Natan Sharansky, an authentic modern-day Jewish hero, has been in his post as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel less than two weeks, and already his fortitude for coping with the bureaucracy and politics that goes with the job is being questioned.
“He put up with KGB torture for years in the gulag without cracking, so I’m hoping he can withstand the pressure,” one prominent American Jewish federation leader told me, only half-kidding.
The Jewish Agency has a proud history dating back to 1929 when it was formed as the pre-statehood governing body for the Jewish people, helping to build the state and bring three million Jews to settle there.
But in recent years, as the quasi-governmental agency of the State of Israel, the American Jewish federations and other international Jewish organizations, it has faced some withering criticism from inside and outside the establishment, charged with maintaining a bloated bureaucracy, harboring political infighting and having outlasted its mandate to serve as an authentic, global Jewish partnership.
Whether Sharansky can make believers out of skeptics is more than an academic question affecting one institution. The future viability of diaspora Jewry, and even much of Israeli life, may well depend on the direction the Jewish Agency takes in the near future in countering widespread assimilation and lack of interest in the Zionist enterprise — in Israel as well — in the 21st century.
Sharansky says that when he was asked, earlier in his political career, to run for the Knesset, and later to become a cabinet member — he has served as deputy prime minister, and headed the trade, interior and housing ministries — he did so reluctantly.
“I was always more than cautious, not to do it,” he said in a phone interview from Jerusalem the other day.
But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped him last month to chair the Jewish Agency, “my reaction was very different,” he acknowledged, noting that he was eager to take the post. In a way, he said, “this is the job I’ve been preparing for all my life.”
Off The Pedestal
Sharansky’s biography reads like fiction, and despite setbacks in his political career, he remains a heroic figure to many. Born in the former Soviet Union in 1948, he became a leader in his 20s of the human rights, Jewish and refusenik movements. He was arrested and convicted on trumped-up charges of spying for the U.S. and served almost a decade in Soviet prisons, much of that time in solitary confinement. Finally freed in 1978, he went immediately to Israel to join his wife, Avital, who had worked tirelessly for his release. On the night of his arrival, he was greeted by thousands of Israelis, driven to Jerusalem and carried aloft to the Western Wall.
Sharansky soon founded and led a movement to improve conditions for Soviet Jews, who were immigrating to Israel in huge numbers.
He could have remained an icon, but as he told me when he was about to launch his political career in the mid-1990s, “I am going to come down off the pedestal,” knowing full well that in getting involved in Israeli politics, he was giving up his estimable status.
He was right. In serving in government for most of the next decade, he was respected by some for standing up for his principles and hawkish views, particularly regarding the Palestinians, while criticized by many, including former Soviet Jews, for not serving their needs sufficiently.
Sharansky stepped down from the Sharon government in 2005, in protest of the proposed evacuation from Gaza — he had resigned from other governments in the past — and he may well be more popular outside of Israel than in it. President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Freedom Award in 2006, and praised his book, “The Case For Democracy,” which called for promoting freedom around the world rather than working with and appeasing tyrants.
In his new post, Sharansky recognizes that the key to the Jewish Agency’s primary objectives — aliyah, Jewish and Zionist education, and partnership with world Jewry — all hinge on strengthening Jewish identity.
“Our biggest challenge,” he said, “is that our connection with our identity and the land [of Israel] is weakening,” through assimilation and lack of education.
He pointed out that “95 percent of diaspora Jews live in free societies and there is no way they will come [on aliyah] without building their identity.”
This he proposes to do by expanding and coordinating a combination of existing Israel experience programs, like Birthright Israel, the 10-day free trips for 18- to 26-year-olds; Birthright Next, a follow-up program back home; and Masa, a Jewish Agency-sponsored effort to have young adults spend a semester or more studying or volunteering in the Jewish state.
Until now, although Birthright and Masa seem like natural allies, they have been at odds politically, with little cooperation. “The challenge for the Jewish Agency is to coordinate all of these projects instead of fighting and competing,” Sharansky said.
Easier said than done, though a joint agreement between the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization formed eight years ago that has been widely credited with streamlining the process of aliyah from the West, is seen as an example of a new and welcome form of cooperation.
“I would like to remove the word ‘competition’ from our vocabulary when it comes to bringing Jews to Israel,” said Sharansky, noting that he was a supporter of Nefesh B’Nefesh from the outset.
“One of the lessons I learned from Avital,” he said of his wife, “was ‘don’t be in a hurry to join the establishment.’ She told me that if you do good things, sooner or later the establishment will join and support you and take all the credit” — but the outcome will be positive.
“And that’s what I say today,” as an establishment leader. The role of the Jewish Agency is not to protect its turf, he said, but “to support everyone” working for the common cause.
‘The Ideal Chair’
In our interview, sounding genuinely energized, he stressed the need for creative approaches to reach people, and the unique ability of the Jewish Agency to bridge the gap between Israel and the diaspora and “serve as a united force to keep us from disappearing.”
Despite serious financial concerns, he said that if the programs and projects are exciting enough, the funds will come through.
Sharansky is “spot on,” according to John Ruskay, CEO and executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, in recognizing the great need to strengthen Jewish identity in Israel as well as among world Jewry. He calls Sharansky “the ideal chair for the agency at this moment” because “he fully realizes the unique place of the agency in providing a table — not a perfect one — for every part of the community together.”
Others express their admiration for Sharansky’s personal integrity but are more skeptical as to how he will lead, based on his political record. “He tends to act independently,” one official said, “and he has been known to take his marbles and go home when he is not happy. Is being a hero of the Zionist movement enough for this job?”
It should be noted that Sharansky was passed over as a candidate for the Jewish Agency chairmanship four years ago, in part because then-Prime Minister Sharon was upset with his opposing the Gaza pullout.
Steve Donshik, a consultant in Israel who has worked in the area of Israel-diaspora relations for 25 years, said that “for all of the smoke and mirrors” about bringing reform to the Jewish Agency at its meeting last month, “there has been no change and the political interests are still there. And Sharansky is part of [a] structure” that operates more out of deal making than consensus.
Donshik said he is eager to see how Sharansky will square a traditional Zionist message with the need to strengthen Jewish identity around the world.
But Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston and another professed skeptic, said he is enthusiastic about Sharansky as a leader because “he is a man of courage and vision who stands up for what he believes.”
Shrage noted that with the combination of Sharansky at the Jewish Agency and Jerry Silverman, the incoming top executive at the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of Jewish federations in North America, “we have great leadership and a real chance to move forward.”
Sharansky puts it more simply.
“We need one another,” he said of Israeli and diaspora Jews, “for ourselves, and for each other.”