All the big periods in Natan Sharansky’s life have, coincidentally, lasted the same length of time. He spent nine years in Soviet jails as a Prisoner of Zion, another nine years in Israeli politics (both as a lawmaker and government minister) and this week concludes nine years as chairman of the Jewish Agency.
Looking back, this latest chapter in his life will probably be remembered more for what he did not accomplish than what he did.
Indeed, the fighting spirit that earned Sharansky worldwide fame as a Soviet dissident in the 1970s was hardly evident during his stint at the Agency, where he spent a good deal of his time trying – though mostly failing – to get the Israeli government to show more respect and consideration for Diaspora Jewry.
The high point of Sharansky’s term in office at the Agency was meant to be a deal granting recognition to the non-Orthodox movements at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
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The deal called for creating a new and enhanced egalitarian prayer section at the southern expanse of the Kotel, which would enjoy as much visibility and access as the existing gender-segregated prayer plaza on the northern side. Another key element of the deal was providing the Conservative and Reform movements with representation on a new authority that would supervise the newly created prayer space.
The space was supposed to be Israel’s way of showing Diaspora Jews it wanted them to feel at home in the country.
It was more than five years ago that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first summoned Sharansky to his office and asked that he come up with a solution to the ongoing clashes at the Western Wall between ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) worshippers and Women of the Wall – a feminist prayer group that holds a monthly service at the site.
Sharansky proposed moving the group from its regular spot in the women’s prayer section to the egalitarian space located farther away, and at the same time significantly upgrading the area as a gesture of goodwill to Reform and Conservative Jews.
Netanyahu initially loved the idea and set up a committee to flesh out the details. It took several years, but eventually a detailed plan – based on the Sharansky blueprint – was hammered out.
But no sooner was it approved than it began to unravel. Netanyahu came under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox governing coalition partners to cancel the deal, and he ultimately succumbed.
Sharansky tried to warn Netanyahu that he would be jeopardizing Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry if he caved, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the Conservative and Reform movements took their battle for equal rights at one of Judaism’s holiest sites to the Israeli High Court of Justice, where the case is still pending.
This is not the legacy Sharansky hoped to leave behind. In his defense, he has argued that not all is lost, since certain elements of the Western Wall deal appear to have been salvaged. For example, Netanyahu has vowed to move ahead with plans for a physical upgrade of the existing egalitarian prayer space (though that, too, has stalled because the ministers who were supposedly overseeing the project recently resigned out of fear of an ultra-Orthodox backlash).
The unhinging of the Western Wall deal was not Sharansky’s only major setback in office. As chairman of the Agency, the former Soviet dissident saw one of his major functions as representing the Jewish World to Israeli government leaders.
Israel’s policy on conversions to Judaism and its attitude toward converts has long been a sore spot for Jewish World leaders. In addition to not recognizing non-Orthodox conversions, Israel has also in recent years begun questioning the validity of conversions performed by many Modern Orthodox rabbis abroad.
Sharansky had hoped to provide at least a partial solution through a rather bold initiative he unveiled, with much fanfare, three years ago. That initiative called for the establishment of a special conversion court that would dispatch rabbis from Israel to overseas communities increasingly challenged by the stringent requirements and vetting powers of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Nothing ever came of this proposal, though – in part because it required the cooperation of the Israeli Interior Ministry, which is currently under the auspices of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
Neither has Sharansky been particularly successful in getting Israel to recognize emerging Jewish communities. A case in point is the Abayudaya community in Uganda, whose members have on several occasions been denied entry to Israel because the Interior Ministry does not recognize their conversions performed by Conservative rabbis. Sharansky’s appeals to the Interior Ministry to reconsider its hard-line position and show some compassion have thus far gone unheeded.
Born in Donetsk (now Ukraine) in 1948, Sharansky became involved with the refusenik movement in the early ’70s after being refused an exit visa to Israel. In 1978 he was sentenced to 13 years’ forced labor in the Soviet Union, after being accused of high treason and spying for the Americans. After spending nine years in Soviet prisons, he was released in February 1986 and swiftly moved to Israel, where he joined his wife Avital – who had led the campaign for his release.
Ten years later, he founded a political party, Yisrael Be’aliyah, which targeted the huge wave of Russian-speaking immigrants who had arrived in Israel in the ’90s. (It ultimately merged with Likud.)
From 1996 to 2005, Sharansky served as minister and deputy prime minister in four consecutive governments and was considered a political hawk. As industry and trade minister, for example, he prioritized investments in West Bank settlements.
Since leaving politics, however, he has embraced a more moderate position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although he supports a two-state solution in principle, in a recent farewell interview with Haaretz he said he didn’t harbor much hope for reaching an agreement in the near future – laying the blame squarely on the Palestinians.
The world’s most famous Soviet dissident, Sharansky is often seen as the poster boy for immigration to Israel. Ironically, though, under his leadership, immigration promotion stopped being the Agency’s top priority.
There were many who criticized him for de-emphasizing what had long been considered the key raison d’être of the organization and allowing private organizations – such as the controversial, evangelical-funded International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – to fill the void.
But there was a logic to the move. By the time Sharansky assumed the helm at the Agency in 2009, immigration to Israel had been stagnant for quite a few years, with no signs of rebounding. As he noted in his recent interview with Haaretz: “The days of rescue aliyah are pretty much over. Those who come today come out of free choice because they believe this is a better place for them to live as Jews.”
To justify its continued existence, Sharansky believed the Agency needed to reinvent itself and put its energies elsewhere. Rather then immigration and absorption, its chief priorities during his tenure became Jewish engagement with Israel, and strengthening ties between Israel and Diaspora communities.
“I don’t believe in telling people they have to make aliyah, and if they don’t make aliyah they’re bad Jews,” he told Haaretz in March. “If we want more immigrants here, that means we have to make sure there are more Jews. And the way to do that when assimilation rates are so high is to make sure there are more people connected to Jewish life and to Israel.”
One of his key legacies in this respect was the expansion and promotion of Masa – a project that brings some 12,000 young Jews to Israel each year on a wide assortment of study, volunteer and internship programs. Sharansky likes to boast that a disproportionately large percentage of the young Jews choosing to make their home in Israel in recent years are Masa graduates.
Masa was actually launched a few years before Sharansky took office, but under his patronage it has come to rival Taglit-Birthright as the top Israel experience program.
His other pet project has been the Campus Israel Fellows, which was his own initiative. Through this program, close to 100 young Israelis are today stationed on college campuses in North America, where they work on strengthening Jewish student leadership and engaging Jewish students with Israel. Sharansky sees them as a major force in the struggle against the international BDS Movement, which calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Yet despite all these efforts, survey after survey shows that Jewish millennials in recent years have been increasingly distancing themselves from Israel. Sharansky is certainly not to blame. What is indisputable, though, is that it happened on his watch.