Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

Serendipity, It's Everywhere

First I wrote about heroes, then I started to meet them...

It’s a familiar phenomenon: become interested in a topic, and you begin to notice it everywhere. Then you begin to expect it, and you’re even more likely to encounter it. Parents and teachers see this phenomenon all the time in the dynamic of “catch them being good”. When the adult is primed to notice a child’s good behavior she begins to see more of it.

Similarly, if you have just learned the names of wildflowers that grow in your neighborhood, you suddenly begin to see them all around you. The same happens with unfortunate events: if your friend has been diagnosed with a particular illness, you may start to hear stories of others who have experienced similar diseases.

Knowing this, I guess I should not have been so surprised when just weeks after writing my last blogpost on heroes, a chance encounter at the supermarket led to a casual dinner invitation, and I found myself seated next to two genuine heroes, Natan and Avital Scharansky

Younger readers may have only read about the drama of Anatoly Scharansky, and his wife Natalya. He was a young physicist who lived behind the iron curtain in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. When the Soviets signed on to an international agreement to recognize universal human rights (The Helsinki Accords), Scharansky and 11 other extraordinary individuals formed The Moscow Helsinki Watch Group to monitor and report on their country’s compliance with that agreement. Among them were Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, and 10 others who joined later. The Helsinki Watch group presented an unimaginable challenge to the authoritarianism of the closed Soviet society, which responded with severe repressive measures. Members of the group were arrested, imprisoned, sent to psychiatric hospitals…and worse. One of the human rights guaranteed under Helsinki was the right to emigrate, but when Scharansky and others petitioned the government for that right they were denied, year after year. Thus was born the Refusenik movement; Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel. Year after year their applications were denied, and they remained isolated in their society, punished with loss of job, education and—as they stubbornly persisted and their movement gained international support—sent to Siberia, where Scharansky served 9 years of very hard time.

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A first-person account about how he made it through his ordeal is the book, “Fear No Evil”. You can read about his life in more detail in Martin Gilbert’s biography, “Scharansky: Hero of Our Time”.

So when I found myself passing the salt to Avital and Natan Scharansky (They live in Israel and use their Hebrew names), I was understandably awed. Thrilled. And very grateful to our hosts for the opportunity to see heroism up close.

As far as heroes go, that would have been enough.

But the very next week found me at another dinner table with people currently taking personal risks to challenge a repressive authoritarian regime. They were Palestinians in the West Bank who live under the Palestinian Authority. Their defiance that evening took the form of meeting with Israeli Jews to discuss, of all things, mysticism in Islam and in Judaism! The topic, “Sufism and Kabbalah,” doesn’t sound very defiant, you say? But under P.A. rule it is, because the Palestinian Authority has banned any and all meetings between Israelis and Palestinians that might promote “normalization.” Violators risk punishment. The ban is just one of many actions Palestinian leadership have taken to radicalize their population.

Nevertheless, at a quiet outdoor dinner only a short drive from each of their homes, a small group of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims met to continue their ongoing conversation about their respective religions. They talked and they listened, gave free reign to their curiosity with questions in a comfortable atmosphere of mutual respect. Dinner was served at the proper time for Muslims to eat Iftar, breaking their Ramadan fast.

I’d like to tell you the names of these heroes, but for their own safety I must not.

To learn more about the psychology of heroism, visit The Heroic Imagination Project at http://heroicimagination.org

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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