Natan Sharansky
Natan Sharansky Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Natan Sharansky
Natan Sharansky

When Natan Sharansky took over as head of the Jewish Agency three years ago, he discovered that many of the ongoing rumors were, in fact, true. The Jewish Agency, as he had come to witness firsthand, was rife with bureaucracy and budget problems galore.

But one persistent rumor, he says, turned out to be an "absolute lie" – the one about it serving as an absorption center for aging politicians seeking cushy jobs abroad.

Just to prove how divorced the stereotypical image of the Jewish Agency emissary (or "shaliach") is from reality, Sharansky picks up the phone and asks his secretary to bring in a photo. "You know, the one of me with all the kids at last year's shaliach convention in the U.S.," he tells her.

The photo in question, which soon lands on his desk, shows the world's most famous Soviet Jewish dissident sitting on a big lawn surrounded by dozens of beaming 20-somethings – a new generation of cool, young Jewish Agency emissaries who have taken America, particularly its college campuses, by storm in recent years.

"And how many retired politicians can you spot here in this photo?" he asks rhetorically.

In his office on the second floor of the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, two prominent pieces of artwork catch the eye. One is an aerial photograph of the Old City of Jerusalem and the other is a portrait of Andrei Sakharov, "my mentor and teacher,” as Sharansky refers to the legendary Soviet dissident and human rights activist.

There are surprisingly no photographs on display of Sharansky with world leaders, despite his huge collection. "If you want to know the truth," he says, pointing again at the picture taken at last year's convention, "this is the one photograph I'm most proud to be in."

In recent years, the Jewish Agency has shifted its focus, as part of its reorganization efforts, from promoting aliyah to building bridges between Israel and the Diaspora. A key element in this transition has been an outreach campaign to Jewish students on U.S. college campuses, where the Middle East conflict has been playing out largely to Israel's detriment. As Sharansky sees it, these college campuses have become "the most important battleground for the future of the Jewish people."

Three years ago, when he assumed his current post, the Jewish Agency had 17 "shlichim"— or Israel Fellows, as they're known — on college campuses abroad, primarily in the United States. That number has grown to 57 today, and his plan is to increase the number to 100 within the next few years. "We want to have a shaliach on every college campus where there are more than 1,000 Jewish students," Sharansky declares.

The mandate of this new hipster breed of Jewish Agency "shlichim" is not so much to get young Jews to move to Israel, as it was in the past, but rather to encourage them to come visit — through Birthright and other "Israel Experience" programs like Masa — and to bring a taste of Israel to U.S. college campuses. Which is perfectly fine with Sharansky, who notes that even though he was a Zionist before he was an affiliated Jew, having been raised in an assimilated home, he was never willing to deliver the message — though he was urged to do so many times — that "everyone should live in Israel."

The best proof of the success of this campaign, he says, is in the numbers — that is, the tens of thousands of young Jewish adults visiting Israel every year on Birthright and other programs that receive Jewish Agency funding, where, as Sharansky puts it, "the romance with Israel starts."

But is there too much emphasis being put on these numbers? Take the recent tragedy in Eilat where one of the participants in a Masa program, a Jewish boy from New York, shot a hotel guard and was then killed himself. In pursuit of the numbers, has the process of vetting candidates for these programs suffered?

"We're talking about programs that brought 70,000 young Jewish boys and girls here this year, and this is the first case of its kind,” Sharansky says. “Of course we have to check ourselves. That's why I immediately set up a committee to investigate what happened here. What I do know is that there was a document from this boy's family doctor that said he's OK. But this is one out of 70,000. I've heard some ridiculous statements recently, people saying we should close down all these programs. From time to time, there are tragic accidents also in the army. Does that mean we're going to close down the army?"

The point of these programs is not to convince young Jews that they must live in Israel. But do you yourself believe it's possible to live a full Jewish life in the Diaspora?

"I have always felt that Israel is by far the best place to be if you want to influence the future of the Jewish people, but it's a very personal decision, and it's not done through slogans but through life experiences. Can a Jew live in any place in the world as a proud Jew? Well of course he or she can. And in some places they can have even more access to material comforts. I do believe, though, that the connection to Israel is an inseparable part of Jewish identity today. Jews can survive and succeed in different parts of world, but only if they are strongly connected to Israel and if they feel that Israel is their family."

And how would you feel if one of your children decided to leave Israel? Would you see that as some sort of failure?

"I'd be upset no doubt because I like to see my grandchildren near me. We are really very lucky that our children are now walking distance from us so we can see our grandchildren on Shabbat. If my wife doesn't see our grandchildren for one day, she complains. I tell her 'You know Jews in America sometimes only see their grandchildren twice a year, and you want to see them twice a day.' Still, my children are very free in their decisions. Their decision to be in Israel and no other place is their decision and no imposition, and if at some moment, for career considerations, they should decide to go for one or two years somewhere else, I won't see it as a failure. But if they decide to leave Israel and never to return, I would say that yes, we really failed in their upbringing."

Sharansky says he has no problem with Jews abroad expressing criticism of Israel, its government and its policies ("Israeli society is always criticizing itself, so to expect Jews who feel close to that society not to be part of this self-criticism is ridiculous"), but only up to a point. The line is crossed, in his view, when that criticism involves applying double standards to Israel, delegitimization and dehumanization. "And when Jews are involved in any of these activities," he says, "that has an even more powerful effect and can be used by our enemies in more powerful ways."

Do you have a problem with Jews abroad influencing the political system through financial contributions?

"I believe that when foreign citizens —Jews or non-Jews —are actively involved in financing anything in this country, there has to be public knowledge. You cannot try to influence abroad behind the scenes. As long as it is open and public, I'm not afraid of anything. In fact, because I want Jews of the world to be as close to Israel as possible, I want to give them all the tools possible to influence Israel."

As head of the Jewish Agency, Sharansky says one of his top priorities in the coming years will be to use his influence to persuade the Israeli government to adopt a more flexible position on the contentious issue of conversions and finally resolve what he calls “The Paradox”: “On the one hand, because the Law of Return provides citizenship to every Jew, there must be guidelines for determining who is a Jew," he explains. "But on the other hand, if Israel is home to all the Jewish people, you have to make major efforts to be connected to all the Jewish people. This is one of our big challenges in the coming years, and I think we're not yet open enough on this question."

A recent supplement published in The Economist concluded that times have never been better for the Jews. Do you agree?

"In principle, yes. I know it's very unpopular for a Jew to accept that everything's OK. 'Oy vey' —that's our motto. That's how we went through history, always on the brink of catastrophe. So yes, there are lots of things to be concerned about. Assimilation is absolutely awful. Every day there are a few hundred Jews less in the world because of assimilation. The delegitimization of Israel is absolutely ridiculous. It's beyond anything the logical mind can comprehend. So it's very easy to speak about how everything is bad. But maybe because I'm an optimist by nature —and if I weren't an optimist I probably wouldn't be sitting in this seat right now, let alone in this country —but also because I've been dealing with the problems of the Jewish people for the last 40 years of my life, I really feel that the level of our control over our fate both as Israelis and Jewish people is very high.

“Yes, we have a problem with assimilation, and it's a big problem, but because of the Israeli-Diaspora dialogue —which is much deeper, much more meaningful, and I would say even more intimate than it was before —we have tools to fight it. Yes, the delegitimization of Israel is very strong, but I feel that the Jewish people and Israel are on the winning side of history because we have been able to strike the right balance between identity and freedom. The free world has been trying to prove it can exist without identity and only with freedom, and it is failing at that. On other hand, the Muslim world is trying to exist only with identity and without freedom, and it is failing at that, too. Israel and the Jewish people have succeeded to combine the two, and so I do believe that our story is a very optimistic one."

Sharansky, who served in four Israeli governments, insists he has no intention of returning to politics and didn't even feel the slightest bit tempted when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently called for early elections. "Before the last election, Bibi Netanyahu asked me to come back, and I told him I served nine years in prison and nine years in government —that's a good balance, and I don't want to tip it. This time he didn't even ask me."

Unlike many Israelis, Sharansky says he's optimistic about recent developments in the Middle East, but he urges patience. "Too many of our leaders have promised peace within the next year and a half or before the next U.S. election,” he notes. "It doesn't work like that. I know that people want to hear that this is the last war and the last victim of terror, but if that's your expectation, you'll always be disappointed."

Known for his hard-line views when he served in government, Sharansky says he still believes in a two-state solution. "It's not in our interest to control the lives of other people. But as I've always said, I want the Palestinians to have all the rights in the world but not the opportunity to destroy us. That's the challenge. That's why I didn't believe in one-sided disengagement or in searching for the right dictator who will bring peace."