Natan Sharansky is upset.
After nearly eight years as head of the Jewish Agency, the man asked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate a compromise on the Kotel warns that the State of Israel is on a dangerous course when it comes to its relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
Violent fracas breaks out at Western Wall over Women of the Wall (Danny Shabtai 0303) (file)
It is not a collision course, since that would mean the two sides would eventually meet. This government’s current course is creating a divide, he says, one that might be too damaged to repair.
I went to see Sharansky this week after he put out a harshly worded statement on Monday slamming legislation – proposed by Shas and supported by some members of the Likud and Bayit Yehudi – that would allow the state to imprison and fine women who participate in progressive prayers at the Kotel. A woman blows a shofar? Six months in jail. A woman shows up at the Kotel wearing tefillin? Off to the slammer.
The bill got Sharansky worked up. The usually moderate and soft-spoken Sharansky – the most famous Soviet refusenik – said in his statement that the bill “makes a mockery of efforts made by recent governments to ensure that the Western Wall is a place that unites, rather than divides, the Jewish people.”
This statement didn’t come from nowhere. It was born out of frustration. Sharansky championed the historic compromise that led to the cabinet’s decision in January – nearly a year ago – to establish a pluralistic prayer plaza at the Kotel. But then, even though the haredi parties knew about the compromise, they suddenly got cold feet and threatened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they would topple his government if the plan went ahead.
Sharansky is cautious when speaking directly about Netanyahu, whom he says is one of the only politicians in Israel who actually gets the importance of having a strong and vibrant Diaspora.
“I am very concerned and very upset but still want to give him the benefit of the doubt, since I know he wants to do this,” Sharansky told me.
Surprisingly, he is also not upset at the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
A former politician himself, Sharansky understands that Shas and United Torah Judaism are just doing their jobs. “They are doing exactly what they promised their electorate... they are consistent,” he says.
So who is Sharansky upset with? The Likud and Labor parties which over the years forfeited control over matters of religion to the haredim to buy votes. The rabbinate, he says, was basically handed over to Shas ahead of the vote on the Oslo Accords in 1993. A similar monopoly over city rabbis was later handed over as well.
The bill that Shas has proposed, Sharansky warns, would basically put Israel on a similar level to Iran: “If it passes, it means that Israel will become the first Western country where a woman who wears a tallit will be punished and sent to six months in jail.”
As head of the Jewish Agency, it is Sharansky’s job to facilitate aliya, to encourage Jews to move here, and to oversee the numerous education and welfare initiatives the agency runs throughout the country and across the globe. There is Masa, which brings young adults to Israel for long-term internships, and the community emissaries the agency sends to communities around the world.
Due to the government’s refusal to interact directly with the Reform and Conservative movements though, Netanyahu asked Sharansky to be their main interlocutor as well as to serve as the main conduit when the government is forced to give them money. When the Knesset allocated NIS 10 million recently for the construction of four mikvaot ritual baths for Reform and Conservative conversions, for example, it transferred the money first to the Prime Minister’s Office, which then transferred it to the Jewish Agency to give to the movements. The government avoids direct funding of the movements and the haredi parties don’t get upset.
Sharansky had hoped that the dialogue he facilitated for four years between the different Jewish movements would have penetrated into government and Israeli society.
“Many people speak about Reform Jews the way antisemites speak about the Elders of Zion,” he said. “I found that there are unbelievable prejudices against Reform Jews. If Israeli leaders from the prime minister on down will not start trying to de-demonize our own people, then we will have a big problem.”
The prejudice, he says, is the result of a lack of real dialogue between government offices and Reform or Conservative Jewry.
He saw this up close just a few weeks ago, when after visiting Haifa to distribute money collected in the US for victims of the recent forest fires, he stopped off in Ra’anana to visit a Reform synagogue that had been vandalized.
The synagogue, he said, conducts 280 bar and bat mitzvahs a year, but doesn’t get a single penny from the government – 10% comes from the Jewish Agency, and 90% from synagogue members.
“The Religious Services Ministry does not give them anything, but why don’t the Education or Interior ministries give them something?” Sharansky asked. “They are kept out of the normal system. And when you are not part of the debate – you are demonized.”
And here is the catch: 90% of the money that the Jewish Agency distributed in Haifa came from Reform and Conservative Jews.
“Sixty percent of American Jews affiliate themselves with the Reform and Conservative movements, and about 85% of AIPAC members are Reform and Conservative Jews,” Sharansky said.
“You cannot ignore that they are a big part of the Jewish people, a big part of Zionist support for Israel. We cannot accept their support and then say they should not be recognized as equals.”
I asked Sharansky if he fears that the Shas bill, combined with the failure to implement the Kotel plan, will pose an existential threat to the State of Israel.
He dismissed the possibility out of hand. Existential threats, he said, are challenges like an Iranian nuclear bomb. Whatever happens with the Kotel plan, he said, Israel will continue to exist.
But, he warned, what will happen is that Israel will no longer share a “joint Jewish journey” with the Jews of the Diaspora.
When Jews are not made to feel equal, he said, they will not stand together for long.
He added a short story: In 1975, while visiting the apartment of another refusenik in Moscow, there was a knock at the door.
They opened it and found an American couple who had come to visit the refuseniks. The husband said that he was a rabbi, so Sharansky and his friends asked why he wasn’t wearing a kippa.
The man said that he was a Reconstructionist rabbi. Sharansky, a mathematician and chess prodigy, was intrigued by the idea of reconstructing religion. He asked what it meant.
The wife responded that while they didn’t believe in God, Judaism was about culture, history and ritual. God didn’t really have much to do with it.
Sharansky and his friends laughed. Only in America, they said to themselves, could there be a rabbi who doesn’t believe in God.
But years later, that story reminds Sharansky of the importance of peoplehood and of a shared destiny for Jews no matter what they believe or where they might live – in Israel or the Diaspora.
“The threat from what is happening now is whether Diaspora Jewry and Israel will continue their journey as one people,” he concluded. “We have a huge challenge before us – whether we will continue to be one people or not. This is a challenging moment.”
My interview with Sharansky reminded me of the conversation I moderated Tuesday night with renowned American law professor Alan Dershowitz at a public event in Ra’anana.
During our hour-long talk, Dershowitz – one of Israel’s strongest and greatest defenders and advocates – mentioned how when he comes to Israel he meets regularly with the prime minister, an old and close friend. Last week, he said, he and his wife had a five-hour dinner with the Netanyahus at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
When I asked whether he thought Netanyahu was sincere about making peace, his answer was unequivocal. “Absolutely,” Dershowitz said. “Not only do I think it. I think I know it.”
Netanyahu, he said, wants to be “Nixon in China” and bring peace to Israel. But the problem, he went on, is that the “Israeli political system is broken.” While the president of the United States is the “chief executive,” in Israel, the prime minister puts together a cabinet where half of the ministers want to stab him in the back and the other half want to run against him.
The same explanation that Dershowitz gave for the difficulty in making peace is what Netanyahu has been giving to American Jewish leaders urging that he implement the Kotel plan, voted on and approved by the cabinet in January. Netanyahu, who is one of the few politicians in Israel who really does get the importance of the Diaspora, is simply not willing to risk his government for it.
I appreciate Netanyahu’s political predicament, but it cannot be used as an excuse forever. At some point, leaders need to lead and make decisions. They cannot stay bogged down by political challenges.
After eight years as prime minister, we know that Netanyahu is a brilliant politician. Now is the time to see him as a great implementer.
As Sharansky said – our united Jewish journey depends on it.