Natan Sharansky believes that Jews should not “see anti-Semitism as our main
ally in the Zionist cause.”
Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post while being
driven through the streets of Kiev on a bus packed with delegates to the most
recent Jewish Agency board of governors meeting – held in the Ukrainian capital
to show solidarity with the local community against the ascendent far-right
Svoboda party – Sharansky and agency director-general Alan Hoffman weighed in on
why building Jewish identity is the most crucial task for the Jewish people and
how to stop what they say is a growing rift between Israel and the
“Everybody who wants to live today in the Ukraine is not scared
by anti-Semitism,” he explained. “Anybody who wants to come and live in Israel”
is not doing so out of fear, he said, but rather out of convictions borne of
education and Jewish engagement.
In fact, he said, anti-Semitism in the
“free world is not a factor.”
While he admits that there are a “few
islands” where it is a factor – a recent report by the Jewish People Policy
Institute indicated that almost half of Jews in Belgium, France and Hungary have
considered emigration – anti-Semitism is driving more Jews away from their
identity than it is attracting.
The situation today is different from the
time when Israel and Zionism were the “main answer” to anti-Semitism, he
averred. “Today, in this global village, the real drive to making aliya can only
be strengthening Jewish identity.
Sharansky believes that contemporary
man, who is “without identity,” can be motivated by the desire to find his
roots, his family and his connection to the past and with the future.
attraction of Israel is that it can provide existential meaning, a feeling that
“there are some things that are more important to you than simply physical
“In the free world where we have the overwhelming majority of
Jews, it’s not anti-Semitism which is encouraging them to make aliya. It’s the
discovery of their identity, and we have to look for more and more ways to help
them look,” he said.
That desire to inculcate a Jewish identity and ethic
into the Jews of the Diaspora is one that Hoffman shares. The former director of
the agency’s education department, Hoffman was raised to his current chief
executive role three years ago.
He asserted that the agency’s current
focus on community-building and the strengthening of identity is not necessarily
a change in his organization’s core mission.
“First of all, this is not a
transition from aliya. The paradigm already shifted more than a decade ago. The
Jewish Agency was created to deal with the most urgent and important issues that
face world Jewry,” which can only be addressed by “acting collectively.” Among
the issues with which the Jewish Agency has dealt, he said, have been the
creation of the State of Israel – the agency having served as the state’s
government-in-waiting during the time of the Mandate – and aliya.
million Jews have thus far come to Israel under the aegis of the agency, he
says. However, in each generation the organization has “taken on the national
priority that the Jewish people needs to deal with” and it is now Sharansky’s
view, he said, that “there’s a lot of agreement that the single biggest issue
facing Jewish life is not Jewish identity – it’s the Jewish
“It’s the connection of the next generation of young Jews living
outside of Israel to Israel as a core part of their identity, and the connection
of young Jews living in Israel to the Jewish people,” he explained. “We are at
the end of the epoch of aliya of rescue.”
There are not more than “60,000
Jews living anywhere in the world today” who could require rescue in the future,
“Who is going to make the decision to make aliya?” he asked.
“People who have been connected to Israel a core part of their
That is why, aside from obvious issues of assimilation and
intermarriage that are of concern to organized Jewry, the Jewish Agency seems to
have an interest in community- building. According to Hoffman and Sharansky,
without what Hoffman terms a spiral or ladder of Israel engagement, young Jews
will simply not have the impetus to emigrate to the Jewish state.
has remained constant, but the most interesting thing is if you go and look at
the aliya data year after year, a greater percentage of olim are young people
who have been [involved] in some way in the spiral of engagement with Israel –
meaning they may have gone to summer camps or day schools.”
The job of
the Jewish Agency today, he said, is to “get more and more young Jews on a
spiral in which we bring Israel to them in the places where they live, and we
bring them to Israel.”
Stating that it would be presumptuous for the
agency to subsidize Jewish education in North America, Hoffman said that the
organization is working on creating a “ladder of Israeli experience and a ladder
of engagement in local communities.”
Citing Toronto, Canada as an
example, Hoffman said that in every Reform and Conservative synagogue in the
city there is now a “shin shin,” a Hebrew acronym for “shnat sherut,” or a
person involved in a year of community service.
There are already 100
such emissaries but Hoffman says that if bureaucratic barriers relating to the
deferment of military service could be overcome, “we could have 1,000 young
Israelis doing a year of service like that.” These young agency emissaries,
mostly post-high school students on a temporary military deferment, have been
making a difference in two ways.
“It has a double mission,” he
said. “Number one, this program brings Israel to the young Jews of the
Reform and Conservative communities... and the federation has funded this
because it sees itself as a way to be the nerve center of the engagement of
Israel and the community.”
However, beyond the obvious Israel boosting,
such engagement also has a positive effect on the Israeli
“These young Israelis, when they come back after a year
living in the Jewish world, they’re transformed in terms of the way they see
their connection” to the Jewish people abroad.
“Every year, there is more
and more research which shows young Israelis feel disconnected from their
brothers and sisters outside of Israel,” and the Jewish Agency’s program, he
said, is “connecting young Jews to Israel as part of their Jewish identity, and
connecting young Israelis to Jewish people.”
The Jewish community in
Israel, he said, is “apathetic to world Jewry.”