Freedom and identity

An exclusive interview with JA head and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.

Natan Sharansky 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Natan Sharansky 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Opposite the office of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, at the entrance to the organization’s conference room in its cavernous Jerusalem headquarters, are two oversized portraits – one featuring the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and the other the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. But the photo Sharansky sees from the chair behind his tidy desk, which he’s inhabited since taking over the chairmanship of the agency last June from Zeev Bielski, is one of Andrei Sakharov, the late founder of the human rights and dissident movement in the Soviet Union.
All three figures played prominent roles in molding Sharansky’s character and spiraling the young Russian computer scientist into the poster child of the struggle for Soviet Jewry and its ultimate victory over the dark powers of the Soviet authorities, with Herzl and Weizmann representing the quest for Jewish statehood – the ultimate realization of Jewish identity – and Sharansky’s mentor Sakharov representing the struggle for freedom.
And it’s the same solid foundation that the 62-year-old Sharansky has brought with him to the Jewish Agency, the latest stop for the celebrated immigrant who arrived in Israel an instant folk hero in 1986, and who went on to establish his own political party, Yisrael Ba’aliya, and serve as minister in three governments.
But it’s here, as the one responsible for Israel’s relationship with the Jewish world, that Sharansky finally feels most at ease – and most focused.
“I made a choice to leave government, and I chose to come here,” said the affable Sharansky, in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post ahead of Pessah.
“I feel that here is a very logical continuation of the subjects I’ve been dealing with all my life – Jewish identity, and the connection between struggles for our own interests and making the world a better place. I feel that from here, I can better influence the course of Jewish history.”
At a Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem in February, Sharansky ruffled some feathers when he said, “It can’t be our goal [just] to bring more Jewish people [to Israel].” Before aliya must come a strong Jewish identity, and with steely resolve, Sharansky set out to determine how to best invoke and strengthen a sense of Jewish identity where it’s been dormant.
It is a daunting task, but Sharansky has faced worse obstacles. Sitting across from the him, it’s easy to forget that the mild-mannered, plainly dressed, stocky figure endured severe hardships in a Soviet prison on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage for eight years, until an international campaign waged by his wife, Avital, culminated in his 1986 release. He arrived in Israel that same night.
In his final statement to the court in 1978 before his imprisonment, Sharansky concluded his appeal with the words: “For more that two thousand years the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now, when I am farther than ever from my people, from Avital, facing many arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, my Avital, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’”
Who better – on this holiday of freedom – to put into perspective the concepts of peoplehood and identity than the person who, in our generation, was able to say “This year we are slaves, next year may we be free men” and have it come true?
A hundred years ago there was a commonly acknowledged unified Jewish community worldwide. Do you think that’s still true today?
I’m not sure if there was ever a common unified Jewish people. It may just look that way looking back on it. One hundred years ago, Theodor Herzl was discovering for himself the idea of Jewish community. Just as he discovered the need for Zionism and the need for saving Jews, he discovered the idea of Jewish community. He was an assimilated Jew; he didn’t feel himself belonging to any Jewish community.
I think the idea of Jewish community has meant different things to different Jews. At that point in time, in Russia, there were big struggles between the early Zionists and Bundists (secular Jewish socialists), and they all had a different understanding of what Jewish community was.
The American Jewish community felt that Palestine had nothing to do with them and nothing to do with their Jewish identity. In my last book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, I included text from the Pittsburgh Platform [the pivotal 19th-century document on the history of the American Reform Movement adopted in 1885], and how the Reform Movement terminology changed over the years. You can see how the very principles of Jewish identity were changing – from American citizens of Jewish faith not interested in emphasizing Zionist ideals, to Jews true to American principles of democracy for whom Israel is the base of their identity.
Two things happened with the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt – people who were slaves became free, and they became a people.
This connection between identity and freedom – which of course is my special interest over the last 20 years – was expressed so deeply and meaningfully in the Exodus from Egypt.
In fact, until this day, if you look historically on what basis people were coming back to the Jewish community or leaving the Jewish community, it was all about the debate over whether there is a connection between freedom and identity – whether one could live by the great Jewish universal ideals of equality, justice, tikkun olam.
I think, exactly as it was at the time of the biblical Exodus, those same conflicts were evident in the Soviet Union in the 1970s – the deep connection between the struggle for freedom and identity. And it remains true today.
Doesn’t teaching about Jewish identity differ depending on the country you’re talking to – whether it be the US, France, Russia, or even Israel?
Yes. In different countries, the way in which Jews got to the point they are at is very different. In Russia, it was absolute, total forced assimilation. As a result, the way to come back is to reconnect them to a basic knowledge of Judaism.
On the other hand, in America, the best way to fuel their Jewish identity is programs like Birthright or Masa or Lapid (the university and high-school study-in-Israel programs), or any other type of Israel experience.
In France, it’s strengthening the system of Zionist Jewish education, and so on.
But what is important that runs through every community is that strengthening Jewish identity is practically impossible without putting Israel in the center.
And no doubt, there is a big need to strengthen Jewish identity in Israel. It’s interesting that Israelis who are involved in Partnership 2000 – the programs led by the Jewish Agency in which communities from abroad, mostly America, partner with Israeli communities – discover for themselves, for the first time, their Jewish dimensions which had been dormant for a long time. They didn’t even suspect that it was there; and these include the leaders of the programs.
They thought that to be Israeli is to be above being Jewish. A Jew was something that we were for thousands of years; now we are Israelis. We built the Jewish state, we defended the Jewish state, we are speaking Hebrew, we are living here – you can’t be more Jewish than that. But they’ve discovered what Jewish community means.
It’s one of the challenges and part of the new strategic plan of the Jewish Agency to develop courses for Israeli schools in the Jewish Diaspora. It’s a very high priority, and we currently have very good partners in the Education Ministry, with minister Gideon Sa’ar and director-general Shimshon Shoshani.
We’re also discussing the next steps, after programs like Masa and Birthright, in bringing together mutual groups of Israeli and Diaspora Jews, who through common experience will strengthen their mutual identity.
What are the changing priorities of the Jewish Agency – is it shifting away from aliya? At the same time, there have been some major changes in staffing with key positions being filled by people you’ve handpicked. Where does the Agency go now?
We’re in the process of holding strategic meetings to discuss what the priorities of the Jewish Agency should be – involving all 120 members of the board of governors.
In June, at the assembly, proposals will be brought to the table and hopefully approved, and in October, at our next meeting, the budget will be approved; and by 2011, we will be operating under the new priorities.
Of course, we are devoted to aliya, as we are devoted to education and to democracy. What you might call “aliya by choice” all depends on strengthening Jewish identity.
It’s a challenge for the Jews of the Diaspora who are facing assimilation, and Israelis who are embroiled in a struggle for legitimacy over the existence of the Jewish state, but the key to everything is developing, broadening, strengthening and defending this feeling of belonging to the Jewish family. That’s the moat around which we have all our discussions – what it means in terms of practical progress; how to translate these general ideas into programs and into budgets.
I reject the notion of the Agency shifting away from aliya. Aliya is the highest expression of strengthening Jewish identity. The aim of aliya and ingathering of exiles is still there. But what I’m saying is that the focus is shifting from escaping enemy countries or attempts to save hundreds of thousands of Jews to an aliya of choice.
I was speaking just a few days ago to a group of Americans, all religious, who made aliya in the last year. They asked me, how is it that you, who made such a difficult aliya and fought to come for so many years, are now shifting from a focus on aliya to Jewish identity.
I told them, “You know what, you know that the Kadosh baruch hu [God] gave the order – ‘lech lecha [Go].’” If there are Jews who don’t want to hear the voice of God, do you think that they will hear a shaliah [emissary] from the Jewish Agency telling them to make aliya?
It’s impossible to force our emissaries to compete with God and try to shout even louder than Him to make the message heard. You can’t be louder than God.
So what we have to do is help the Jews hear the voice of God. And how do we do that? By strengthening their feeling of Jewish connection, of Jewish pride and tradition, and their connection to Israel. That’s our function. Our function is not to impose on them what God doesn’t succeed in imposing, but to make them hear the voice.
What can you tell us about Jews in distress from countries around the world?
Each Jew who’s brought from Yemen is due to great cooperation with world Jewry. I don’t want to close any gates by mentioning some other countries. We have to be very careful. We’re watching the situations and we’re trying to think in advance about every Jew who can potentially find themselves in danger. We’re making a lot of effort to make sure we won’t be late.
Iranian Jews might be in the toughest spot right now. If I was one, I would think very seriously about why I’m still there. I don’t want to mention other countries because it makes it more difficult to help these Jews.
An essential part of the Jewish Agency’s work is like the army’s – to be ready, even if there is no war. We have to be ready to save Jews, even though these Jews aren’t even thinking yet about saving themselves. There’s spending for saving and spending for being ready for saving. There are many efforts that are far from public attention.
What kind of message would you like to give to the readers of the ‘Post’ on Pessah?
We’re increasing in a dramatic way our role in American camps and universities. People might say, “Why are we spending so much effort and money there?” I discovered a number of years ago that that’s a major battlefield of where the Jewish people is defined. And it goes back to what I started with.
The challenge for Jews for thousands of years was how to connect your desire to be free and those universal ideas of justice with your Jewishness and loyalty to your tribe. Usually, when Jews are convinced that they have to choose this or that, they always choose universal ways.
When I was spokesman of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group in the Soviet Union, with Sakharov, there were people that said you can’t be both – you have to choose.
I felt very strongly that I don’t want to choose; I cannot choose. Because all the strength to fight for freedom comes from my Jewish identity. Without it, it makes no sense to fight for those other things.
Today the battle which takes place on the campuses is one in which our enemies try to convince Jewish students that in order to be part of the world of justice and freedom, you have to disengage yourself from Israel and from your own identity. These attacks and double standards and slander result in the fact that many young Jews don’t want to have anything to do with their Jewish identity.
Our history, whether talking about 2,000 years ago, or the struggle of Soviet Jewry, or where it is today, you find this again and again. It’s something that we have to bring to every young Jew. If you want to be part of the world of freedom and justice and tikkun olam, your identity is your source of strength to fight for those things – your identity, which is based on your history, on your traditions and of course on your connection to Israel.
Was there something from the Pessah Seder that helped sustain you in prison?
I remember my first Seder in my life, when I was 25. It was in Moscow with Avital, who in a few months became my wife.
We were a big group of students studying Hebrew. We had three teachers who brought their pupils there. None of the teachers could read the whole Haggada, so each of them read a third.
There were a few songs that we learned, like “Dayenu.” And I remember that the phrase in the Seder, “This year we are slaves, next year may we be free men” was very moving to us.
Some years later, I was in a punishment cell on Seder night, and I waslonely. I decided that with bread, salt and hot water, I would have myown Seder. There was nothing else – salt was my maror [bitter herbs]and hot water was my haroset.
I tried to repeat the Haggada,but I couldn’t remember most of it. But that one phrase – “This year weare slaves, next year may we be free men” – was enough for me.
AndI recalled the line, “In every generation, each individual should feelas if he or she had actually gone out from Egypt.” It was so easy tofeel that’s true – that I am one of those in this generation that iskeeping this torch of freedom. It was easy to feel yourself as part ofthis great, historical struggle, and that gave me a lot of strength.