Natan Sharansky, who retains the mantle of human rights activist even after decades in Israeli politics, won’t say who will get his vote when Israel next goes to national elections.
That’s his right in a democracy, of course. And Sharansky (who is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party) has long been a champion of democratic values and the incremental changes that democracies favor. In the Soviet Union, where he lived until his release from prison in 1986, he experienced the alternative.
Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was in Washington on Monday to meet his organization’s shlichim, young Israeli emissaries to American college campuses. “The battle [on campus] is whether the young generation of Jews is proud or embarrassed about their connection to Israel,” he said in an interview.
Sharansky spoke a day before Netanyahu fired the leaders of the centrist bloc in his center-right coalition and called for national elections. One of the contentious items in the run-up to Netanyahu’s move was a government vote on the so-called Nation-State bill, which would declare Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people and enshrine Jewish primacy into Israel’s de facto constitution.
“This is an issue that has been with Israel from the very first moment of its creation – to be a Jewish and a democratic state,” Sharansky said. About one-fifth of Israelis are not Jews, but Palestinian Arabs and others.
“So Israel is caught between the tendency in the Middle East to sacrifice freedom for the sake of identities and being part of the free world, which tries to sacrifice its identity for the sake of freedom,” he said. “And we aren’t ready to do either.”
The tension between individual freedom and group identity “can help us understand the challenges the Jews now face in Europe,” he said. In France, “there is the Muslim community, where the fundamentalist element is very anti-Semitic. There is the conservative community, which traditionally views Jews as the ‘other’ identity in Europe, which doesn’t belong to the real Europe. And there is liberal France, which is extremely against the idea of a national state, which is why it’s extremely against the state of Israel.”
France was the scene of violent attacks on Jews during the summer war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Sharansky warned against making a causal connection between the two.
“Anti-Semitism existed long before Israel appeared,” he said. “Look, Israel will have to defend itself, whether it helps anti-Semites or doesn’t help. What we had this year in Gaza, we’ll have again and again when our enemies will try to destroy us. Of course, we as the Jewish state are applying to ourselves high standards to fighting terror. I hope one day that Europe and the United States will apply the same standards.
“To say that anti-Semitism is something which is fed by Israeli actions is to say that because as Jews we are celebrating Pesach all these years, we were feeding those who were speaking about the blood libel [that Jews bake the blood of Christian children into matzah].
“I was one who grew in a country where there were many people who believed in the blood libel, even well-educated people. Does it mean that just because these people think so, we’ll have to stop celebrating Pesach?”
As the Jewish organization created to connect the Diaspora and Israel, the Jewish Agency facilitates aliyah. Sharansky said the number of Jews making aliyah from France is growing “exponentially.” In total, 25,000 Jews moved to Israel this year, compared to 19,000 last year. “This is the first year in the history of Israel, when aliyah from the countries of the free world – the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Australia – is bigger than the rest of the world.”
Sharansky was a dissident in the old Soviet system, and he helped form a Russian immigrant party in Israel in the 1990s. Asked to comment on the standoff between the United States and Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, has made military inroads into former Soviet states, most recently Ukraine, Sharansky mocks American resolve.
“Is there a standoff with the United States? Is the United States standing off against Russia?
“Whatever can be our complaint or criticism about President Putin, and we have a lot, one thing is true – he told me in the beginning of 2000 that he thinks the policy of the Soviet Union to undermine Jewish identity and prevent Soviet Jews from contacting world Jewry [was a mistake]. He believes that Jews, in fact, will be the bridge between Russia and the world. I have to say, on this issue he keeps his promise. He is not an anti-Semite. He’s supporting Jewish communities. He’s supporting Jewish life.”
So is this a good time to be a Jew?
“There is one place where there is a great drama happening,” he said. “That is the United States of America. Because every day in the United States of America we have a few hundred Jews less. If you’re concerned about demography, that’s something to be concerned about. But otherwise, I do agree with you. Great times for Jews.
“Jews don’t like to recognize that it’s good times,” he added. “It’s not in their nature. I always say when someone says oy vey, look where we were at 50 years ago and you will understand how great our times are.”
At 66, Sharansky is in his sixth year as chairman of the Jewish Agency, whose mission, he said, is “to strengthen Jewish identity and the bond between Jewish people.” What are his plans for the future?
“For 45 years I do what I like to do,” he said. “I try to connect the desire to be free and the desire to be a proud Jew together. Whether I do it in the capacity of Jewish activities or prisoner of Zion or member of the Israeli government, it’s only titles.”
History will probably remember Sharansky first as a refusenik – one of a small number of Soviet Jews who demanded the right to make aliyah, and paid the price in prison. In that sense, he may already be a historical relic.
“Today, a 29-year-old in Israel will think that a refusenik is someone who refuses to serve in the Israeli army,” he says. “Everything that was before Facebook, it’s like the Middle Ages.”