A Book of Hope and Dreams


The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror
By Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer
303 Pages. PublicAffairs. $26.95.


For a different reading of The Case for Democracy, click here.

Once upon a time, liberals stood for liberty, the more the merrier, for people of all shapes and sizes, throughout the world. When Americans debated entering World War II, amid the chaotic reconstruction of Japan and Germany, American liberals led the fight for freedom, trusting democracy’s transformative power. For decades now, Natan Sharansky has embodied that democratic doctrine. With impeccable, hard-earned credentials from the Soviet era as both dissident and refusenik—demanding democracy for all while combating Communism’s particular disdain for the Jew—Sharansky lived, and nearly died, for these principles. After nine long years in prison, Sharanksy emerged triumphant as the little bald guy with a giant soul who defied, and helped defeat, a monstrous dictatorship.

With the clear-eyed, self-deprecating realism that saw him through the Soviet gulag, Sharanky knew that, having achieved the status of world icon for freedom in the late 1980s, there was nowhere to go but down, once he was actually free and living in a democracy. But he never imagined that his commitment to this vision—let alone his appreciation for the Jewish religion for which he fought—would get him tagged as a “right winger” and demonized by many of his former fans, especially in Israel.

In this bold, passionate, transcendent manifesto, Sharansky, Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, makes the case for democracy, freedom, liberty, and “moral clarity,” which he invokes repeatedly. Crediting Ronald Reagan’s democratic moralism, rather than Henry Kissinger’s amoral realism, for undermining the Soviet Union, Sharansky argues that the same faith, and the same pressure, must be applied to the Arab world today. Sharansky explains the failure of the Oslo Peace Process—and his own consistent, controversial, opposition to it—by insisting that no peace was or is possible as long as Palestinian leaders deprive the Palestinian people of basic rights. Dictators thrive on war while a culture of fear fosters terrorism, Sharansky explains, dumbfounded by the cravenness and cynicism of those who should have known better. He chides the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for relying on Yasir Arafat as “our dictator” who could achieve what Israelis could not because, Rabin said, Arafat the autocrat could govern “without a Supreme Court, without B’tselem [a human-rights organization] and without all kinds of bleeding heart liberals.” Sharansky mocks Shimon Peres who, in his soft, mushy collectivism, preferring egalitarian posturing to real freedom, once offended Russians in the post-Soviet era by claiming “We have the kibbutzim, and you have the kolkhoz.” This amoral comparison missed the fact that one emerged voluntarily while Stalin imposed his collective farms violently.  Sharansky  excoriates the moral-equivalence- and cycle-of-violence-crowd, the Yossi Beilins of the world, who cannot distinguish between the terrorist and the terrorized, the offender and the defender, and who equate honor killings in Palestinians’ sexist culture with the gender distinctions in Orthodox Jewish culture.

But this is not an angry or vengeful book. This is a book of hopes and dreams. It is, ultimately, a remarkably pro-Palestinian book. Himself the survivor of a regime awash in doublethink which squelched dissent, Sharansky refuses to believe that most Palestinians actually believe the nihilistic rhetoric they feel compelled to parrot.  But true peace cannot be achieved, he argues, until Palestinians are able to speak, vote, and think freely.  “By linking the peace process to the expansion of freedom within Palestinian society, Palestinians will be free and Israelis will be secure.… The more free a society becomes, the less dangerous it will be,” Sharansky and his co-author Ron Dermer write in their epigrammatic style in this eminently readable book. 

Going beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sharansky repudiates those whom he calls “freedom’s skeptics” and suggests that freedoms can and must be “imposed” from the outside. Chiding statesmen more comfortable with the momentary stability of autocrats to the chaotic ferment of democrats, Sharansky insists that “The nations of the free world can promote democracy by linking their foreign policies toward non-democratic regimes to how those regimes treat their subjects.”

Sharansky’s moral clarity risks oversimplification. American historians have been debating for decades just what conditions fostered democracy. Simply imposing democracy in hostile soil does not guarantee success, even as succumbing to cynicism is not an acceptable alternative.

President George W. Bush has read the book, and encouraged his entourage—as well as the Canadian leaders he recently visited—to read it. Bush told the New York Times, "That thinking, that's part of my presidential DNA."  Bush's second inaugural echoed and elaborated on Sharansky's message, defining the preppie president and the perpetual refusenik as the world's leading cheerleaders for freedom, dedicated to spreading a democracy epidemic in the unlikeliest of places.

But this is not a conservative Republican manifesto. The sensibility of this book parallels Paul Berman’s call in his 1983 book, Terror and Liberalism, for the Left to spearhead the fight against Islamicist totalitarianism. As Sharansky says, “At a time when freedom and fear are at war, we must move beyond Left and Right and begin to think again about right and wrong.” Sharansky got it right in the 1980s; this book suggests that he has done it again.