A week after his release from nearly nine years in Soviet prisons, Anatoly Shcharansky indicated in an interview today that his broad concern for human rights remains undiminished and extends to his adopted country.
Shcharansky said he was eager to visit an Israeli prison to compare the conditions there to those of his own captivity and to test the reality of Israeli prison life against the harsh images of that life presented to him by his Soviet jailers.
Shcharansky said his primary concern remains the improvement of human rights in the Soviet Union, but, reflecting a keen interest in his new homeland, he said the years of isolation in Soviet prisons had left him with distorted impressions about the same subject in Israel. He said he wants to reform those impressions with firsthand knowledge about Arab-Jewish relations and the basic question of human rights here.
Shcharansky spoke about his own deprivations in captivity that he said left him with reduced memory and slowed reactions. His sensitivity to human rights, he said, would inevitably lead him to study closely their observance here.
Shcharansky said he plans to learn Arabic, visit the occupied West Bank and study the Arab-Israeli conflict to gain an understanding of the problem that he has perceived until now only through the Soviet propaganda filter.
Shcharansky stressed in the interview that engaging himself in the human rights field here has a lower priority than working for the release of Soviet Jews and establishing a normal family life. But, he said, "as an ordinary citizen of my country, I want to know its problems."
"Whether we want them or not, there are many Arabs in Israel, and I think we must, from time to time, try to talk with them. Maybe there will be less shooting," Shcharansky said.
The human rights activist, one of the founders of the Helsinki accords study group in Moscow and a tireless defender of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in the Soviet Union, said that he was keeping an open mind on the Palestinian rights question and will "fix a public position only after long study."
Shcharansky said what while still in a prison camp in the Urals he began studying Arabic on his own, first using "very bad" Soviet technical manuals written in the language, and then branching out to read books about Moslem culture and history. He said he was prohibited from reading books about Jewish history.
In response to a question, Shcharansky said he did not know whether any potential parallels could be drawn between himself and Jacobo Timerman, the long-imprisoned Argentine human rights activist who emigrated to Israel in 1979 and developed a contentious relationship with the Israeli government over Palestinian human rights and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
After writing a harrowing book describing the impact of the war in Lebanon on himself and this country, Timerman left Israel and returned to Argentina.
Shcharansky was completely unfamiliar with the prominent Argentine Jew's name when the question was posed.
"How could I hear his name where I was?" he asked. But he said he was kept aware of controversy over Israel's human rights record in the territories occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
"Of course, I read a lot in the Soviet press about the problem of human rights in Israel. But I also read a lot in the Soviet press about my espionage activity, and that's why you can understand it is not a source of information," Shcharansky said. Moscow accused him of being a spy for the United States which both he and the U.S. government have denied.
He said he would carefully examine the Palestinian question before making a "concrete analysis," but added, "One thing I do know is that when I was crossing Jerusalem by car my very first day and we were going through Arab neighborhoods, I said, 'Oh, I see no barbed wire.'
"From the Soviet press I understood that it was like a border [where] if a Jew appears or a Moslem appears, he will be killed. Well, such is the impression from the Soviet press about Jerusalem. It was the only impression I got. I hope that with time, I'll find out," Shcharansky added.
In a relaxed, engaging hour of conversation in a borrowed apartment in Jerusalem's religious Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, Shcharansky said he had not had time to form political opinions about Israel yet, but that he was impressed with the openness of the society.
The Israeli press is free and strident, he noted, and a plethora of political parties ensures constant debate on controversial social and political issues.
"That's what gives me hope that even if rights can be violated -- we know very well, for example, from the Watergate case, that even in the United States it can happen -- even if human rights are violated by a president they can be restored," Shcharansky said.
He added, "What I see in Israel from the very first day is the democracy of their system, of our system. I'm not afraid to speak about these human rights problems, but I simply feel I don't know enough about it."
Earlier this week, in a meeting with Israeli President Chaim Herzog, he asked to be allowed to visit an Israeli prison, Shcharansky said.
"Because they, in the Soviet Union, said many times, 'Well, read what happens in your dirty, fascist Israel. You'll see it the Soviet camp is like a resort to you.' I want to see whether it really is a resort," Shcharansky said.
The former "refusednik" said that even now, at times, he is unable to grasp the enormity of his abrupt release and immediate emigration to Israel after nine years of daily praying to himself, "Next year in Jerusalem!"
He recalled that as the Soviet aircraft that took him to East Germany last week descended through thick white clouds, he was suddenly seized by a sense of panic that the clouds represented a dream and that he would suddenly wake up.
"During a long time, I have practically never forgotten this feeling. There always exists such a feeling, but you keep it under control, and in time it simply disappears. But here, there was such strong fear, even heart pain, that I'll awaken now," Shcharansky said.
Shcharansky said that as a result of his imprisonment, including more than 400 days in freezing solitary "punishing cells" where he was fed bread and water and given no blankets, he finds that his reactions have slowed and his memory has diminished "very essentially." He attributed this to a shortage of vitamins in the prison diet. He said that over the years he became accustomed -- in order to survive -- to analyze "every step and every word before doing or saying it," and that he still has not broken that habit.
He said that when he began studying Arabic he could memorize only 10 new words a day, compared to the 50 to 60 new words that he could learn while studying a new language previously.
His memories of prison life still vivid, Shcharansky demonstrated how he and other prisoners used tin cups pressed against the walls to communicate with each other, and said occasionally they would drain the water from toilets and speak to one another through the pipes.
Physicians who examined Shcharansky upon his arrival here said that he still suffers from a slight neurological disorder and a heart defect after his years of confinement.
Shcharansky said that because of stress, he can only sleep three hours a night, and still has not become accustomed to soft beds. He said that he and his wife, Avital, plan to begin a vacation of several weeks soon at an undisclosed place in Israel before resuming their activities on behalf of Soviet Jews.
Shcharansky, who is a secular Jew, brushed aside Israeli press speculation that he would have trouble adjusting to life with Avital, who, following her immigation to Israel in 1974, adopted Orthodox Jewish customs.
"I knew that she had become religious. She has only found a new form of expressing her religion. We've had no disagreements all week. The whole world wonders how we can be compatible, except us," said Shcharansky.
Describing Israeli politics as a "nightmare" of splintered parties and factions, Shcharansky denied that he has been sought after by any political group. He said he doubted that he would enter politics.