A lonely Prisoner of Zion: When Moscow freed Sharansky, Israel welcomed him as a hero. Now the refuseniks are increasingly isolated, says Sarah Helm

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Natan Sharansky's squat figure recoils as he describes how he was first challenged to take up the Palestinian cause. It was in 1986, when he had just arrived in Israel after nine years in a Soviet labour camp, that he was asked by two Palestinians to support the case of Akram Haniyeh, a Palestinian newspaper editor who had been deported. One of his supplicants, Faisal Husseini, was a leading West Bank PLO supporter. When Sharansky found out, he rejected their pleas, condemning the PLO as a 'band of cut-throats'.

Sharansky still clings to this view. 'It didn't take me long to realise that the analogy between their cause and ours was dangerous and false,' he says. Nor is he a lone voice among those other Prisoners of Zion (as they were known to Jews throughout the world), who escaped Soviet persecution.

Most of Israel's erstwhile refuseniks reject calls that they take up the banner of universal human rights and, in particular, the rights of Palestinians. Yosef Mendelevich helped to organise the 1971 Leningrad plane-hijack plot, which first focused world attention on the Soviet Jews' oppression. Ida Nudel, the refuseniks' so- called 'angel of mercy', ran a support network in Moscow for fellow Jews, before she was exiled to Siberia. Both are even more emphatic than Sharansky in rejecting the Palestinian analogy.

Mendelevich has demanded the death sentence for Palestinian 'terrorists'. Nudel describes the intifada leaders as 'gangsters' whose only wish is to send the Jews back to Auschwitz.

The refuseniks' stand was greeted with intense disappointment by the Palestinians. Faisal Husseini, who now directs the Palestinian delegation at the peace talks, described Sharansky as a 'great man turned small'. Riyad Malki, a West Bank leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, talks of their 'treason to the principles they fought for'.

Today, the refuseniks, who used to be Israel's greatest heroes, are seen as fringe figures in their own country. Their opinions are ignored by most Israelis; they are viewed as irrelevant by the post-Soviet immigrant wave, and are openly criticised by Israeli liberals. Many, including Nudel and Mendelevich, supported extreme right-wing parties in the June election, and protested against the Madrid peace conference last year.

Sharansky, 44, who warned for years of Mikhail Gorbachev's 'tricks', has cautioned against hasty rapprochement with the Arabs. His wife, Avital, who did so much to promote his cause in the West during his imprisonment, has become ultra-religious (she is associated with the Gush Emunim movement, which believes in Israel's divine right to settle on the West Bank and Gaza).

Sharansky attempted to launch his own single-issue party before the election to promote the Russian immigrants' cause. His efforts flopped through lack of support, not least from fellow refuseniks who resent his high profile.

The problem for Sharansky, Mendelevich and Nudel, who are obsessed with the cause of Jewish immigration, is that the old Soviet enemy has gone. Immigration is receding as an issue, and some Russian Jews are even booking plane tickets back to their homeland. Sharansky, in his increasingly bitter column in Israel's English-language magazine, the Jerusalem Report, has accused the government of betraying Russian immigrants and the cause of Zionism.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Prisoners of Zion should be afflicted with a siege mentality. Most lost families in the Holocaust and, however they were portrayed in the West, they were always Zionists first, human rights campaigners second.

'The victim is often the last to see what is happening around him,' says Shlomo Avineri, a Soviet scholar and political scientist at Hebrew University. 'They are the last Cold War warriors. They have the mind-set of ethnocentric ideologues, failing to take up any symbolic role on behalf of others who have suffered. Worse, they have traded on their reputations, spending more time on the international lecture circuit than at home.'

The refuseniks respond to questions about the Palestinian issue by arguing that Israel's Arab neighbours are still intent on the Jewish state's annihilation. They say that Israel's right to exist is a supreme 'human' right that overrides the individual rights of Palestinians. Inverting the old Bolshevik argument, they say that the instruments the state uses to preserve its existence are therefore justified. In any event, Israel is a democracy and the Palestinians have judicial means of redress, which they, as refuseniks, were denied. They appear blind to the realities of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

'The Arabs seek destruction of Israel, which would mean a new holocaust for Jewish people,' Sharansky says. 'This would be such a fundamental human rights violation that to prevent it, other people have to pay a price. In the Soviet Union we had no democratic institutions through which to fight. Israel is a country that has them all. Human rights violations under a totalitarian regime cannot be compared with those in a democracy.'

Sharansky once visited an Israeli jail to see for himself whether the treatment of Palestinian prisoners warranted his intervention. 'There were some things that reminded me of the physical environment of the Soviet jails. But there were none of the same mechanisms here: mechanisms to change the way you think.' And he saw no evidence of torture.

'In the Soviet Union you were arrested just for expressing your views,' he says. 'The whole system there was geared to make you change your mind: the amount of food you received; the amount of fresh air; the number of visits.' In Israel, a terrorist receives the same food as someone who takes a bribe.

Sharansky also looked into the system of deportation, but the Israeli authorities allowed him to see the files, and he was satisfied that the cases were justified.

His argument is echoed by Mendelevich and Ida Nudel. 'We feel threatened all the time,' Mendelevich says. 'The idea that Israel is giving up land and may move towards establishing a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel fills us with horror. All kinds of Arab countries are a threat to our existence here: it is a struggle for life and death.'

For a man who for so many years was openly prepared to die for his cause and who makes nothing of his own past sufferings, Mendelevich's zealotry is laced with a surprising amount of fear. Asked what he would say to a Palestinian who complained that he had lost his land to a Jew, he replies: 'I would never talk to such a person. He would kill me.'

The very mention of the Palestinian cause brings scorn from Nudel, a slight, generally soft-spoken woman. 'There is no comparison between our struggle and their terrorism,' she insists, rising up, proud, and angry. 'I belong to a great, civilised and highly courageous movement. I never used a curse or threw a stone. I behaved as an absolutely civilised human being. They send their children forward to fight the Israeli army to gain sympathy. I hate them for that.'

Nudel, like the other refuseniks, readily concedes that theirs was a Zionist struggle. She is cynical about the support she and other persecuted Soviet Jews received from the West.

'Human rights were the golden key used by the United States and other governments to prise open the Soviet Union and begin to attack the Communists,' she says. 'We were used as the soldiers in their fight. Human rights were just nice words. Words words words. If America had really cared about us, I wouldn't have been in jail 16 years.'

In his inaugural address as Israel's new Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin said: 'Walls of enmity have fallen. No longer are we necessarily a people that dwells alone, and no longer is it true that the whole world is against us.' Such sentiments are treated with derision by the refuseniks. Their increasing isolation shows, not for the first time in history, that victims are often the last to accept change.

(Photograph omitted)

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