Elena Bonner speaks on Israel (and Russia)

Cathy Young and Elena Bonner in August 2007 

Cathy Young and Elena Bonner in August 2007


Elena Bonner, the widow of great scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov and an outstanding human rights activist in her own right, is truly one of the heroes of the modern age.   (It was my privilege to interview Bonner nearly two years ago for this article.)  Yesterday, the 86-year-old grande dame of the Russian human rights movement spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum.  Her speech, of which Ms. Bonner sent me an English translation, is worth reproducing in full.  Ms. Bonner is a woman of strong and outspoken opinions; agree or disagree, she is always worth hearing.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,

In his invitation to this conference, the president of the forum, Thor Halvorssen, asked me to talk about my life, the suffering I have endured, and how I was able to bear it all. But today all that seems to me quite unnecessary.

So I will say only a few words about myself. 

At the age of 14, I was left without my parents. My father was executed, my mother spent 18 years in prison and exile. My grandmother raised me and my younger brother. The poet Vladimir Kornilov, who suffered the same fate, wrote: “And it felt that in those years we had no mothers. We had grandmothers.” There were hundreds of thousands of such children. Ilya Ehrenburg called us “the strange orphans of 1937”.

Then came the war. My generation was cut off nearly at the roots by the war, but I was lucky. I came back from the war. I came back to an empty house. My grandmother had died of starvation in the siege of Leningrad. Then came a communal apartment, six half-hungry years of medical school, falling in love, two children, and the poverty of a Soviet doctor. But I was not alone in this. Everyone lived this way.

Then there was my dissident period followed by exile. But Andrei and I were together! And that was true happiness.

Today, summing up my life (at age 86, I try to sum up my life every day I am still alive), I can do so in three words. My life was typical, tragic, and beautiful. Whoever needs the details — read my two books, Alone Together and Mothers and Daughters. They have been translated into many languages. Read Sakharov’s Memoirs. It’s a pity his Diaries haven’t been translated; they were published in Russia in 2006. Apparently, the West isn’t interested in Sakharov right now.

The West isn’t very interested in Russia either, a country that no longer has real elections, independent courts, or freedom of the press. Russia is a country where journalists, human rights activists, and migrants are killed regularly, almost daily. And extreme corruption flourishes of a kind and extent that never existed earlier in Russia or anywhere else. So what do the Western mass media discuss mainly? Gas and oil — of which Russia has a lot. Energy is its only political trump card, and Russia uses it as an instrument of pressure and blackmail. And there’s another topic that never disappears from the newspapers — who rules Russia? Putin or Medvedev? But what difference does it make, if Russia has completely lost the impulse for democratic development that we thought we saw in the early 1990s? Russia will remain the way it is now for decades, unless there is some violent upheaval.

During the years since the fall of the Berlin wall, the world has experienced incredible changes in an exceptionally short period. But has the world become better, or more prosperous for the six billion eight hundred million people who live on our small planet? No one can answer that question unambiguously, despite all the achievements of science and technology and that process which we customarily call “progress”.  It seems to me that the world has become more alarming, more unpredictable, and more fragile. This alarm, unpredictability, and fragility are felt to some extent by all countries and all individuals. And civic and political life becomes more and more virtual, like a picture on a computer screen.

Even so, the picture of life, formed by television, newspaper, or radio remains the same — there is no end to the conferences, summits, forums, and competitions from beauty contests to sandwich eating ones. They say people are coming together — but in reality, they are growing apart.

And that isn’t because an economic depression suddenly burst forth, and swine flu to boot. This began on September 11, 2001. At first, anger and horror was provoked by the terrorists who knocked down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and by their accomplices in London, Madrid and other cities, and by the shaheeds, suicide bombers who blew themselves up at public spaces like discotheques and wedding parties whose families were rewarded $25,000 each by Saddam Hussein. Later, Bush was blamed for everything, and as always, the Jews — that is, Israel. An example was the first Durban Conference, and the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe, noted several years ago in a speech by Romano Prodi. Then there was Durban-2; the main speaker was Ahmadinejad proposing to annihilate Israel.

So it is about Israel and the Jews that I will speak. And not only because I am Jewish, but above all because the Middle Eastern conflict since the end of World War II has been a platform for political games and gambling by the great powers, the Arab countries and individual politicians, striving, through the so-called “peace process,” to make a name for themselves, and perhaps win a Nobel Peace Prize. At one time, the Nobel Peace Prize was the highest moral award of our civilization. But after December 1994, when Yasir Arafat became one of the three new laureates, its ethical value was undermined. I haven’t always greeted each selection of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Storting with joy, but that one shocked me. And to this day, I cannot understand and accept the fact that Andrei Sakharov and Yasir Arafat, now posthumously, share membership in the club of Nobel laureates.

In many of Sakharov’s publications (in his books Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom and My Country and the World, in his articles, and in his interviews), Andrei Dmitrievich wrote and spoke about Israel. I have a collection of citations of his writing on this topic. If it were published in Norway, then many Norwegians would be surprised at how sharply their contemporary view of Israel differs from the view of Sakharov.

Here are several citations from Sakharov:

“Israel has an indisputable right to exist.” “Israel has a right to existence within safe borders.” “All the wars that Israel has waged have been just, forced upon it by the irresponsibility of Arab leaders.” “With all the money that has been invested in the problem of Palestinians, it would have been possible long ago to resettle them and provide them with good lives in Arab countries.”

Throughout the years of Israel’s existence there has been war. Victorious wars, and also wars which Israel was not allowed to win. Each and every day — literally every day — there is the expectation of a terrorist act or a new war. We have seen the Oslo Peace Initiatives and the Camp-David Hand-shake and the Road-map and Land for Peace (there is not much land — from one side of Israel on a clear day you can see the other side with the naked eye).

Now, there is a new (actually, quite old) motif currently in fashion (in fact it’s an old one):  “Two states for two peoples.”  It sounds good. And there is no controversy in the peace-making Quartet, made up of the U.S., the UN, the EU, and Russia (some great peace-maker, with its Chechen war and its Abkhazian-Ossetian provocation). The Quartet, and the Arab countries, and the Palestinian leaders (both Hamas and Fattah) put additional demands to Israel. I will speak only of one demand: that Israel take back the Palestinian refugees. And here a little history and demography are needed.

According to the official UN definition, those who have fled from violence and wars are considered refugees — but not their descendants who are born in another country. At one time the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish refugees from Arab countries were about equal in number — about 700,000 to 800,000. The newly-created state of Israel took in the Jews (about 600,000). They were officially recognized as refugees by UN Resolution 242, but not provided with any UN assistance. Palestinians, however, are considered refugees not only in the first generation, but in the second, third, and now even in the fourth generation. According to the UN Works and Relief Agency’s report, the number of registered Palestinian refugees has grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 4.6 million in 2008, and continues to rise due to natural population growth. All these people have the rights of Palestinian refugees and are eligible to receive humanitarian aid.

The entire population of Israel is about 7.5 million, among them about 2.5 million ethnic Arabs who call themselves Palestinians. Imagine Israel then, if another five million Arabs flood into it; Arabs would substantially outnumber the Jewish population. Thus created next to Israel will be a Palestinian state cleansed of Jews, because in addition to the demand that Palestinian refugees return to Israel, there is also the demand that Judea and Samaria be cleansed of Jews and turned over to Palestinians – while in Gaza today there is not a single Jew remaining.

The result is both strange and frigthening, and not because Israel will be actually destroyed – it’s a different time and different Jews.  It is terrifying to see the short memory of the august peace-making Quartet, their leaders and their citizens if they let this happen. Because the plan “two states for two peoples” is the creation of one state, ethnically cleansed of Jews, and a second one with the potential to do the same thing. A Judenfrei Holy Land – the dream of Adolph Hitler come true at last. So think again, those who are still able, who has a fascist inside him today?

And another question that has been a thorn for me for a long time. It’s a question for my human rights colleagues. Why doesn’t the fate of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit trouble you in the same way as the fate of the Guantanamo prisoners?

You fought for and won the opportunity for the International Committee of the Red Cross, journalists, and lawyers to visit Guantanamo. You know prison conditions, the prisoners’ everyday routine, their food. You have met with prisoners subjected to torture. The result of your efforts has been a ban on torture and a law to close this prison. President Obama signed it in the first days of his coming to the White House. And although he, like President Bush before him, does not know what to do with the Guantanamo prisoners, there is hope that the new Administration will come up with something.

But during the two years Shalit has been held by terrorists, the world human rights community has done nothing for his release. Why? He is a wounded soldier, and fully falls under the protection of the Geneva Conventions. The Conventions say clearly that hostage-taking is prohibited, that representatives of the Red Cross must be allowed to see prisoners of war, especially wounded prisoners, and there is much else written in the Geneva Conventions about Shalit’s rights. The fact that representatives of the Quartet conduct negotiations with the people who are holding Shalit in an unknown location, in unknown conditions, vividly demonstrates their scorn of international rights documents and their total legal nihilism. Do human rights activists also fail to recall the fundamental international rights documents?

And yet I still think (and some will find this naïve) that the first tiny, but real step toward peace must become the release of Shalit. Release —  not  exchange for 1000 or 1,500 prisoners who are in Israeli prisons serving court sentences for real crimes.

Returning to my question of why human rights activists are silent, I can find no answer except that Shalit is an Israeli soldier, Shalit is a Jew. So again, it is conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism. Again, it is fascism.

Thirty-four years have passed since the day when I came to this city to represent my husband, Andrei Sakharov, at the 1975 Nobel Prize ceremony. I was in love with Norway then. The reception I received filled me with joy. Today, I feel Alarm and Hope (the title Sakharov used for his 1977 essay written at the request of the Nobel Committee). 

Alarm because of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment growing throughout Europe and even further afield. And yet, I hope that countries, their leaders, and people everywhere will recall and adopt Sakharov’s ethical credo: “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice.”


(Translation slightly edited for grammar and phrasing.)

Do I agree with everything Bonner says?  No.  I don’t believe anti-Semitism accounts for the failure to show proper concern for Gilad Shalit; rather, it’s the entrenched habit of paying more attention to human rights violations by Western/democratic countries, and to the abuse of those belonging to “traditional” oppressed groups.  Still, her basic point about the double standard remains valid, and it’s a powerful challenge to human rights groups.  Her comments about the two-state solution raise very important issues as well.

The original Russian text is here.


Filed under Israel, Russia, terrorism

12 responses to “Elena Bonner speaks on Israel (and Russia)

  1. joeland7

    Mrs. Bonner is a very strong woman and her ideology is commendable. Yes there is a growing concern and sentiment against Israel. As a Christian and a believer in Bible Prophecy, there is nowhere in my Bible that give credence to a modern-day Israel. All of the currant books about Israel being the fulfillment of Bible prophecy are Illuminati (Rothschild) inspire and finance. I’m not against Judaism but I am against Zionism, and the people of the world are learning the truth and the true nature of Zionism. Long live Truth

  2. Al in SoCal

    What I liked about this article was Bonner’s zeroing in on US foreign policy of late. We have completely ignored Russia, China, Myanmar for their awful human “rights” abuses. Too bad Bonner doesn’t delve into the reasoning behind our lack of force when it comes to human rights issues. In my opinion, it is because the deal we made with the world by invading Iraq. The world was against us, and for good reason, but we went ahead anyway losing the hard-fought respect of nations across the globe. When Russia, China, or even Iran want to give an excuse for their behavior they simply need to pull out our dirty laundry in Iraq. Sad situation all around.

  3. Bonner is absolutely clear and perceptive about the insidious drift toward increased antisemitism, even demonstrated in the comments here on this blog. And she is completely correct to ask

    “Because the plan “two states for two peoples” is the creation of one state, ethnically cleansed of Jews, and a second one with the potential to do the same thing. A Judenfrei Holy Land – the dream of Adolph Hitler come true at last. So think again, those who are still able, who has a fascist inside him today?”
    Thank you for posting her speech !

  4. Sarah Wein

    An important article, beautifully expressed. Should be published everywhere.
    Sarah Wein

  5. Livia Jackson

    Brilliant speech from a brilliant woman.
    I wish there were more clear-thinking people who would appreciate Dr. Bonner’s remarkable mind and courageous stance.
    I wish there were many who would learn from her. I wish the world would be according to Elena Bonner.

  6. Beautiful speech, and brave.

  7. jerry

    “Because the plan “two states for two peoples” is the creation of one state, ethnically cleansed of Jews, and a second one with the potential to do the same thing. A Judenfrei Holy Land – the dream of Adolph Hitler come true at last. So think again, those who are still able, who has a fascist inside him today?”
    Thank you for posting her speech !

    I just don’t understand what the alternatives could be. It’s hard to see one Jewish State existing for two peoples where the Jews are so outnumbered. Or one democratic Jewish State in which the others are deprived in some way of full citizenship.

    In any scenario apart from the two state solution, it seems as though the fundamental nature of a Jewish state will cease to exist. (But I quite likely lack imagination and insight….)

    What is Bonner (and others) proposing?

  8. Roddy Frankel

    Ms. Young, why do you explain the neglect of Shalit relative to Guantanamo prisoners as the result of “… the entrenched habit of paying more attention to … traditional ‘oppressed groups’…?”
    Do Islamist militants belong to a traditionally oppressed group? I don’t think so. Why is there so much sympathy for our enemies and so much antipathy toward a friendly Israeli soldier? I believe anti-semitism is as good an explanation as I have yet heard.

  9. Actually, Mr. Frankel, I do believe that in the minds of many on the left, Islamist militants — however repugnant their religious and cultural beliefs may be — also fall into the category of “Third World, dark-skinned people in conflict with Western/American imperialism”, which does, in fact, make them a “traditionally oppressed group.” The left’s problem with Israel is not that it’s a Jewish state, it’s that it’s seen an outpost of Western and U.S. domination.

  10. Thank you, Cathy, for re-publishing Elena’s speech at Oslo. Her admonition of vigilance against anti-Semitism is as timely now as they were then.

    I am considering her question, “So think again, those who are still able, who has a fascist inside him today?” Not me. But it is a challenge that should remain before us continually as citizens of a free society that is threatened by “terrorism.” 9/11 has turned up the heat on these issues of security vs. freedom.

    Jewish people and their Christian supporters (this includes me) are morally bound to disavow racism of all stripes. That is one element of political correctness that is in fact correct. But our legitimate condemnation of Hitlerian Judenfreiposes a thorny problem when examined in the light of our attempts to limit Palestinian presence on the West Bank. The explosive combination of Israeli settlers and Palestinians there drives us to irrational extremes.

    Will the showdown in the west bank end up like the one in Gaza? Will Israel, itself the victim of Holocaust, be driven in desperation to a de factoethnic cleansing policy of Palestinianfrei just for the sake of security? I don’t see any way out of this.

    I wonder not only what strategy would Elena Bonner recommend, but also what her husband would say if he were here.

    Carey Rowland, author of Glass half-Full

  11. Tal

    A great woman that will be missed (she died yesterday). I agree with everything she says except that the two state solution, as advocated by most Israelis who support this, talks about the return of refugees to the future Palestinian state, not to Israel. Of course, this is not the solution that the Palestinians want, and here her argument kicks in.

  12. Like others I do not fully agree with Elena who I consider an exceptional woman inher own right…. specially the Right of Israel to exist…. So that is my personla tribute to a great woman who did a lot for her people, her country and the world… Elena is stunningly exceptional….
    From the GripeVine…. & Donah..//

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