Natan Sharansky on Jewish Peoplehood: 'The family has become tighter'

In a wide-ranging interview for Rosh Hashana, Natan Sharansky tells the ‘Post’ that Operation ῾ ᾽Protective Edge has united the Jewish people.

Natan Sharansky points to a photo of his family, taken outside former KGB headquarters in Moscow, at his office in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Natan Sharansky points to a photo of his family, taken outside former KGB headquarters in Moscow, at his office in Jerusalem.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky confesses to being an eternal optimist. In his opinion, Israel’s war against Hamas this summer – Operation Protective Edge – brought together the Jewish people as never before.
“The family has become tighter,” he says in an interview in his Jerusalem office with The Jerusalem Post a week before Rosh Hashana 5775. “The hard core of the Jewish people has become stronger.”
Asked what he means exactly, Sharansky says: “During the last war, we saw unprecedented solidarity, consolidation and unity among Israelis and the Jewish people. During this operation, for the first time, I felt like we were working together, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
Surrounding Sharansky are pictures and memorabilia that tell his own remarkable story and that of the Jewish state, both of whom were born in 1948.
On the wall is a photograph of his late friend and mentor, Andrei Sakharov, which he says reminds him that nothing is more important than freedom. On his desk is his trademark IDF cap, which the former prisoner of Zion has worn since he made aliya in 1986 after being released by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
A diminutive man with a giant reputation, he speaks perfect English but still has a strong Russian accent. Considered a mathematical genius with a complex mind, he is a top chess player who doesn’t talk in sound bites.
Sharansky is universally respected as a champion of human rights and democracy, while in Israel he has now focused on Zionism and aliya. After careers in writing and politics, he has served as chairman of the Jewish Agency, the primary organization for bringing Jews from the Diaspora to Israel, for the past five years.
He lives with his wife, Avital, in Jerusalem, and they have two daughters, Rachel and Hannah.
“How do you see the big picture in 5774?” I ask him as an opening question.
“The big picture is that anti-Semitism is up, but so is aliya,” he says. “The last year saw more olim than in the previous five years.”
The Jewish Agency reports that more than 24,000 immigrants came to the country in 5774, compared to 19,300 the year before. More than 10,000 Jews from the Diaspora participated in Jewish Agency programs in Israel during Operation Protective Edge, Sharansky says with pride.
On the negative side, he believes that anti-Semitic incidents and the delegitimization campaign against Israel have reached new highs in Europe and around the globe.
Following Operation Protective Edge, he predicts that “there will be a big campaign against Israel now.”
However, he says, “I am more confident now, because everyone feels we are all brothers and sisters, and we are all in this together.”
The bigger question now, according to Sharansky, is what is happening in relations among Jews, Israel and the world.
“To my mind, this has been an eye-opening year,” he says.
“In what way?” I ask.
“If you look at France, for example, what is happening is an extremely significant phenomenon.”
He notes the dramatic increase in French Jews showing interest in aliya.
Some 40,000 have approached the Jewish Agency directly, while many have bought real estate, apartments and businesses in Israel. They and other Jews no longer feel comfortable in Europe, he says.
“The thing is, if you take Europe, there’s Islamic Europe, which was built, let’s say, in the last 15 years, and it’s clear that Jews are not happy with it.
And then there’s the Europe of Le Pen – traditional, very conservative, oriented toward a strictly European identity which is not tolerant of other identities, and they are not against Jews per se, but rather ‘the other.’ And then there is the big house of liberal Europe, in which the overwhelming majority of Jews felt comfortable. They were accepted as a legitimate part of the European world.
“What happened? In today’s world, Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox cannot survive without a close connection with Israel. After the Holocaust, the fact that there is this Jewish state is also your own answer to history. You don’t have to make aliya. But for your identity and feeling of peoplehood and family, this is something very important.”
Today, he says, the liberal European world has become very intolerant toward Israel.
“The idea of a Jewish, democratic state in the Middle East unfortunately infuriates many of them,” he says. “Why is it so easy to persuade them to back the Palestinians with the picture of a suffering child in Gaza? And I’m not saying there aren’t suffering children in Gaza.”
Sharansky answers his own question: “There’s such a clear logic behind it.
Here you yourself are facing terror, and you see that in this ocean of terror, Israel is only a small island in which our army protects us. This world of terror is sending thousands of missiles on Israel, and we are using our Yiddishe kop [Jewish mind] to protect and defend ourselves, and they are using their civilian population as a human shield. What could be more simple to explain? And yet it’s practically impossible. One picture of a child suffering in Gaza is enough to infuriate so many, and I’m not speaking about Islamic Europe, but in the liberal community of Europe, where Jews always felt at home. And so for Jews now, their connection with Israel is extremely important. And wherever they go, to school or to work, they face the discomfort of being identified with this so-called ‘fascist state.’ Who needs it?” As a result, he says, European Jews are suffering from both increased anti-Semitic incidents and feelings of insecurity.
“It’s not only a question for Jews, it’s also a question for Europe,” he says. “Jews are always the first litmus test. The fact that Jews feel that liberal society is not ready to protect them can be a sign that liberal society is not ready to protect itself against external threats. I hope that European leaders are taking this seriously.
“I think Europe is standing at a very critical moment, because fundamentalism has come to their homes, and the heads of Europeans are also being cut off, and sometimes by people who grew up in Europe and were educated in Europe.
It was liberal Europe which decided to give away its identity. In order to have real peace, it said, we have to be above our identities, we have to be post-nationalist, we have to be post-modernist, we have to be multicultural.
“On the other hand, the same ideology brought to the fore in a very powerful way the opposition to the Jewish national state. That’s why I think that aliya from France is way up. I also think it’s the result of rabbis telling them for the past 12 years not to go in the street with a kippa. In Moscow, they don’t say it. In Paris, they say it. So, a whole generation has been raised with a feeling that it’s not exactly their home. Home is a place where you can wear a kippa.
But suddenly you can’t be a proud Jew and proud of Israel publicly.”
In the world in general, Sharansky says, double standards, delegitimization and the demonization of Israel and Jews – his famous “3D” test for anti-Semitism – are running rampant.
“There can be different reasons for it happening on an American college campus or somewhere in the Third World,” he says. “But there are clear double standards, delegitimization and demonization, especially when it comes to the idea of a Jewish state. In Europe, we can see it all the time.”
As to what Israel’s answer to this should be, he contends that “a wrong approach is becoming part of the problem of the free world. We have said we are an island in the ocean of fundamentalism. Now Europe can become an island in this ocean of fundamentalism.
Europe now has to think what methods it is going to employ to fight fundamentalism.
“Washington is thinking and dealing with this day and night. And that has to be our line. When we say Hamas is like ISIS, some think it’s a cheap slogan. But it’s not. The problems you are facing now are the same as the problems we are facing all the time. When you criticize us, you are ignoring the nature of the problem. But now the problem has been brought to your gates. Let us think together. That’s what our message should be.
“You are now facing a very difficult struggle, and your challenge will be like our challenge: how to keep human, how to keep democratic, how to respect human rights, not to change our nature, going into this struggle with these dark forces of the Middle Ages whose pictures have suddenly appeared on the Internet.
“Can ISIS be beaten?” I ask.
“Yes. We have a lot of experience. Now all the leaders of the free world should be brought into this discussion. Because they all have to deal with it. [US President Barack] Obama didn’t want to deal with it at all. He came in with the idea of embracing universal love, a president who wants to build a bridge between the Christian world and the Muslim world. And now he has to fight. And he has to make many decisions, which we have had to do, to be true to the American spirit of democracy and at the same time deal with this ISIS.
“So we have to be very active in saying to the free world, ‘It is a huge problem. Don’t think it’s so easy. Let’s discuss it together and agree about the principles, which will commit all of us to be noble, to be human, and to be effective in the struggle, and let’s stick to them.’ And I think today we have a much better chance.”
Sharansky says he always opposed the notion that anti-Semitism was good for Zionism. But, he argues, the struggle of fundamentalism against the free world helps to explain “the big moral challenges we are facing, and to say, ‘Now you are facing the same moral challenges.’” “That can help us, to some extent, overcome the double standards against us, on the level of political leaders. I’m not speaking about public opinion, in general. They are prejudiced, they will be prejudiced, but if we succeed on the level of the political leadership of the world, it will be a very big achievement.”
“So you are ultimately optimistic about the future?” I ask.
“First of all, I am optimistic by nature and by my fate,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “First of all, each of us should be optimistic when we look at where we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago and 50 years ago. We are all going in one direction, and so far the polls show that we are the most optimistic nation in the world. Our future will be better than the past.
“My optimism is also based on the fact that the challenges we are dealing with are very real and at the heart of the fate of the world. And because I believe that the world is not going to commit suicide, inevitably they will be with us, and they will be using our experience. And that’s why we will win, and all of the free world will win.”
What, then, is his message to the Jewish people and the people of Israel for Rosh Hashana? “It was not an easy year for many of us, for many of you,” he says. “But if you think big, it was a year which gives all the reasons for optimism. It was a year of Jewish solidarity, solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people, a year of consolidation, a year of aliya and a year of hope. I’m sure that with every year, our life in Israel will be even fuller and even more exciting. Shana tova!”