Natan Sharansky .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Natan Sharansky, who – like Israel – turned 70 this year, is a leader of rare moral clarity. As he steps down today as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a role in which he has served with honor from 2009-18, we tip our hats to the legendary former prisoner of Zion, and praise the paradigm shift he has steered his organization toward – an organization struggling to be relevant in today’s world.
Sharansky recalled in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week that he had persuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nine years ago that after nine years in a Soviet prison and nine years in Israeli politics, he really wanted to focus on his life’s true mission: strengthening Jewish identity as head of the Jewish Agency. “I told Netanyahu, ‘You are right to concentrate all your efforts for so many years on Iran as the number-one threat. But there is another internal threat: whether we will stay one people, Israel and world Jewry.’ As one who is dealing with this all my life, that’s how I came to this job.”
Perhaps Sharansky’s greatest achievement during his tenure at the helm of the Jewish Agency – negotiating the historic Western Wall deal for an egalitarian prayer section – was, unfortunately, suspended by the government last June. Asked if he felt let down by Netanyahu, Sharansky said: “Personally, we have great relations. I feel that he let the Jewish people down.... I think it was a very big setback in relations between the American Jewish community and Israel, and still remains a big problem. It’s not so easy to rebuild the trust that was destroyed.”
Under Sharansky’s stewardship, the Jewish Agency became the key bridge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. “We are the only organization in which at one table you have representatives of the government and opposition, leaders of the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements and of Jewish organizations,” Sharansky said. “This dialogue, which we tried to facilitate, became very important. There were ups and downs, but the fact is that there is this place where there can be a serious dialogue for years sometimes between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewry and all parts of the Israeli spectrum. So I do hope that my successor will use the office to have as broad a mandate for the Jewish Agency as possible.”
Although he noted that immigration figures had doubled during his term as chairman of JAFI (some 27,000 immigrants came in 2017), Sharansky believes his greatest success has been to change the focus of the Jewish Agency from encouraging immigration to strengthening Jewish identity in communities throughout the Diaspora. He significantly expanded Jewish Agency educational activities across the world, sending many more shlichim (emissaries) – between 1,500 and 1,800 a year – on programs across the world, ranging from Masa and summer camps to global Tikkun Olam via the Project TEN volunteer centers in poverty-stricken areas in countries such as Mexico, Ghana, Uganda and South Africa.
“The majority of Jews who are coming on aliya today – or who are candidates to come – are those who feel comfortable in Israel, where you as a Jew can be a free person without any ‘double-think,’” Sharansky said.
“Those who come from the Diaspora know that in practically every place, Jews cannot live without ‘double- think.’ Whether it be criticism or compliments about Israel, I have heard even from students at Harvard that they don’t feel comfortable with it. Here in Israel, they can be proud Jews with their principles on the Left or the Right. But people have to go through this process by themselves, and the best way to do this is through strengthening Jewish identity.”
For Sharansky, the most important mission now is to bridge the widening gap between Israel and the Diaspora.“ The biggest challenge facing the Jewish people is how to be one people,” he declared. “Our aim should be not to make the Diaspora disappear as quickly as possible.
We need a strong Israel, and strong Jewish communities all over the world, and we are only at the beginning of working with this paradigm. It will take a generation of work, and I hope my successor continues what I started.”
It’s a daunting task for his successor, Isaac Herzog, as he steps into Sharansky’s giant shoes. Thank you, Natan Sharansky for your contributions to Israel and the Jewish people.