The state of Israel is occupying an increasingly large place in the hearts and minds of American Jews, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said this week, contradicting the widespread notion that large segments of American Jewry are slowly but surely turning their backs on the Jewish state.

"Of course there are arguments about whether this policy or that policy is more productive, but basically there is no question that Israel is playing more and more a central role in the identity of American Jewry, and that American Jewry needs Israel as the best tool to guarantee its own survival as a Jewish [community]," Sharansky told Haaretz on Wednesday.

"There are long lines for Birthright Israel and Masa and other projects bringing Jewish kids to Israel, and the lines are getting longer," he added. "Most of those kids who go to Israel certainly call themselves liberal Jews."

Sparked by an essay by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books, a debate erupted recently about a perceived growing schism between American Jewry and Israel. Beinart wrote that the children of secular Zionists in the U.S. who supported the state during its first decades do not share their parents' attachments.

Especially among the non-Orthodox and liberal Jews, attachment to Israel is steadily declining, Beinart and a number of sociologists agree.

Speaking to Haaretz by telephone from California, Sharansky rejected the distancing hypothesis put forward by sociologists. "These are abstract articles, I'm speaking about realities," he said, referring to Beinart's essay.

"I just spent two days in San Francisco and spoke to the leaders of the [Jewish] Federation there. The main task they face now is figuring out how to send all those who want to go to Israel on short trips and long trips."

The Jews of San Francisco are "probably the most liberal Jews in the country," Sharansky said, "and they feel they need Israel for their own survival as Jews. There's no need to debate abstract points, when the fact of the matter is that the focus of the work of the most liberal Federation is how to send as many young Jews as possible to Israel."

The Federation's leadership is currently making "huge efforts" to secure funding needed to send 1,600 young Jews to Israel, he added. "That is their number one challenge."

Steven M. Cohen, a renowned professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, notes that most Jews described by the distancing hypothesis are not affiliated with any Jewish organization and thus invisible to communal leaders.

"American Jewry consists of widely different segments," Cohen told Haaretz this week. "American Jews who don't identify strongly as Jews, many of whom are intermarried or the children of intermarried couples, never come in contact with great Jewish leaders such as Natan Sharansky."

"Therefore," Cohen continued, "such leaders have little chance to be in contact with the thousands of American Jews who are distant from Jewish life and distant from Israel as well."

The only accurate way to assess the sentiments of American Jews is conducting comprehensive telephone surveys, Cohen said. "Insofar as there are more American Jews who are married to non-Jews or the children of non-Jews, there will be more American Jews who are distant from Judaism and from Israel," he concluded.

Sharansky, who is currently in the U.S. for the Jewish Federations of North America's annual General Assembly, also spoke to Haaretz about his role as mediator in the current conversion crisis.

At a session last Monday of the Jewish Agency's Unity of the Jewish People Committee, which he moderated, the two sides of the argument squared off in a fiery debate that once again demonstrated that a quick solution to the solution is not in sight.

MK David Rotem, the author of a controversial bill that would ease the overall conversion process but at the same time grant the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate sole authority over conversions, said he did not recognize Conservative and Reform Judaism. Israel's conversion system should be governed by Orthodox rabbis, the MK from Yisrael Beiteinu argued.

Many representatives of Diaspora communities, who oppose the bill because they say it discriminates against non-Orthodox streams, said they were offended by his remarks.

"When people speak about their ideology, which is unfortunately what MK Rotem was doing, there's little chance for any compromise," Sharansky said.

"We have to leave the ideological debate, we have to find the right language to keep the [spirit of the] law, [i.e. to ease the process] but at the same time the law cannot delegitimize any [religious] community," he stressed.

"I don't think that in the next 2,000 to 3,000 years we will find an ideological solution because no side will agree to give up on its position," Sharansky added. "But we're not speaking about ideological issues; we're speaking about finding the right language for the civil law of Israel that does not delegitimize anybody."