The Jewish Agency for Israel in Russia is one of the country’s last remaining bridges to the outside world and is being leveraged by the Kremlin to press on Israel amid its increasing international isolation, former Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the Israeli government must not allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to dictate Israel’s position in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and must side with the free world if it wishes to safeguard its standing among the nations, Sharansky said.
Sharansky, chair of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy and chair of the advisory board at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kyiv, was born in Stalino (now Donetsk), Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. After being denied an exit visa to leave the USSR in 1973, he became a human rights activist, dissident, and leader in the movement of refuseniks – Jews and others who were refused permission to leave the country. Arrested and charged with treason and espionage in 1977, Sharansky spent nine years in Soviet prisons in the 1970s and 1980s.
In an interview with The Media Line, Sharansky said that Putin launched a war against Ukraine in a bid to “restore the Russian Empire.” He noted that Jewish immigration to Israel would continue to make strides even if the Kremlin decides to push ahead with shuttering the Jewish Agency.
TML: The first thing I wanted to ask you is about when you posted on Facebook a few days ago where you basically call on Jews, Russian Jews, not to postpone their plans to leave the country, and to leave quickly. So I wanted to ask you, why do you think it’s urgent for them to leave, and how seriously do you think this whole issue is with the Jewish Agency?
Sharansky: The post was not about that, the post was about the national developments surrounding the Jewish Agency. I did write that those who made this decision, who in principle are interested to make aliyah [immigrate to Israel], I propose that they not postpone this decision. My principle is always not to force Jews to leave, that’s a very personal decision. But of course, I’m fully for this, and if they decide – it is in the nature of Jews to decide, okay, not this year, or not this month, or after I pass these exams or whatever. The situation in Russia is changing dramatically. In fact, in the last few months, there were more steps to bring back the Iron Curtain than maybe in the last few years, and the only thing which is still left is free emigration. But who knows how long it will continue. And the fact is that aliyah dramatically increased from Russia, I think in fact aliyah from Russia will be at least three times bigger than aliyah from Ukraine. And that’s exactly the result of the fact that Jews feel this danger, the quickly changing society, and they don’t want to be left behind the Iron Curtain. I call on everybody who is thinking about it to think quickly, to make a decision quickly.
TML: You mentioned the Iron Curtain. Do you see the Iron Curtain returning? And what do you think is the reasoning behind this whole issue with the Jewish Agency? Why would Russia decide to do this right now?
Sharansky: First of all, when people say [Putin is] all of the sudden becoming antisemitic, until now it’s not a question which has even been raised. And even the Jewish Agency, the question which is raised – the laws, the amendments which passed in the last years were not about the Jewish Agency. There are many organizations, international organizations, which are already either closed or left [Russia] themselves because of the last draconic measures. Which in fact prohibit the freedom of speech, which make people responsible, criminally responsible, if they’re saying something which the authorities don’t like. It becomes very problematic to keep your connections without violating the law. All this happened in the last months. Take also what happened in the last years, fighting against all types of opposition. They demand from organizations not to keep information about Russian citizens abroad. And many other demands which the Jewish Agency cannot admit. So yes, the Jewish Agency could not meet all these demands. But at least until recently, Russians from time to time were telling us about it. The Jewish Agency was involved in a dispute with the Russian authorities about five years ago. But they didn’t try to use it as leverage to pressure Israel. In the meantime, the relations of Russia with the world changed in the last months. It’s the barbaric aggression by Russia. And they found themselves in huge isolation. And they’re looking for ways to press different countries in order to weaken this isolation. Probably that’s one of the reasons they decided to make the disagreements with the Jewish Agency public, and even more, to threaten with the closing of the Jewish Agency. If I move to your next question, what I’m saying and recommending is we should keep the question of the Jewish Agency and the question of Russian aggression as two separate questions. We have mutual interests. Yes, it’s our interest that the Jewish Agency will continue its very important work in Russia. And we cannot meet all the new demands that were applied to different organizations. Of course, we are an organization which is collecting information and sending it to Jerusalem. There’s information about citizens who want to strengthen they’re Jewishness and go to Israel. Russia also has its interests. After all, when almost all international organizations left Russia or were closed, when Putin was telling me 20 years ago that Jewish organizations are a good bridge between Russia and the external world, here it is one of the last bridges which can connect Russia with Jewish communities. So it is in their interest, too. And we are ready to discuss how we both protect our interests. But it should in no way influence our principled moral position of condemning the barbaric aggression of Russia against Ukraine.
TML: But if the Jewish Agency is shut down, which it might be, do you think that this spells trouble for Jewish people in Russia, for Russian Jews as a whole?
Sharansky: Of course, there’ll be a number of technical problems. And what is more unfortunate is that a number of projects for strengthening Jewish identity, like Masa [Israel Journey] or Birthright, different types of Israeli experiences, a program like Naaleh, which is [high-school] children making aliyah before their parents, some other programs, they probably will be undermined if not stopped. But I want to remind you it doesn’t mean the end of Russian aliyah and the end of the connection between the Russian Jewish community and Israel. We have a long experience of successfully supporting aliyah and Russian Jews even when there was no Jewish Agency and no Israeli diplomats in the Soviet Union. It would be unfortunate if we have to go back to that experience, but if we have to, we have to. I don’t think that aliyah from Russia will be stopped, but I do recommend to all those who more or less decided already that their future is not in Russia to make this decision as quickly as possible.
TML: You recommended that the Israeli government be firm against Russia and stand up to Russia. What do you think about the government’s response, and do you think Israel can afford to take the risk of taking a stronger stance against Russia, especially with the fragile situation in Syria? This is something that’s repeatedly brought up.
Sharansky: It is very unfortunate that the West in a moment of weakness in the past permitted Putin to take control of the skies over Syria. In fact, both things, bringing Russian troops to Syria and establishing their bases, and beginning the war against Ukraine, happened at the same, approximately, eight years ago, after Putin decided that the West is very weak after Obama’s decision not to react to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It is unfortunate. And it is very important that Israel reach some strategic understanding with Russia that it will not interfere with our attacks on Iranian bases. At the same time, those who think that Russia can make such a strategic agreement only because of respect for Israel or sympathy by Putin for Jews, he or she is very naïve. I know Putin personally, and I know he is a really unique leader for Russia who has a very positive attitude toward Jews. But I also saw that when it comes to the strategic interests of his power, nothing will stop him. Even when he was telling me many times that “our weapons will never be used against Israeli soldiers,” when it came to the Second Lebanon War [in 2006], Russian Kornets [man-portable anti-tank guided missiles] were coming to Syria, then to Hizbullah, and that was best of the weapons used against Israeli soldiers. Russia does have a strategic interest that Iran will not control Syria because Russia wants to control Syria. And just at the moment when all the special forces of Russia are moving from Syria to Ukraine, Russia definitely is not interested that Iran will use it to establish control over Syria. We have our interests, and Russia has its interests, and we can negotiate about them. In no way should we give up on our position on the question which is not about a piece of territory, a dispute about territory between Russia and Ukraine. It’s about the future of the free world. Putin is trying to change all the principles based on which countries and peoples of the free world, even if their neighbors are stronger than them, they don’t fear for their security. He wants to restore an empire, and he wants to create new kinds of rules. That’s why the free world is practically unprecedentedly united in this struggle. Israel cannot choose [to appear neutral] between the free world fighting against this, and North Korea, Syria, Iran, and a few other dictatorships supporting Russia. Nobody should have any doubts about the position of Israel. That’s why I urged the Israeli government from the very first moment of this war to take a clear position and to give all the possible support which we feel we can to the Ukrainians in this struggle.
TML: Do you feel that the Israeli government is doing enough, or does it need to do something more? And if so, what? What can they do differently?
Sharansky: I don’t want to go into details. I think much more can be done. I think public opinion in Israel is clearly against Putin’s aggression. Israel did extend some very important humanitarian gestures, like creating a special field hospital which operated for six weeks in Ukraine. But in the new situation, definitely we can do much more. And I think that the more clearly we separate our spheres of mutual interest with Russia, and negotiate about this, and our position on the barbaric war of Russia against Ukraine, the better it will be for us and for our standing among the nations.
TML: I spoke to some newly arrived Russian olim [immigrants] today, here in Israel, and one of them told me that because Israel had been kind of neutral, more or less neutral on the war, that it was good for the Russian Jews. It made it easier to leave the country and not have any problems. Do you think that Israel having this kind of strange line is helping Russian Jews in some way?
Sharansky: Israel has obligations to help the Russian Jews. But as I said, we know how to do this when the borders are open, and when they are closed. At this moment, it is in the interest of Russia that El Al airplanes will keep flying [to Russia], because all other airlines stopped their flights to Russia. Russia is restricting all the other freedoms, but they are still respecting the freedom of movement for everybody, not only for Jews. People who can get a visa, green card, job proposal from Paris or London or Tallinn or Riga can do it. So if there is relative ease of emigration, it’s first of all because Russia didn’t decide to close the borders, in its interests. It has nothing to do with Jews. And also because of special efforts which Israel makes to help these new immigrants. That’s my answer.
TML: The last thing I’ll ask just because I know you have a very complicated background and history with the Soviet Union. From what you’ve experienced, what do you think is going on right now, and what do you think Putin’s goals are here? This is a question that people keep asking: Why is this happening?
Sharansky: Putin’s goal is to restore the Russian Empire. Not the Soviet Union, because he doesn’t believe in communist ideology anymore, but the control over all the lands and peoples that the Russian Empire had. He believes this is his historic mission. In private conversations, he said that his biggest heroes are Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Stalin. He feels that he is following their line. That is what he feels to be his mission. He also feels that he’s the strongest leader in the world because all these [other] leaders are coming for four years, eight years, one year and disappearing, and he is forever. Now he didn’t expect – he declared just before the beginning of the war that Ukrainians are not a nation, that it’s an artificial creation of the Soviet Union, and now is the time to bring them back home. He was so isolated from reality he didn’t know how strong the national spirit of that nation is. He also didn’t know how big his army was. And he didn’t expect such a high level of solidarity of the free world against him. His aim now is to weaken this solidarity. He is looking at how to pressure different countries. He is threatening Europe that during the winter they all will die from the cold. He is looking at the countries which he believes that because of their interests can be taken out of this coalition of resistance. That’s what’s happening. Now internally, like every dictator – and during recent years he did everything so that he will not be controlled, that he will not be threatened by any competition, so he guaranteed his dictatorship. And like every dictator, he needs external enemies, he needs war. And he needs repression inside [the country]. So the regime becomes more and more repressive inside. The big step was in 2007-2008, after his war in Georgia and the first massive demonstrations against him. The next big step of repressions was eight years ago when he went to Crimea and started the war in Ukraine. And the third package of repressive laws came in the last three months, I think, which really brings back the old Soviet regime in every aspect, except for the freedom of emigration.