Less than six months after being appointed head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, former Soviet dissident, Israeli politician and philosopher Natan Sharansky is putting his years of Zionist thinking and ideology into practice as he attempts to fight some of the stereotypes associated with the quasi-governmental organization.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Sharansky said that one of his main goals is to reform the backbone of JAFI's shlichut (emissary) program to make sure it stays relevant to the challenges facing world Jewry and especially communities in the US.
"When I joined the Jewish Agency I realized that some of the stereotypes I'd heard about were true and some were ridiculous," said Sharansky, who took over as executive director last July. "One of those stereotypes was the image of JAFI shlichim being nothing more than retired politicians who just had to have jobs because of their connections. It's just not true anymore."
According to Sharansky, the whole nature and focus of those embedded by JAFI into Diaspora communities has completely changed over the past decade, with a growing emphasis on Jewish identity through a connection to Israel and advocacy for the Jewish state.
"In the past it was only about promoting Israel," claimed Sharansky, 61, the iconic leading proponent and spokesman of the Refusenik movement for Jewish freedom in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. "But I do not believe that one can promote Israel using propaganda. It's not about saying, 'This is what Israel has achieved since it was created. Why don't you make aliya now?'
"Today there has been a fundamental change, with more focus on Jewish continuity and identity," he continued, adding "Jewish communities have discovered there is no better way to tackle this than by bringing an Israeli to their community."
In addition, said Sharansky, shlichim these days must be ready to be advocates for Israel. "They must come prepared to combat Israel's negative image around the world, especially on college campuses," he said.
In this regard, Sharansky's goal is to continue increasing the number of young Israelis sent to communities in the US and especially the more than 100 shlichim based at universities there.
"It was a small experimental program but now I want to make it one of the most central stones of our shlichut program," he said, adding that he also plans to improve the training for young shlichim with intense courses in Jewish identity and advocacy before they head to the US.
"I've already spoken to some of the best Israel advocates such as Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler about teaching the shlichim before they go," Sharansky told the Post.
While he is convinced that the international Jewish community still needs the influence of Israelis to survive, he is also on a mission to convince Israelis, equally, that they need Diaspora Jewry.
"I want to make sure that our shlichim will come back to Israel and be used for strengthening Jewish identity here," he said. "My experience is that the moment you send Israelis abroad to experience a Jewish community, even if it is only for a few months, they come back with a much broader understanding of their Jewish identity. Jews in the Diaspora need Israel and Israelis need the Diaspora."