SYDNEY, Australia – One family at a time, Jews are being saved from countries such as Iran, Ukraine and Yemen, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky said Thursday.
The aim is “to reach every Jew in the world and strengthen their connection to Israel and the Jewish tradition,” and the Jewish Agency is doing so, the former minister stated. Speaking to a large Sydney crowd at The Central Synagogue, Sharansky provided an insight into most issues preoccupying the Jewish world: from Ukraine to the Women of the Wall to the civil war in Syria.
“Not only in Ukraine, also in Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and Iran — and in other problematic countries — we’re saving families one at a time,” Sharansky told the crowded hall. “It’s happening all over, all the time, and it’s better not to share the details.”
As expected, the wellbeing of thousands of Ukrainian Jews interested many of those in the audience. “We’re seeing an increase in the number of applicants [who want] to make aliyah” from Ukraine, the Jewish Agency head shared, “but the question is what will happen in two, three or five months once the situation becomes clear.”
In restating Israel’s commitment to Jews being persecuted or in danger time and again, Sharansky rebuffed the notion that anti-Semitism may somehow be a good thing for Israel. “We must fight it, on a moral and practical level,” he stated, saying he loves to see Jews choose to live in Israel, but not because they are at risk in other places.
“Every Jew should feel part of our history” and have a connection to Israel, he said. “This connection is what should make Jews want to be part of the story, not anti-Semitism.”
The session was one of many speaking engagements scheduled for the potential presidential candidate on a 10-day work trip in Australia.
A household name ever since his struggle to leave the former Soviet Union for Israel and subsequent imprisonment in the Gulag, Sharansky told the crowd to do what they could to fight those who abuse human rights around the world. “Every dictatorship will come to an end, because people want it to, and will work towards it,” he said while talking about the ongoing political turmoil in Egypt and Syria.
“The army of Jewish students and housewives defeated the KGB,” Sharansky said to a round of applause and laughter, but he was being serious. “Every person has to fight for what he or she believes… [and] the Jewish people must continue demonstrating our belief that every person in the world needs freedom.”
While praising individuals who “support democracy,” Sharansky openly voiced his criticism over how Western governments were dealing with the situation in the Middle East.
“When we were behind the Iron Curtain, fighting against the Soviets for freedom, there was a free world with us. We knew the USA and other countries supported us,” he said. “Today those democratic dissidents in Egypt and Iran feel abandoned… They feel the world isn’t with them, but with other dictators in the Middle East.”
Sharansky did not avoid Israeli domestic issues during the talk, saying “there are solutions, good solutions” to the various problems within Israeli society.
“It’s time for change” and for the ultra-Orthodox to take more responsibility upon themselves, either through military or national service, he stated. “I have no doubt that these are important laws, I have doubts that these are the right measures” to change the situation, he replied when asked about newly passed legislation to draft more of the ultra-Orthodox population into the military and introduce criminal sanctions against those who don’t comply.
The debate shouldn’t be about equality, but rather about a shared responsibility, he said. “It’s not about the army’s needs, it’s about feeling that everyone is taking part in our society… shared responsibility is the right thing.” He cautioned, however, that using criminal sanctions might not be the right path, and that with the current reality in Israel, “economic sanctions and incentives are probably better.”
Asked about the controversy surrounding Women of the Wall, he surprised many people by saying a solution could be reached “within a few weeks” to the ongoing debate over non-Orthodox practice at the Western Wall. As head of the Jewish Agency, Sharansky was tasked with finding a compromise to resolve a dispute which he said “is bad for all of us.”
“Both sides are objecting [to the deal], because both will have to make serious compromises,” Sharansky stated. Keeping the Western Wall accessible and “relevant to all Jews, regardless of how they express their Jewishness and connection” was the main concern, he said, and the compromise would happen “because it needs to.”
Though he refused to provide the details of the compromise in the works, Sharansky said it would allow for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews “to feel at home” at what he called “the most visible Jewish place” in the world.
“My greatest work with Women of the Wall was to convince the women the rabbi [who administers the Western Wall] wasn’t evil, and to convince him the women weren’t evil,” Sharansky said. The goal was “to have them understand the other side wasn’t trying to hurt the other,” but rather that everyone was working in the way they believed best for the Jewish world. “Once you do that, things are much easier.”