Sharansky: New policy sees Israel as center of Jewish world

"The very survival of the Jewish people is in danger."

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
June 22, 2010 01:58
4 minute read.
JEWISH AGENCY chairman Natan Sharansky beats a dru

Sharansky 311. (photo credit: Brian Hendler)

The Jewish Agency’s new strategic plan will place the state and land of Israel squarely at the center of Diaspora consciousness, according to Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

The new plan calls for shifting the agency’s activities toward identity-forming experiences for Israeli and Diaspora youth, and has generated some concern among a group of agency lay leaders and Israeli officials over what they worry could be an abandonment of the organization’s traditional functions of nation-building and aliya.

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Sharansky is seeking to dispel these concerns in the runup to the Board of Governors vote on the new plan late this week in Jerusalem.

“Israel remains the center” of the agency’s programming, he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “It forms the focal point of identity. In fact, the only place specifically mentioned in the strategic plan,” he added, “is the homeland in Israel.” Rather than shifting away from aliya or development of Israeli society, the new plan “will serve the same goals. Only the methods have changed.”

According to Sharansky, “The goals of the founding fathers of the agency – to mobilize the Jewish people to support the idea of an Israeli state, aliya and to mobilize physical and material support from the Jewish people – this remains unchanged.”

But, he added, these achievements “come as a result of solidarity, commitment or connection among Jews.”

“We are living today in a global village. On the one hand there’s a post-identity reality, where a commitment to any group, community or state has an archaic or negative association. This affects many Jews who believe they have to choose between universal and national values.

Second, there’s a campaign to delegitimize Israel, one of whose targets is to weaken Jewish commitment to Israel. There’s also a weakening connection of many Israelis to the Jewish people.”

All these challenges, he believes, “endanger the very survival of the Jewish people. I believe [Diaspora communities] cannot survive without a strong connection to Israel. Israel is becoming a more and more important factor in the individual and collective identity of the Jewish people.

I know from the story of Soviet Jewry how the connection to Israel, the discovery that we are part of the great story of our people, inspires and gives you the will to fight.”

That is why Israel’s detractors around the world are targeting the legitimacy of Jewish identification in their assault on Israel.

“I heard a number of times on visits to college campuses young Jews saying, ‘It’s better for me if the state of Israel would not exist.’ Our enemies want to say, ‘You want to stay Jewish? You have some romantic sympathy to the land where your ancestors lived? Fine. But why see yourself responsible for a political system that is involved in many things you don’t like?’” While the land of Israel has a crucial role to play in Jewish life – “and Jews who visit Israel are excited to touch the ancient places like Jerusalem or the place where David fought Goliath” – the state is also a key component of modern Jewish identity.

“We know that hundreds of thousands of young Jews who come on [trips to Israel, such as] Birthright or Lapid or Masa, are no less excited to see where the Jewish people finally founded a state of their own, where we became masters of our own fate. Experiencing this [statehood] makes their loyalty to their community something much bigger.”

This affirmation of the land and state of Israel at the center of the new mission is not a political message, he insists.

“The Jewish Agency is a table where people from all parties and all streams can sit. I just sat in a meeting between cabinet ministers of Israel and leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements and the federations. The Jewish Agency is a table where they can meet.” Yet it must reaffirm the centrality of Israel in a Jewish world that faces “a constant campaign of delegitimization of Israel that’s not about left-wing or right-wing governments, or this or that policy, but about the very existence of a Jewish state.”

Many challenges await the new strategic plans, agency officials believe.

“Some are saying we are replacing aliya with identity programs,” Sharansky notes, countering, “What we’re saying is that strengthening identity will bring aliya.”

Others question whether the agency will be able to fundraise for its dwindling coffers with the new focus.

“Will people give money to help strengthen identity?” Sharansky wonders. “We have to be very attentive to these remarks and make sure that we can explain that this is the greatest need of the Jewish community. Today, people feel this need.”

Israel, too, has a large role to play in making itself relevant and inspiring to the Diaspora.

“Our plan discusses how Israel can itself become an ideal society, a society that inspires and empowers.

“We are not abandoning our goals, but the focus is changing, because,” he concludes, “the world is changing.”


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