Solzhenitsyn in Jerusalem

When a cabinet minister from Yisrael Beiteinu calls human rights groups 'terror organizations,' he is using the language of the Communist regime against dissidents, refuseniks and human rights campaigners.

Expectations were running high in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on June 8, 1978, when the great Russian writer and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came to Harvard to deliver the commencement address.

The faculty and students of the university - perhaps the ultimate symbol of American academic liberalism - expected a speech about liberty of the soul, about the triumph of democracy and about human rights.

Avigdor Lieberman - Olivier Fitoussi - 07122011
Olivier Fitoussi

Instead, the most famous dissident in the world delivered a scathing - and consummately crafted - indictment of Western liberalism, which he depicted as being spiritually exhausted, afflicted by "moral poverty," hedonistic, decadent and moribund. Western humanism is the enemy of humanity, said the man who until that moment had been taken by the West as the very symbol of resistance to the Soviet rule of tyranny.

When Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland after the fall of Communism, he continued to develop these nationalistic and mystical-religious ideas, some of which bordered on racism and fascism and some of which bore traces of an anti-Semitism that recalled the Black Hundreds of the czarist era.

Apparently, one can be a great author and courageous dissident while also holding sickeningly regressive views. Not everyone who faced down Communist repression - even as bravely as Solzhenitsyn did - is a liberal, freedom-loving democrat.

One can see something of this in the talk of the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu MKs who are behind legislative initiatives whose purpose is to restrict freedom of expression or funding sources for human rights organizations. Some of these Knesset members - not all of them, it must be stressed - are from the former Soviet Union. They are educated and eloquent, members of the Russian-Jewish elite whose immigration was one of the best things to happen to Israel.

The contribution of this immigrant group to the state cannot be overstated. But a minority of these immigrants, who entered the Israeli political establishment, also brought with them some of the militant political tradition that was and still is endemic to Russian politics.

This tradition preceded and outlasted the Russian Revolution, as evinced by Vladimir Putin and the regime he leads.

There is something sad about the fact that these MKs have interpolated this ill wind into Israel's political debate. When a cabinet minister from Yisrael Beiteinu calls human rights groups "terror organizations," he is using the language of the Communist regime against dissidents, refuseniks and human rights campaigners.

Some of the activities of the civil rights organizations occasionally warrant criticism, and there are those for whom civil rights is merely cover for unqualified support for the Palestinians. But branding all of them as terrorists is uncomfortably close to the Soviet culture of power that one might have hoped had vanished from the world.

In his poem "An Edom" ("To Edom" ), Heinrich Heine expresses concern that the persecuted Jew who stands up to his persecutors runs the risk of becoming like them. In their practical wisdom, the sages of early Judaism taught, "Let man ever be of the persecuted, and not of the persecutors."

Those MKs who themselves, or their families, suffered and stood up against persecution in their country of origin, often bravely, would do well to learn that lesson rather than trying to forge a mirror image here of Soviet-born repression.

Read this article in Hebrew: שיטות סובייטיות גם כאן