(photo credit: Andrs Kovacs)
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky admits that the connections between Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora aren’t perfect, but when it comes to working together to build a state, the Palestinians could learn a lot to learn from the Jewish Agency.
Speaking to The Media Line, Sharansky also said time has proven that his strategy of building peace between Israelis and Palestinians from the bottom up has trumped the diplomatic solutions sought by leaders.
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“Always the experts were always telling me ‘Your dreams are good for when you are sitting in a KGB prison, but the Middle East cannot wait for dreams and we have to do it immediately,’” Sharansky said. “I was told that we don’t have time for dreams and we have to have peace in the next year. This has continued for the past 18 years. And we are further and further from peace because what was built was not a peace process but a process of how to find a dictator who will guarantee us peace.”
“I prefer to think in terms of how to bring peace in the next five years by encouraging a democratic process than how to sign peace in the next three months and to have Hamas in our suburbs,” Sharansky said.
A former refusnik who spent eight years in a Soviet prison before
immigrating to Israel, Sharansky has been at the helm of the
quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for the past two years. The Agency was
established in 1929 as a Jewish community’s government in the making
when the British ruled Palestine. Managed locally and funded by
worldwide Jewry, it oversaw everything from immigration to the
construction of homes and running educational programs.
The agency fell on hard times as many of its functions were gradually
taken over by Israel’s government, but Sharansky is intent on reforming
the institution and using it to strengthen the bonds between the
Diaspora and Israel.
A large portrait of Andrei Sakharov, a Nobel laureate and Soviet human
rights activist, gazes down on his desk at his headquarters in
Jerusalem. The diminutive, but dynamic Sharansky said the Jewish Agency
provided a unique “global Jewish table” for Diaspora Jewry and Israelis
to discuss mutual interests.
“I do feel a lack of knowledge of the other side and that is a very
dangerous gap. We can start arguing who knows less -- do young Jews of
the Diaspora know less about Israel, or Israelis know less about the
Jews of the Diaspora? The very fact that we are really one, with a
common past and common future and that we are deeply dependent on each
other is something that is not developed enough.”
He said that in his book A Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror
he predicted the Arab Spring that has brought a wave of protests
seeking to topple dictators and bring an end to corruption and
repression across the Arab world.
“I was very happy to see the millions of people who demonstrated and
risked their lives, and continue to risk their lives, not because they
hate or love America, or they hate or love Israel, not because they hate
or love fundamentalists, but because they want to express their minds
freely,” Sharansky said.
When it comes to the Palestinians efforts to create their state, Sharansky expressed cautious optimism.
“The moment the Palestinians start thinking how to solve their problems
and how to build their state where their people can live, they can learn
a lot from us, the Jews,” Sharansky said.
Sharansky accused the previous and present Palestinian leadership of
shirking their responsibility by focusing on how to destroy Israel
instead of building their state.
“The very fact that their leaders prefer to keep their people inside
refugee camps … means that the aim was not how to make their life normal
and to build their own ‘Jewish Agency’ or how to build their own system
of kibbutzim or welfare system,” he said.
“I will be very happy when they start thinking in terms of creating
their own Jewish Agency and we Israel will be the first to help them,”
“In the last couple of years there have been the first signs of positive
progress, in their economy and in a limited cooperation with [Israel
on] security. There’s an attempt to build an independent economy,” said
Sharansky, who once served as an Israeli minister of trade.
He said he would like to see education reform in the Palestinian
Authority instead of “the brainwashing about killing as many Jews as
“The Palestinians can learn a lot from our history how to build a state,
how to build all these institutions whether it is welfare or trade
unions or a Jewish Agency, which connects Jews of the Diaspora. Of
course they can learn. The moment they are concentrated on how they can
build their life, they can learn a lot,” he said.
“As long as they are concentrated on how they can destroy us, they can learn nothing.”