Any other person who had spent the past nine years trying to build bridges between the Israeli government and world Jewry might be leaving office today with a sense of missed opportunity, or at least unfinished business.
After all, over the past year, relations between Israel and the Diaspora have reached what is unquestionably an all-time low.
But not Natan Sharansky, the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency. To hear it from him, this too will pass. And as much as it seems today that Israel and world Jewry can’t live with each other, neither can they live without each other.
Had things gone the way he planned, Sharansky would be leaving office in a few months with a remarkable achievement: the creation of an egalitarian space at the Western Wall where non-Orthodox Jews from around the world would be able to pray according to their custom. The space was supposed to be Israel’s way of showing Diaspora Jews it wanted them to feel at home in the country. Sharansky came tantalizingly close to seeing his dream fulfilled, but after the cabinet approved the plan he envisioned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged.
Is Sharansky leaving the job with a sense of disappointment? Of course, he concedes, how could he not be disappointed? But, he insists, not all is lost. The plan will happen, he predicts, in some form or another. Moreover, as he puts it, Israel has chalked up another big achievement: the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement "has been almost fully defeated
Although a successor has not yet been appointed, the former Soviet dissident plans to step down as leader of the Jewish Agency in June. He had planned to leave a year ago, but at Netanyahu’s request agreed to see through the Western Wall deal. But don’t expect Sharansky to say he wasted his time.
After serving nine years in a Soviet prison, Sharansky moved to Israel in 1986, where he joined his wife Avital, who had led the campaign for his release. Ten years later he founded a political party, Yisrael b’Aliyah, which targeted Russian-speaking immigrants. It ultimately merged with Likud.
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From 1995 to 2006, Sharansky served as minister and deputy prime minister in four consecutive governments and was considered a political hawk. He likes to joke that he was the only Israeli minister to serve time in prison before joining the government (a gibe at the many who ended up in jail after holding office). These days, his name is being thrown around as a possible candidate to become Israel’s next president, a largely ceremonial post.
In a farewell interview with Haaretz, Sharansky was asked whether he shared the concerns of another prominent Jewish world leader. Last week, World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder published a column in The New York Times warning that Israel’s future was in danger because of the government’s reluctance to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and because of its alleged capitulation to religious extremism.
Sharansky says he doesn’t really share these concerns and, in typical form, responds with a question. “I definitely think we have serious problems, but when didn’t we have?” he asks. “Problems have been part of our life for the past 3,500 years.”
Lauder’s problem, according to Sharansky, is that he doesn’t understand it takes two to tango when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The way he puts it, if Israel wanted to have a two-state solution, they would have it,” Sharansky says.” As if the solution were entirely in our hands and there wasn’t another side to this.”
While in theory Sharansky too believes in a two-state solution, he is convinced that any deal of the sort presented to the Palestinians would be rejected immediately.
Blaming Ben-Gurion, too
On the issue of religious extremism, he tends to see more eye to eye with Lauder, noting that “here the solution is fully in our hands.” Still, he argues, Lauder is wrong to claim that the problems all began with the current government.
“I know it’s very easy to blame Bibi for everything, but this is something that began back with [David] Ben-Gurion and the Labor Party,” he says, referring to Netanyahu and Israel’s first prime minister. “It’s the idea that for the sake of getting support from the ultra-Orthodox on big issues like peace or settlements, we concede on little issues, so to speak, like matters of religion and the state or our relations with Diaspora Jewry.”
He notes that it was Labor under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that allowed the ultra-Orthodox parties to take control of the Chief Rabbinate in exchange for their support for the 1993 Oslo Accords, which were supposed to pave the way for the two-state solution. (Israel’s Chief Rabbinate controls all matters of marriage and divorce among Jews in the country.)
“Often, when I’ve had arguments with Bibi, he asks me whether I think things would be different under a Labor coalition,” Sharansky says. “‘Look at history,’ he tells me. And you know what? Unfortunately, history is on his side.”
Although he considers Netanyahu’s decision to back out of the Western Wall deal a “huge mistake,” Sharansky doesn’t believe the final word has been said.
“Of course I would have been very happy not only to be involved in the historic decision, which we did reach, but also in its implementation,” he says. “Clearly, it will take time. It could take two years. It could take 10 years. I can’t tell, but the physical aspect of the deal will definitely happen.”
Regarding the other aspects of the deal that were ultimately rejected by the government – the creation of a joint entrance with the existing gender-segregated prayer spaces and the participation of the Reform and Conservative movements in administering the area – Sharansky is also fairly optimistic. “The fact that the government already made a decision to go ahead with it means it is something that will inevitably remain on the agenda,” he says.
His advice to Reform and Conservative leaders devastated by the government decision to back out of its commitment is to be pragmatic and take what they can get for now. “By the way, that’s the approach Ben-Gurion took with the creation of the State of Israel,” he adds.
Under Sharansky, the Jewish Agency underwent a radical shift; promoting immigration, long a key mission, stopped being a priority. Instead, it stressed strengthening Jewish identity, mainly through programs that brought young Jewish adults to Israel and young Israeli adults to Jewish communities abroad.
There were those who criticized Sharansky for abandoning what they considered the organization’s raison d’etre and allowing private organizations – such as the controversial evangelical-funded International Christian Jewish Fellowship – to fill the void. Others accused Sharansky of turning the Jewish Agency into another Tourism Ministry.
He has no regrets though. “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,” he says.
“I don’t believe in telling people they have to make aliyah, and if they don’t make aliyah, they’re bad Jews. 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.”
During Sharansky’s tenure, the Jewish Agency’s flagship program was Masa, which brings thousands of young Jewish adults to Israel every year on study, volunteer and internship programs. “Today, the aliyah from France, Russia and Ukraine – which have become the main sources of immigrants to Israel – would not be possible without Masa,” he says.
The Jewish Agency was created to act as a government before there was a Jewish state. Naturally, questions have been raised throughout the years whether it is still necessary to maintain such a large and bureaucratic organization when so many of its original functions are now filled by offices of the state.
Of course, Sharansky believes the Jewish Agency still has a key role to play – perhaps more than ever considering the strained relations between the Israeli government and world Jewry. Its role today, he maintains, is to advocate to the Israeli government on behalf of world Jewry and to advocate to world Jewry on behalf of the Israeli government.
“In the old days, Israel and the Diaspora used to take a paternalistic approach to one another,” he says. “Each saw itself as the rescuer of the other. The relationship is different today. Today, they need one another. Israel needs the Diaspora to help fight against those who are trying to delegitimize the Jewish state, and the Diaspora communities need Israel to strengthen their Jewish identity.”
One of Sharansky’s key sources of pride as Jewish Agency chairman is his shlichim project that has sent roughly 100 Israel envoys to college campuses in North America to engage Jewish students with Israel and help them fight the BDS movment.
“And today,” he declares, “the BDS movement has been almost fully defeated. It’s almost nonexistent.” Asked to provide proof, Sharansky responds: “Last year, we had 17 BDS resolutions that were defeated on campuses, and only 12 were passed. Every campus where we had one of our envoys stationed, the resolutions were defeated.”
Which prompts the question: If the initiative was so successful, then how come, as recent surveys show, growing numbers of young American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel? Sharansky shrugs off the question, saying it’s not relevant to his mandate.
The Jewish Agency leader dismisses as “absolute nonsense” recent claims that Netanyahu has written off Diaspora Jewry and prefers to ally with evangelical Christians.
But as loyal as he remains to the prime minister, Sharansky notes that he doesn’t hesitate to attack Netanyahu publicly when he disagrees with him. Such was the case with the suspension of the Western Wall deal, and more recently with the decision to deport thousands of African asylum seekers.
Neither did Sharansky spare his criticism when the government approved the barring of people who have publicly supported a boycott of Israel from entering the country. “A very stupid law,” he calls it. “You don’t pass a law like that without consulting with American Jews. It’s a typical example of the Israeli government’s disconnect.”
His message for his successor is to continue fighting for religious pluralism and tolerance in Israel. But that fight can only succeed, he says, if Israelis are willing to put aside their political differences.
“Our relationship with world Jewry cannot be a tactical issue,” he says. “It has to be strategic. And that can only happen when the right and the left work together as a united front. Otherwise the ultra-Orthodox will continue to control matters.”