Natan Sharansky is famed for many things: for his struggle for freedom as a former Soviet refusenik who was imprisoned for nine years, for his human rights activism, for his many years in Israeli politics, for his world class chess skills, and more recently, for his work as the leader of the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organization, the Jewish Agency. But for Sharansky, 68, his life for the past 45 years has been occupied by the same mission: connecting between Israel and world Jewry.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his Jerusalem office, Sharansky reflected back on the past year – which will be his last as Jewish Agency chairman – and looked ahead to a future, where he sees himself continuing his quest to strengthen Israel-Diaspora ties, in whatever capacity that may be.
Sharansky says that over the past year Israel and the Jewish people have continued to find themselves at the center of a world struggle between freedom and identity.
“Europe has desperately tried to defend its freedom by fighting against identity with the likes of the Burka Law, creating a neutral public space without identity,” Sharansky says, asserting that this endeavor is doomed to certain failure. “At the same time the efforts of the extreme forces in the Middle East to stop freedom through imposing identity have continued, and Israel is in the center, being part of the free world with a strong Jewish identity and part of Middle East with a strong democracy. Israel continues its struggle to keep freedom and identity together.”
According to Sharansky, the “free world’s” preoccupation with Israel, “who think our insistence on being a Jewish state has created problems,” is illogical at a time where events such as the Syrian civil war and the issue of refugees pose far greater problems.
Sharansky said that Israel and the Diaspora’s interdependence is stronger than ever, but is also being tested repeatedly by outside elements.
“Because the world is polarized, and Israel and the Jewish people insist on connecting these [freedom and identity] together, we are under serious attacks. And here the challenge for Jews to be part of bigger goals and at the same time defend their own tribe creates such tension that sometimes they feel like they have to make a choice – and sometimes they decide to abandon their tribe.” Sharansky’s solution for this problem is to make clear to world Jewry that it is not necessary to make a choice.
He says two serious threats today are assimilation of Jews in the Diaspora, and delegitimization of Israel – two battles which in his opinion are interconnected..
“We can’t fight against delegitimization without strengthening the Jewish connection,” he stated. “World Jewry is interested that their grandkids will continue to be Jewish – there is no greater tool than this.
“The second war is the war of delegitimization, which is a subproduct of our enemies’ efforts to disconnect young Jews from Israel, to make them feel that Israel isn’t for them.”
Sharansky emphasizes that only through close cooperation between Diaspora Jewry and Israel can these problems be resolved. The Jewish Agency’s method of dealing with these issues is twofold: bringing young Jews to Israel, and at the same time strengthening its presence, through emissaries, in the Diaspora.
This year, he said “has been a very important year for deep serious dialogue between world Jewry and Israel,” noting the dialogue between all streams of Judaism in an effort to find a solution to their disagreements over the Kotel. On the one hand, he says the cabinet vote for an egalitarian section – a proposal which he suggested and spearheaded – was a serious success. “For the first time there was a deep and serious dialogue between the streams.” On the other hand, he said it turned into a “painful failure,” because its implementation has been problematic.
“You can’t expect that the Chief Rabbinate will recognize non-halachic Jewish streams, and you also can’t expect world Jewry will accept Israel as a home for members of the community, but not for the community as a whole. That’s why deep dialogue, compromise and understanding is the only way to continue our historical journey, and how Israel can continue to be a home for every Jew and community.”
From Sharansky’s perspective, many parts of the world have chosen the easy way out, and rather than working to find a balance between freedom and identity, they have opted for the former at the cost of the latter. He believes, however, that human beings have an inherent basic desire for both: to be free and to belong.
“Identity is what gives meaning to life,” he says. “I learned it the easy way because I was deprived of both freedom and identity,” he adds, in reference to his years in the Gulag. “But Israel does insist that we are at the same free – which we became when we left Egypt – and at the same time protect our identity.”
Sharansky acknowledges that one restricts the other, but maintains that there can be a happy medium.
“If we weren’t a democratic state, Shabbat would paralyze our country. If you have pure democracy, Shabbat wouldn’t exist in our life.”
Looking forward to the year ahead, Sharansky hopes to see bridges between Jewish communities and Israel becoming stronger, and that the Israeli government will place the issue at a higher priority than it has in the past. He also wishes to see a united world Jewry fighting together against attempts to delegitimize Israel, and collaborating for Jewish continuity and a strong Israel – the latter which he says is “their only guarantee of their future.”
On a positive notes, Sharansky concludes that “in general, if you look at what’s happening in the world, we have all the reason to be optimistic because we happen to be on the right side of history – connecting between a meaningful life and freedom of life, and that’s why the future belongs to us.”
Sharansky and his wife, Avital, have two daughters and four grandchildren, and live in Jerusalem.
And what are his hopes on a personal level? With a wide grin, Sharansky confides that he wishes for more grandchildren.