I applaud American reformers' push to improve the Jewish Agency's governance and purge politics from the selection of its chairman. But today's political appointee is the right man for the job. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's nomination of the legendary human rights activist Natan Sharansky to be the Jewish Agency's chairman is a gift to the agency and the Jewish people. After a lifetime of serving not just the Jewish people but humanity, Sharansky should not have to ask anyone for votes. Those of us who care about Israel, Zionism and the Jewish future should beg him to serve.
The Jewish Agency is at an awkward moment in its proud history. It was established on August 11, 1929, fulfilling the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine proposing a "Jewish agency" representing world Jewry to help establish "the Jewish National Home... in Palestine." In 1948, the actual state superseded this proto-state. Today, with that historic mission accomplished, the agency promotes aliya, Jewish-Zionist education and Israel-Diaspora partnerships.
Most Jewish Agency employees I meet are extraordinary. Be they working for Partnership 2000 to partner 250 Diaspora communities with 50 Israeli regions, serving in the World Zionist Organization or developing MASA to bring young Jews for sustained periods of work or study in Israel, they are idealistic, passionate, visionary. Unfortunately, they work for a bureaucracy with a terrible reputation.
I have met the occasional Jewish Agency hack who sends a staffer ahead to check that he has a microphone to address two dozen people. Then, having wasted staff resources, this apparatchik - with a rumored penchant for expensive travel - alienates all the young, enthusiastic Zionists he addresses with his dismissive arrogance. As a result, when many people pass Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem they imagine hearing the ticktock, ticktock of bureaucrats marking time and the clink, clink, whirl, whirl of good money flushing down the drain.
To me, the building pulsates with the energy of the Zionist mission. It is rooted in Jewish history, throbbing with idealists, and like Israel itself, a key to our salvation as Jews and human beings. Just as Israel's occasional mistakes should not define Zionism, the occasional pen pusher should not tarnish the agency's reputation.
DURING THESE difficult times, with the Jewish Agency seeking more of two key "M"s - money and a focused mission - Natan Sharansky can save it, while using this platform to revitalize Zionism. Just because Sharansky's story is familiar, we should never take for granted the miracle he not only lived through but shaped. When I visited the Soviet Union in 1985, Sharansky had been imprisoned since his March 1977 arrest on trumped-up charges. Few of us imagined that within a year he would be free and that within a few years, the Soviet Union would implode.
Sharansky is a living advertisement for Zionism's redemptive power. In resisting the Soviet Union, he and his refusenik comrades did not just better the Jewish people; they exalted humanity by confronting evil and ultimately vanquishing it. In these dark days, as we face a different kind of Islamist evil, Sharansky can remind the world that history can heal not just hurt, improve not just degenerate.
Since his liberation, Sharansky has worked tirelessly for Israel, Zionism and human rights. He is a genuine Jewish celebrity, a real hero. But he is also a substantive idealist who continues to fight for what is right. A living bridge between Israel and the Diaspora, he is the ideal person to lead the Jewish Agency, the one institution authorized by the government to partner with the Diaspora.
Among his many recent accomplishments, including fighting anti-Semitism and inspiring students on campuses, perhaps what most qualifies him for this new job is his latest book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy. In this important work, Sharansky, along with his co-author Prof. Shira Wolosky Weiss, confronts the modern lure of universalism as fiercely as he battled communism. Sharansky explains that having an "identity," meaning membership in an ethnic group, a religion, a nation, saved him in the gulag - and can save so many modern Westerners from our personal confusion today. He attributes the internal grit many Jews and Pentacostalists displayed in resisting Soviet secret police interrogation to their strong identities; they felt part of a bigger story. Belonging to something greater than themselves made individuals feel responsible for values beyond their own selfish needs.
AS CHAIRMAN of the Jewish Agency, Sharansky can be our story-teller-in-chief and, thus, our identity-builder-in-chief. The magic of his name combined with the power of his vision can do wonders in friend-raising, fund-raising and consciousness-raising. As an iconic figure himself, he can recruit Hollywood stars and other celebrities to help make this Jewish-identity building business glamorous.
As an out-of-the-box thinker, he can invite entrepreneurs, consultants, academics, activists, lovers of Zion, politicians, community leaders, donors and agency insiders to a think tank redefining the agency's mission, understanding that reform requires keeping successful initiatives while eliminating failures.
As a popular figure with an amazing network, he can tap friends like Prof. Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler to bring some star power to MASA, while articulating an idealistic vision for young people that will excite them about learning, working or volunteering in Israel for six months or a year. As a force in Jewish history, he can make the Jewish Agency fund Birthright generously, cooperate with Nefesh B'Nefesh, and end the turf wars blackening the agency's name.
Sharansky could rest on his laurels, simply preserving his reputation. But the same intellectual restlessness, ideological power and Zionist zeal that helped him survive the Soviets has kept him relevant, helping to tackle critical challenges again and again. Fortunately, the political process - with all its flaws - has produced the right man at the right time for the right job. Let us all work to make sure he succeeds.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.
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