do heroes still walk among us? For those who may have doubted, I bring reassurance. We have at least one left.
I learned this when, not long ago, I wrote an article criticizing one of the great Jewish heroes of our era: Natan Sharansky. The piece, called "Say it ain't so, Natan," was a reaction to the news that Sharansky, the former prisoner of Zion and currently Israel's Minister of Trade and Industry, had begun trade talks with Chinese officials.
In those February meetings with Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanquing, Sharansky publicly lamented the low level of Israeli trade with the Beijing regime and hoped it would increase. Sharansky said nothing about China's dreadful human rights record and registered no protest about issues such as jailed dissidents, religious freedom, genocide in Tibet, or the use of prisoner slave labor in China's export industries.
The plight of the dissidents in the laogai — China's gulag — has aroused the conscience of many in the United States and elsewhere who are not prepared to accept Beijing's lies about human rights. Even as its economic system was opened up to the West, China's political and judicial system remains locked in the Communist Party's grip.
Living standards may be higher than in the nightmare years of Mao, but the world's largest country is still a nightmare of totalitarian abuse.
While other American and Israeli politicians can be counted on to care only about how much money can be made from China, I had hoped that Sharansky, of all people, would see that there were other, higher priorities involved in relations with the Beijing regime. That Sharansky — a hero who had stood up not only for Jewish rights in the former Soviet Union but for all victims — failed to register even a tepid protest was deeply disappointing. If even he was now silent, who was there that would speak up?
In response to my commentary, Sharansky's spokesman, Roman Polansky, admitted that Sharansky had not spoken of human rights at the February meetings. However, Polansky promised his boss would do so in the future. I'll admit that I was skeptical. It looked like Natan Sharansky the hero had become Natan Sharansky the typical politician who bailed out when it came to principles.
But I was wrong.
Last Sunday, I was awakened at home by a call from Polansky telling me of a meeting Sharansky had held with Chen Jinuha, China's state planning commission minister.
He told me Sharansky had raised the question of human rights during the meeting in his Jerusalem office. According to Polansky, this made Sharansky the first Israeli Cabinet minister to speak out on this issue in talks with the Chinese. Echoing the language of our struggle for Soviet Jewry, Sharansky said Israel's ties to China would be "linked" to its human rights record.
Moreover, Sharansky took this step against the wishes of Israel's Foreign Ministry, which refused to provide him with a list of imprisoned Chinese dissidents to discuss. Sharansky was told by the Foreign Ministry that speaking up for human rights was America's job.
But Israeli diplomats were wrong. Human rights is everyone's business, especially Jews who have so often been the victims of tyrannical regimes. In the days of the Soviet Jewry movement, we called on the rest of the world to speak out for refuseniks like Sharansky. We have also been outspoken on human rights issues even in places where there were few if any Jewish victims such as Bosnia or Rwanda.
For too long we were silent about China.
Fortunately, in recent months, more Jews have been recognizing the importance of being heard on China. Last month, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism held a special freedom Passover seder with the Dalai Lhama, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader. The Coalition for Jewish and Christian Values — a Washington-based group led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who is an Orthodox Jew, and Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.) a conservative Christian — has been outspoken on the issue of the persecution of Christians around the world, including China.
The New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal has been hammering away at America's refusal to take human rights in China seriously. And the editorial pages of a number of American Jewish newspapers have also taken up this issue.
A genuine Jewish coalition of concern is being forged on China, where once there was only silence. Israel ought to be part of this coalition.
Natan Sharansky has now answered my questions about whether he still cares about human rights. He has shown his willingness to make a nuisance of himself about it, even to his own government. His courage once again deserves our applause and support. His moral integrity is one of the government of Israel's greatest assets. It should not be sold for a share of the China trade, however lucrative it might be.
As with so much of his earlier life, Natan Sharansky's linking of the China trade to human rights has brought honor to Israel and the Jewish people. It's true. Heroes still do walk among us.