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Andrei Sakharov must be spinning in his grave. The European Parliament’s prestigious human rights award, named after the great Soviet dissident, is now being used to stigmatize the Jewish state. Among the three nominees short-listed for this year’s Sakharov Prize, the winner of which will be named tomorrow, is the Israeli group "Breaking the Silence," which purports to uncover abuses by the military in Palestinian territories.
The problem is not so much the organization’s work, which makes sweeping accusations against Israeli soldiers. The real insult is that an award meant to honor those who fight "intolerance, fanaticism and oppression" is being considered for activists operating in one of the world’s most vibrant democracies. By putting Israel in the same category with oppressive countries such as Ethiopia and Cuba, from which the other two short-listed nominees come, Europe’s law makers have again discredited themselves while trying to delegitimize Israel.
"Like Andrei Sakharov himself," the European Parliament’s website explains, all the [past] winners of the prize have shown how much courage it takes to defend human rights and freedom of expression." But the biggest threat Israeli activists face is a sunburn from those long meetings at Tel Aviv cafes. Despite its name, there is no "silence" to break. Israel is a noisy liberal democracy in which sitting prime ministers are investigated on corruption charges, a supreme court rules on behalf of Palestinian petitioners against the Israeli government, and a strong press routinely criticizes the government and military.
Europe’s obsession with Israel’s shortcomings, real or imagined, does not only damage Israel. This preoccupation also comes at the expense of those really risking life and liberty opposing genuinely oppressive regimes. Among the nine nominees the Israeli group beat to the short-list are real freedom fighters who sorely need Western attention and support. Among them is Haytham Al-Maleh, the 80-year-old human rights lawyer, whom the Syrian regime recently sentenced to three years imprisonment for "transferring false and exaggerated news that weakens national sentiment." Also no longer in the running is Nguyën Van Ly, the Vietnamese Roman-Catholic priest who has spent more than 20 years in prison or under house arrest for his peaceful advocacy of human dignity and democracy.
Last year, Sakharov’s widow, Yelena Bonner, spoke at the Oslo Forum about her late husband’s affection for Israel. "All wars that Israel has waged have been just, forced upon it by the irresponsibility of Arab leaders," she quoted him as saying. Mrs. Bonner expressed her "alarm because of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment growing throughout Europe." Let’s hope the European Parliament won’t add to that alarm.