On the morning of June 25, Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky arrived at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem for the opening session of the Board of Governors. It was supposed to be a day of celebration. Sharansky, an Israeli hero and its most-famous refusenik, was starting his ninth and final year as chairman of the Jewish Agency. There was a lot to discuss.
After meeting with his board, Sharansky headed over to the Prime Minister’s Office. Former US ambassadors Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross, co-chairmen of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), were presenting the findings from their annual assessment which included a clear warning: failure to implement the Kotel compromise would lead to a serious rift with world Jewry.
Sharansky is a regular invitee to cabinet meetings dealing with Diaspora-related issues. He was scheduled to briefly address the ministers as well, but when he climbed the stairs to the second floor of the PMO, he was told by some journalists that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had just left the meeting and had told them that he was opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to cancel the Kotel deal.
Sharansky, the architect and brains behind the deal, was shocked. No one had said a word to him about a plan to cancel it. While he regularly checked in with the prime minister and his advisers on the status of the deal – which was frozen ever since it had been approved by the cabinet 18 months earlier – no one had ever said anything about a vote to cancel or overturn it.
At the entrance to the cabinet room, Sharansky found a few ministers lingering in the foyer near the refreshment stand. He asked them if they knew anything about a scheduled vote to overturn the Kotel deal. “No,” was the resounding answer. “It’s not on the agenda.”
He then caught one of the prime minister’s advisers and asked him the same question. He also claimed not to know a thing.
He then walked over to Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and his fellow Bayit Yehudi party member, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Later that day, Sharansky told them, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is supposed to vote on a Shas-backed bill that will have far-reaching ramifications for conversions and will ignite an unprecedented crisis with the Diaspora. Bennett and Shaked said they were aware of the bill, but that it had nothing to do with Reform or Conservative conversions.
“Natan, you don’t understand, this is not about conversions of Jews,” the ministers told the Jewish Agency chairman. They went on to explain that the bill was about Eritreans, and was aimed at preventing foreign workers from using conversions to gain Israeli citizenship. It would have no effect, they said, on conversions performed by the different Jewish streams.
“It’s much more,” Sharansky replied. “This law is about creating a monopoly of conversions, and will bring about a new crisis with the Diaspora.”
A few minutes later the cabinet meeting was called to order, and Eisenstat and Ross began their presentation. Every day that the government does not implement the Kotel resolution, they said, is bad for relations with the Diaspora.
Sharansky spoke next. The way to fight assimilation, he told the ministers, was to help draw Jews from around the world closer to Israel. The Kotel deal, he insisted, was a simple way to do that. He then turned to Netanyahu: “You initiated the negotiations, since you understood better than any other leader why compromise is needed.”
When he finished speaking, the prime minister took the microphone. All Jews, Netanyahu said, are important – Orthodox, Reform and Conservative.
That is why, he continued, he pushed hard for the Kotel deal that was supposed to achieve three objectives: create a respectable prayer space for pluralistic and progressive prayer, at the southern section of the Western Wall; build a new joint entrance to the Kotel plaza; and establish a committee that would manage the new prayer space.
“But,” Netanyahu continued, “part of my coalition feels differently, and demands that we cancel the proposal. I am not going to cancel, but freeze it.”
Sharansky was stunned. He did not expect the Kotel deal to be implemented quickly, but he also did not anticipate that the prime minister would so easily fold to ultra-Orthodox pressure. In the ensuing vote, all the ministers present voted to cancel the deal except for two – Liberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz.
By then, Sharansky had left the PMO and was making his way back to the David Citadel. By the time he got there, members of the Board of Governors had heard the news. Adding insult to injury, Shas chairman Arye Deri and Agudat Yisrael and United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman declared victory, telling the press that they had prevented Reform Jews from gaining a foothold in Israel.
Half an hour later, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to approve the controversial conversion bill, and sent it to the Knesset for a first reading. Later in the day, Sharansky took the unprecedented decision of canceling the planned Board of Governors dinner with Netanyahu.
I MET with Sharansky this week to hear his perspective, a month after that fateful, shameful and disastrous decision by Netanyahu and his cabinet.
Behind his desk at Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem is a large photo of the Kotel plaza covered in snow. “It’s frozen since the cabinet decision,” he joked.
The usually moderate and mild-mannered Sharansky was still upset; I asked him if he viewed Netanyahu’s decision as a personal act of betrayal.
Sharansky thought for a moment.
“I don’t think for a moment that Bibi did it due to a lack of respect of our friendship but because he felt politically threatened, and the need to save the coalition is, for him, above everything,” he said.
What troubles Sharansky though is that by taking his decision the way he did – out of the blue and without warning – Netanyahu has created an unprecedented sense of distrust between the government and Jewish leaders in the US. And that is why he predicts that in the end, even though he expects a new compromise will be reached on the Kotel – government officials are already talking about an investment of millions of shekels to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space – the trust will not be restored.
“There will be compromises,” he said. “But the trust that was built over years – which the prime minister had succeeded in building with the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in America – is lost.”
Sharansky referred often during our conversation to the “trust” that he said was built up over the three-and-a-half years of what had appeared to be sincere negotiations between the government and the movements, but which was then violated in one fell swoop last month by the prime minister.
“For three-and-a-half years the people were part of negotiations and felt good about it,” he lamented.
Had Netanyahu only consulted with Sharansky before canceling the deal, he would have recommended that he move forward despite the threats by the haredi parties to topple the government.
“There are many reasons for them to be interested in continuing this government,” said Sharansky, a veteran of coalitions and cabinets.
How bad is the crisis now? “I hope the majority will keep a connection with Israel, and I think they know that they need it for themselves,” he said. “But there is a process of assimilation and a process of pressure which the young generation feels on campuses because of the postmodern atmosphere where national ethnic states are unpopular, and the new antisemitism is difficult and hard to stand against.”
Every message from Israel, he continued, like the cancellation of the Kotel deal, is immediately amplified by our enemies. “Our opponents will make sure that it will be heard by these young Jews all the time.”
Sharansky is particularly concerned with the upcoming High Holy Day season, and the sermons that will be delivered by thousands of Reform and Conservative rabbis across the United States.
Did you think of resigning in protest over the government’s decision, I asked? “I never saw it as a personal struggle,” said Sharansky.
I reminded him how he had resigned twice from the government as a minister: once in 2000 ahead of the Camp David talks, and again in 2005 ahead of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
“That was because I didn’t want to share responsibility with what the government was doing, which I believed was bad for peace, for Israel and for the Arabs,” he said. And while there are certainly difficulties working with the government as chairman of the Jewish Agency, he noted, “I never wanted to resign since I feel comfortable ideologically with the issues that we are working on.”
AS HE enters his ninth and final year as Jewish Agency chairman, Sharansky looks back and takes pride in a number of key developments, primarily among them being the shift the organization took under his helm to focus on Jewish identity and not just aliya. The 89 emissaries the agency now deploys on campuses across the US, he said, will continue to grow.
Sharansky plans to spend a chunk of the coming year working to educate Israelis about the importance of the Diaspora, and the need for more engagement between Jews in Israel and Jews around the world.
“The lack of dialogue is unbelievable,” he said, “the level of ignorance is unbelievable.”
He said he has met Israelis who claim that Reform Jews make bar mitzvas for their dogs and Jews in America who don’t understand why Israel’s democratic system can’t be an exact replica of America’s democracy.
“This isn’t because of evil feelings, but because people know nothing,” he sighed. “Society and schools don’t prepare them.”
That is his mission. Let us hope that it is not too late.