Natan Sharansky, an Israeli minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and once a political prisoner in the former Soviet Union, called for democracy in the Middle East in a speech Wednesday afternoon in McShain Lounge. Not only is democracy a basic human right, he said, but it also serves as prerequisite for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” Sharansky said. “Until neighboring countries also embrace democracy, Israel should not be expected to make land concessions or dismantle West Bank settlements.”

Sharansky, who resigned from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government prior to the 2000 Camp David peace negotiations, has generally aligned himself with the right-wing of Israeli politics. Sharansky’s own political party, Yisrael b’Aliyah, recently merged with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud party.

In his speech, Sharansky compared Israel with non-democratic regimes, particularly those in the Middle East. Dictators there are less accountable to the people, he said, and they search for external enemies that will divert attention away from domestic problems.

“Dictators make war in order to control people,” he said.

Sharansky, born in the Ukraine in 1948, said he first took an interest in human rights while working for Andrei Sakharov, a human rights activist and lobbyist, in the 1960s. Later, as a Soviet dissident in his own right, and an advocate for Soviet Jews, Sharansky was arrested and convicted on charges of treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison, much of it in a Siberian gulag.

When asked by one student about his time in prison, Sharansky advised that “you should not take yourself too seriously, and think of it as great theater.”

During interrogation sessions, he said he liked to tell anti-Soviet jokes, and then watch as the KGB agents suppressed their laughter. He said that he would say to them, “You say you are free while I am in prison, but you see that you can’t even laugh when you want to laugh.”

International pressure helped implement his early release in 1986. By that time, Sharansky had become a celebrated figure in the international human rights community. He was personally welcomed to Israel by Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the United States awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal.

Once he arrived in Israel, Sharansky immersed himself in politics, founding the Zionist Forum, a group that lobbied on behalf of Israel’s increasing number of Soviet immigrants. The Zionist Forum ultimately gave birth to the political party, Yisrael b’Aliyah, which made a strong showing in the 1996 Knesset elections, elevating party leader Sharansky to his first ministry post.

Since that time, Sharansky has served as a Cabinet member under each of the last three prime ministers. His political career, however, is not without its critics. Groups like Rabbis for Human Rights, and its leader David Forman, say that Sharansky has abandoned many of the human rights beliefs for which he became famous as an activist, particularly in regard to the Palestinian question.

In his speech, Sharansky defended Israel’s human rights record and worried that Israel was not treated fairly in universities and media outlets around the world.

“It seems like a contradiction to make a connection between human rights abuses and Israel,” he said. “Israel is a champion of human rights”.

Sharansky’s appearance is part of a six-day, 13-campus speaking tour at U.S. universities.

Sharansky’s speech was sponsored by the Georgetown Israel Alliance, the Jewish Student Association, the Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization and the AEPi fraternity.

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