On Friday, after nine years, Natan Sharansky will be leaving his office as chairman of the Jewish Agency.
He’s unlikely to recede altogether from the headlines. He’s been making noise all his life — as an iconic human rights activist and Prisoner of Zion in the former Soviet Union. As a member of Knesset, party leader and minister in the Israel he paid such a high personal price to make his home. And most recently, as the leader of an endlessly criticized bureaucratic behemoth to which he brought new logic, relevance and a fighting spirit.
Sharansky is proud of his years at the Agency helm. Most importantly, he quotes figures showing he presided over an increase in aliya — critically including an increase in aliya “of choice” (as opposed to immigration out of necessity). He also feels the Agency is bolstering Jewish identity around the world. Indeed, his revolution, he says, was in demonstrating, to no shortage of critics, that boosting aliya and strengthening the Diaspora are complementary, not contradictory, goals.
But all is emphatically not well in relations between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, and especially between Israel and the only other multi-million-strong Jewish community, in North America. The geographically separated parts of our single Jewish people often have different priorities and different needs, and there are always going to be disagreements between them, he accepts. But those frictions and tensions are exacerbated by striking levels of ignorance and a relentless failure to communicate routinely, openly and constructively.
It’s staggering, he says, for instance, that many in Israel — and not only in the ultra-Orthodox community — regard Reform Judaism as a hostile sect, “looking for ways to penetrate Israel.” Equally, it’s remarkable how quickly, when the Agency has taken MKs to spend Shabbat with communities in the US, the legislators recognize that non-Orthodox Judaism “is real Judaism — these people are living full Jewish lives… fighting for Israel, fighting against anti-Semitism.”
There is no magic formula for satisfying non-Orthodox Jews’ demands for the right to pray as they wish at the Western Wall, for example, and no easy fix in the arguments over policies on conversion to Judaism. But Sharansky believes that, overall, progress has been made and can be made, and he has suggestions for alleviating at least some of the bitterness surrounding the debates. Crucially, he says, the conflicting imperatives of Israel and Diaspora Jewry must not be allowed to develop into “some kind of eternal threat to our capacity to live as one people.”
This interview took place in his Jewish Agency office earlier this month. After he leaves, he will teaching at Shalem College in Jerusalem, lecturing at home and abroad, and playing a lay leadership role at the Jewish Agency as the head of its hierarchy of shlichim — emissaries. It might be an idea to task him with a role in establishing the “advisory Knesset” he prescribes here as a partial panacea to Israel-Diaspora pain — if, that is, the powers that be are inclined to heed the urgency of his concerns.
The Times of Israel: What should we make of the process and identity of your successor, Isaac Herzog [the former Zionist Union party chairman and outgoing leader of the opposition, whose appointment was opposed by Netanyahu]?
Natan Sharansky: He’s a great guy…
But not the person that the prime minister wanted. [Netanyahu wanted Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz to get the job.] The government of Israel and the Jewish Agency are meant to work in a coordinated fashion.
There is an official procedure. The prime minister has to give his recommendation. This process continued for a long time. The first time I said that I was going to finish was more than a year ago. There were quite a few respectable candidates. The [appointment] committee asked the prime minister for his opinion, but didn’t get it. We had due procedure of interviewing everybody who was prepared to be interviewed. When the prime minister finally gave his recommendation, it was after they had already made their decision.
Technically, did the prime minister have the time to express his opinion earlier? Yes, he did. Was there an opportunity to take [into account] his opinion even at the very last moment? Maybe. But it’s a process. Bougie [Herzog] was elected. Does he understand the work? For sure.
Your relationship with the government, the agency’s relationship, was increasingly difficult?
It was important to be an independent voice, representing the interests and opinions of world Jewry in the dialogue with the government, and we were such an independent voice. If there was a crisis, which we didn’t want of course, we were not stopped by the fact. But on the other hand, the government today is much more of a partner than ever before in many Jewish Agency projects in Israel and outside Israel, strengthening Jewish identity. So it was possible to be a strategic partner of the government in representing the interests of Israel and the Jewish people all over the world, and at the same time to be an independent voice of world Jewry in having dialogue with the government.
The involvement of the government in our projects over the past few years increased by 57 million dollars [per annum]. It’s a huge number. Almost one third of our budget is connected to cooperation with the government. We have a program called School Twinning, which started with three schools and now it’s 300 or 500 schools all over the world. The government now said it will pay another $2 million a year into the program if we add another $5 million, because they love the program.
What is that exactly?
A partnership. If you have a school in Moscow and another in Haifa. A twinning. Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. It has become an unbelievable success.
Only Jewish schools?
What does it involve?
Exchanging lessons. A lot of mutual activities through the internet… These don’t know about diaspora Jews, these don’t know about Israel. There are joint lessons. Interviews. It often grew out of partnerships between local federations and a city [in Israel].
We have six-month mechinot, pre-military programs, also an invention of the Jewish Agency. [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett now is giving money [for this]. He told me he discovered it is the quickest way to bring social change to some problematic families.
These are six month programs for Israelis?
Mainly Israelis, although also some Australians, for example, are coming and spend some time on these mechinot. But mainly, they’re for Israelis from the periphery, from problematic families. Very different…
Different from the more elitist full-year mechinot?
Yes. And because it’s only half a year, you don’t have to postpone your draft into the army. Within a few months, the students become very ambitious. They come from a place where the battle is just to survive on a daily basis and make enough money, and suddenly they become very ambitious about their lives. It’s unbelievable. The government loves this program and is becoming our partner. And then there’s MASA.
We broke down all the walls between the goal of aliya and the goals of Jewish education. As a result, it’s all now one organization
The federations are giving us a little bit less money. The government is giving us more. It’s a natural process. There is no contradiction. If you are a serious partner, with a unique contribution, and if the government really wants influence on Jewish identity, on fighting BDS, they have found out that we are the best partner for them. So even in times when there are a lot of hard feelings on some issues, the government is becoming a bigger partner.
I take it as a big achievement that shows we’re in the right place — an independent voice of world Jewry in our conversation with the government, and a very powerful partner of the government when they are talking to world Jewry. When I was making my final speech after Bougie was elected, I told him it was very important to keep this symbiotic double role. One of his challenges will be to make sure that this conflict over his election will be behind us. Taking into account the history of relations between him and the prime minister, there is a good chance that it will be put behind us.
And yet there are crises. I can think of several. The whole Kotel [Western Wall] issue, the conversion issue, and the perception of Israel increasingly as a partisan issue in the US — which deeply affects American Jewry. Where do those stand? What is your successor going to have to deal with?
They’re very important areas. At first glance, they have nothing to do with the main mission of the Jewish Agency.
Let’s first talk about what Bougie is going to have to do with the main mission. This organization went through an identity revolution. At the center of this organization was the word aliya. The world of aliya is the mandate of this organization, Our organization is a kind of commissar of Zionism, which has to mobilize and bring Jews to Israel. There are other things which are nice to deal with. Jewish education and so on.
We said, let’s be realistic. Today’s aliya is mainly aliya of choice.
There is still a need to save Jews. We brought a few dozen Jews from Yemen. It was a huge operation with all kinds of special elements. From the Ukraine, with the war, there was a need to bring Jews to Israel, sometimes with the help of our Christian friends.
But overwhelmingly, we’re dealing with aliya of free choice. Israel is not a poor relative. It’s a different kind of relationship.
The main thing is to strengthen Jewish identity. In order to have more aliya, there must be more Jews. And in order to have more Jews, you need stronger communities. That idea was seen as extremely arguable and problematic.
You mean the idea of allocating resources to the diaspora, to strengthen communities there, was seen as problematic?
One of the ministers said we should take back the mandate from the Jewish Agency because now it’s the Ministry of Tourism — bringing young Diaspora Jews to MASA and then taking them back [to be active in their communities in the diaspora]. Birthright. What is this? Let the Ministry of Tourism do this.
And we were saying, this is the way to encourage aliya nowadays. This is the way to fight anti-Semitism. Our approach won. In the years that I’ve been here, aliya has grown from 16-17,000 to 29-31,000. The increase is mainly from people who were here on MASA and then came back and stayed, who were on our seminars, at our summer camps.
We broke down all the walls between the goal of aliya and the goals of Jewish education. As a result, it’s all now one organization. Our shlichim [emissaries], say in Moscow, are not fighting with each other. The aliya shaliach and the education shaliach were getting support from one organization, but with contradictory concepts. Or, rather, they seemed to be contradictory.
I remember I once gathered all of our shlichim from the former Soviet Union in one room. There was such tension. There was hatred. (The education shlichim were) shouting: What aliya? There are no Jews. You are bringing all the goyim. There must be Jewish education. (The aliya shlichim were shouting): What Jewish education? It’s like varnish on the nails of a corpse. Jewish education? Who needs it! You have to bring them here.
Birthright and MASA were like two different countries with no diplomatic relations
What’s good is that every two or three years there are new shlichim. Today they have no idea that there was ever a problem. All over the world it’s one team. You can be the shaliach of Hashomer Hatzair or Bnei Akiva, on campus, for the Federation, in synagogues, in schools. One team. That is the new big Zionist revolution that I think this organization went through. Now it is really one organization that I could present to Boujie, and he understands this very well.
We also had to connect Birthright and MASA. They were like two different countries with no diplomatic relations. One was against the Jewish Agency (Birthright). One was inside the Jewish Agency (MASA). Now they work like one because there is no contradiction. Everyone who comes on Birthright goes to a MASA fair and knows about the various tracks. And MASA is connected to aliya through many programs. The result is an increase in aliya mainly stemming from this.
How is it that today we have almost 50 percent more shlichim who are on average almost 12 years younger? The average age was 38, now it’s 26. That’s a huge difference. And yet we spend less of our core money on the shlichim. The local communities are paying for them. In most cases we [at the Agency] are paying 50 percent, maximum. And there are new types of shlichim. On campuses, the number [of shlichim] moved from 25 to 175 and very soon will be 300 because the army discovered it was very good for it. There didn’t used to be shlichim in synagogues. Things improved the moment the shaliach is not the commissar of Zionism, but rather has mutual aims [with the local Jewish community to strengthen Jewish identity].
How can we strengthen one another? We started speaking eye to eye, on the same level, and that gives us the opportunity to play a more important role in the dialogue when it comes to questions like conversion, the Kotel and other things. When it was such a paternalistic approach from both sides, you could have [what amounted to] a PR campaign, but you couldn’t have serious discussion. It’s as a result of these changes that the Jewish Agency is playing a more important role.
Now, the moment you’re playing an important role in this question, inevitably there’ll be political crises. The kind of dialogue that we’ve had on the Kotel, I very much wanted to organize when I was a minister. But there was no way inside the political structure to organize a serious dialogue between the government and the Reform and the Conservative movements.
Here we did succeed. It looks like a big failure, but it’s a success, although we have not yet reached a happy end. But it moves in the right direction. Because the government is always vulnerable to coalition considerations, it will never be smooth. Here you have to be ready to say things which ministers may not be ready to say. There is no other organization at the moment which can represent the streams [in their dealings] with the government. That’s why there was crisis.
With Miri Regev (the culture minister, who resigned from the ministerial committee handling construction of the pluralistic prayer pavilion), the prime minister, nevertheless, feels himself obliged to go ahead, and thank God he found somebody in the Likud [Steinitz] who is not afraid of his standing in the Likud Central Committee. Netanyahu feels obliged because there were these four years of negotiations [on the Western Wall deal]. Obligations were taken on. And we’re very glad those obligations were made.
On the other hand, we don’t simply want to be a one-way street — that the Jewish Agency be the pressure group to help the Reform and Conservative movements press the government of Israel. When Rick Jacobs, our great partner, made an unfortunate remark about the moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem, I said publicly what I thought about it. He called me. We had a two-hour phone conversation, and the Reform movement said many good things about it after that.
Now there is a very serious problem which we in the framework of the Jewish Agency cannot solve. Recently there was a new set of polls. American Jewry loves Obama and hates Trump, while Israel is vice versa. It’s so clear why. It has nothing to do with “arrogant Bibi” or “the suicidal impulses of Reform Jewry.” All these stupid things.
Israel sees the nuclear threat of Iran as the biggest threat. Bibi [Netanyahu] was very consistent on this from 1996, 1998 when we were working together. As the leader, that’s his role to deal with this. And in this he’s supported by most of the people. And the fact that Obama was ready to turn [the Iranian regime] into a local superpower without demanding even that they stop threatening Israel, would make him objectively unpopular anyway [in Israel].
On the other hand, American Jewry, for them, their survival, means that they need to strengthen liberal American society, which is tolerant to minorities. For them, Trump became a symbol of the threat to the society in which they as Jews can happily survive and prosper.
Are we going to turn this asymmetry into some kind of eternal threat to our capacity to live as one people? I think we have to understand there will always be things on which we disagree, and try all the time to broaden the platform on which we agree about what has to be done for the survival of the Jewish people.
How do you see the Kotel crisis playing out now?
Bibi decided — it was very dramatic; I would say even tragic — to retreat from the compromise. He said, I am freezing it, because there are two points I cannot deliver now and we’ll have to think about, and one point, a physical point, that I can deliver.
One he can’t deliver is the joint oversight and the second is…?
One mutual entrance.
How did we get them around one table to start the negotiation? We said [to the leaders of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism], I can’t promise that you will get time-sharing at the main plaza. But I think that your demand for equality will be met with understanding by the prime minister. I had spoken of course with the prime minister. So when they came to the table, their demand was to have absolute equality. But it very quickly became impossible. First, it’s not logical, because after all, there are so many people coming here (to the Orthodox side). Second, Jordan would not permit that [the pluralistic pavilion] be on the same level [height-wise]. Third, archaeology doesn’t permit it to develop. So, there were many restrictions.
The image which inspired them — you could say, I seduced them — you see here. [Sharansky points to an early sketch of the envisaged arrangement]. Here is one plaza, here is another one. You have it on the same level, height-wise. It will be as visible.
The moment you have the same visibility, it doesn’t matter where people come [into the Western Wall area] from. But it became impossible.
Just because of Jordan?
Jordan, as you might remember, said the moment the negotiations started, that a former right-wing minister is creating illegal settlements near al-Aqsa; and we’ll not permit it. There were conversations with the Jordanians. We understood you cannot really do it.
Also, Archaeologists didn’t permit it.
The chief rabbinate wanted that nobody would even see Reform Jews. They should not be seen. That was their initial position. Nobody should ever see them — because it’s [bad] for young children
There were negotiations for years. The only thing left to nevertheless symbolize equality was that there would be one mutual entrance. Everybody comes through this entrance, and then decides whether to go to the left or to the right.
One mutual entrance to where, to the whole Western Wall plaza?
Everybody comes together through one grand entrance at the Dung Gate, Shaar Ha’Ashpot. Then you decide to go here [to the familiar Kotel] or here [to the pluralistic area].
But the chief rabbinate wanted that nobody would even see Reform Jews. They should not be seen. That was their initial position. Nobody should ever see them — because it’s [bad] for young children. That was one extreme.
[The rabbinate’s position was that] you cannot have the same space. You cannot have the same visibility. So, what can we have? One entrance. But he cannot deliver one entrance.
Isn’t there one common entrance now, as things stand, to the Kotel area?
No. To come to the Reform area, you don’t even have to go through security. You might think that’s more convenient. No, [it signals that the pluralistic area], it’s not good. Because it shows that if you go to something really important, you have to go through security. If you go to this [pluralistic area], it’s not necessary.
They don’t mind if that gets blown up.
That’s what they say: There’s the Dung Gate, and then a place of ashpot. Nobody sees it. Nobody knows.
It is about recognition and dignity. About the fact that the Jewish state also recognizes that there are also those who go [to pray at the pluralistic plaza]. You can’t imagine how many months there were debates about things like, what can be seen from here, from there. For the rabbi of the Kotel, it was very important that where the “real” believers go, they cannot see the Reform at prayer.
It’s a violation of the agreement. But let’s be real Zionists. Take what you can get, and continue to negotiate. That’s how the state of Israel was built
So, then, at least let’s have one entrance, and one security check. And everybody then recognizes that they have the same status from the government’s point of view — that the terrorists should not be permitted at [the pluralistic plaza].
But that he can’t do. And the joint oversight he can’t do. But he can build the pavilion?
He said he can. He promised.
How can he build it? Isn’t it too intrusive, too high…?
No, this is what was agreed… I said to the Reform and Conservatives, we have to take what we can get. We don’t have to say, that’s enough for us. Of course it’s not. It’s a violation of the agreement. But let’s be real Zionists. Take what you can get, and continue to negotiate. That’s how the state of Israel was built.
Some of them are saying, no, if he cannot do [the other things], he will not be able to do this [either]. And that’s exactly where he’s being tested now.
You see that with some ministers who had to do practical, technical work, technical approvals, there are problems now. But it seems that Bibi is determined to deliver on this.
What physically has to be done, they have already started doing it: To build a comfortable, permanent platform, with a good entrance. There will be public toilets. A place for Sifrei Torah. Everything that is needed.
How long will it take?
A year — if also archaeologists don’t make it too difficult. I spoke with them, and I was surprised by how hostile they are.
For archaeological reasons?
They say, because of all this nonsense — they [non-Orthodox Jews] don’t want to live here, they are practically not praying here — we now have one of the most important archaeological sites [being messed with]. They say, there is nowhere you can see such a great set of stones. It reminds me a little of when Teddy Kollek was trying to convince me that the Old City’s Hurva Synagogue should not be rebuilt — because all the world sees what they did to us [if it remains in ruins]. I, as minister of housing, moved this decision to rebuild it. I said there were enough places where we can see what they did to us.
But here, we’re not talking about covering [much of the site]. A very small part of it has to be covered. There are so many places in the world which are archaeologically very important where there is a glass ceiling.
The archaeologists are happy that they have partners with whom they can torpedo it. Bibi must be ready to also deal with that. But they don’t have political power.
You see him moving to do this?
I think he is going to deliver.
So your successor needs to move this along, and return to the two other issues later?
I think after elections, the two other issues [will revive].
Wouldn’t it be better to have convenient Mr Steinitz, rather than ex-opposition leader Herzog, at the Agency leading this?
I don’t know. I came here as an ally of Bibi. I hope that I continue to be. I think he thinks I am his ally. Nevertheless he was very upset when I took so public a position. And there were some very unpleasant conversations. A person with integrity, understanding how important this is for relations, can do a very good service for the Jewish people and for our prime minister.
I think it was in the interests of the prime minister that I stood up against him. If there was no pressure, he would have to give up on everything. Of course, I’m upset that he gave up on anything.
Everybody with integrity, who believes in the meaning of this position, whether from the Likud or any other party, can play a very important role. Steinitz proved that he can vote, even as a Likud minister, against a proposal of the prime minister. For Bougie maybe it will be easier. Who knows? On the other hand, Bougie, no less than Steinitz or others, understands that he needs government [support] to be successful, and he needs to defend the interests of world Jewry to be successful.
Those other two areas, where we don’t see progress, are prisoners of Israeli coalition politics?
They won’t move unless something changes in that coalition?
My goal is that at some moment, the prime minister will decide that his leadership is not in danger, or that this is important.
It is very easy when you simply hear about it, to think that [non-Orthodox Judaism] is some kind of a sect, hostile to Judaism, which lives only on assimilation, and because they already succeeded in assimilating Americans, they are now looking for the ways to penetrate Israel. There are a lot of people who are very prejudiced. And by the way, not necessarily Haredim. Many secular
How can we help? Work on public opinion. We are bringing many members of Knesset to Jewish communities around the world so that they will see that it is not fiction. That it is real. After all, nobody wants that a big part of world Jewry will feel that Israel is not their home.
And what do the MKs hear, when they go to the Federations, to world Jewry? That Israel is losing them?
They understand that [non-Orthodox Judaism] is real Judaism — these people are living full Jewish lives. Who are fighting for Israel. Fighting against anti-Semitism. For whom Israel is their story. The MKs spend Shabbat with them. They find out. It is very easy when you simply hear about it, to think that [non-Orthodox Judaism] is some kind of a sect, hostile to Judaism, which lives only on assimilation, and because they already succeeded in assimilating Americans, they are now looking for the ways to penetrate Israel.
There are a lot of people who are very prejudiced. And by the way, not necessarily Haredim. Many secular. Who say: Why should we even deal with these strange sects, with their strange demands?
These strange sects, that intermarry?
Intermarry. They are abandoning anything Jewish. Intermarriage is the most powerful expression of not only not passing Judaism on to the next generation, but even in their own lives.
From my own experience, members of Knesset, who don’t usually go to synagogue, bringing them on Shabbat directly to a Reform synagogue is not always good. To bring them to a Conservative synagogue is much better. Because a Conservative synagogue is not so different from synagogues in which they were. But to spend Shabbat at the community level, it doesn’t matter — Reform or Conservative.
Suddenly they understand — more than half of American Jewry lives like this. When they meet with AIPAC people, and they hear that 85% of AIPAC people are Reform and Conservative. It’s one thing when I say this to them at meetings, or in government. It’s propaganda. But when they see [for themselves] — it was eye-opening for many members of Knesset. In the Knesset today, it is more difficult to pass these type of decisions than it was two years ago. Simply because there are already 40 MKs [who the Agency took to the US to meet American Jewry].
Did Miri Regev go on one such trip?
Miri Regev didn’t need to. Because she already agreed with us [on the terms of the Kotel deal]. Now, the change. Now, she made a different trip — she made a trip to the Central Committee of the Likud.
Look, Miri Regev has the right to any opinion. The fact that she wrote [that she could not serve on the committee building the pavilion] as “a matter of conscience” was a mistake. If it is a matter of conscience, it cannot be changed from two years ago. If it is a political decision, okay. Bibi said, I think it was a good compromise. I disagree with [those who oppose it]. But we have a coalition, which I have to keep. And that is why I’m advancing the resolution about freezing [the agreement]. He didn’t say, My conscience prevents me…
Where does the conversion crisis go?
I disagreed with [Moshe] Nissim [who recently formulated proposals on the issue], but I think he made a huge effort. I told him to change two or three words, and I’m ready to support it. He said Shas will never accept it. I said Shas will never accept his plans as they stand either.
But look at the Ne’eman Committee [which issued proposals 20 years ago], at Nissim, it all goes in the same direction. It’s inevitable that in the end there must be much more liberal Orthodox conversion, giving opportunities to different streams to be involved… We are moving in this direction.
How should Herzog address the concern over Israel losing parts of American Jewry?
It is one of the few places where we have a permanent dialogue. We have to encourage it. I’d like to have a bigger dialogue on higher levels — to have, as was proposed a number of times, a kind of advisory Knesset.
Some kind of forum where Israeli and Diaspora leaders…
Can meet and discuss their disagreements publicly. The same kind of things that we had with the Kotel. But not take four years. And not behind closed doors. At least all the sides could be exposed to these arguments.
A lot of distancing is happening because we don’t talk directly to one another. Objectively we are in different stations. 38,000 foreign workers — for some people it’s so clear: We have to defend our Jewish democratic state; it’s important not to give them anything. Others say that as a Jewish democratic state, we’re obliged to give them citizenship. Both sides have their own arguments, connected to different parts of our tradition. But because we live in such different conditions, we don’t make enough of an effort to understand the other side.
The fact is that here, so many people think the Reform are some kind of a sect, and don’t understand.
On the other hand, most American liberal Jews think that it’s all simply surrender to a small group of ultra-Orthodox fanatics, and if only the prime minister wasn’t so weak, it could have been all very different, ignoring the basic differences, the basic desires in fact.
Why is it that, for the majority of secular Jews here, the synagogue they don’t go to is Orthodox. They don’t even think that they need not to go to a Reform synagogue. (Laughs wryly.) So it’s a different type of mentality — which needs permanent discussion. Because I am in permanent discussion, I understand both.
You think there should be some kind of senate?
You can’t call it a senate or a parliament, because it can have only an advisory role. A council.
It would meet permanently?
It would be a good idea.
President Ezer Weizman convened all the leaders of the Jewish world — and asked them why they didn’t make aliya. That was the end of the conversation
That’s a departing proposal of yours?
It was a proposal of president Katsav, for whom it was a departing proposal. Remember Ezer Weizman, before that? He convened all the leaders of the Jewish world — and asked them why they didn’t make aliya. That was the end of the conversation. It was a huge success: Everybody came. But the first and last thing the president said was why did you come for this? Why didn’t you make aliya?
It’s absolutely necessary [to have this dialogue]. We tried to organize it.
There is another accusation — that we are becoming very polarized, [that the Israeli government is] dealing only with the Republicans. All these accusations have to be put on the table. Many of them will be shown to be empty.
That’s an empty one?
[Israel’s Ambassador the US] Ron Dermer is meeting as many Democrats as Republicans. The fact is that there are some big changes, polarization in American politics. In the days of the Soviet Jewry struggle, that kind of polarization definitely didn’t exist. If they are Democrats, people cannot say they see anything good on the other side. It’s simply impossible. It would be the end of their career if they say Trump did something good. And vice versa of course.
You think Israel is a victim of a polarized America?
And has not contributed to that itself?
Yes. We can argue about specific cases, like Bibi’s trip to Congress [to lobby against the Iran deal in 2015].
[But it would be different] if there was not such a strong polarization in America. Either you’re for Obama or you’re against Obama. They insulted my president, what does that mean?
We insulted Kissinger. Oh, how we insulted Kissinger, and Nixon, we Soviet Jews. How dare he betray us by being against the Jackson Amendment. Nobody would say we were taking sides. No Republican would say that we were acting for partisan reasons. It was a different atmosphere. Today, they say, How can he do that to our president? We were cursing their president Nixon, making cartoons about him, because we believed he was betraying Soviet Jewry, together with “the Jew Kissinger”. And we were never accused of doing it to help the Democrats.
There is an American investigation into Russian intervention in US elections. Some Russian Jewish oligarchs are being named as allegedly connected. We have several Russian oligarchs who have Israeli citizenship. Are there some dangerous people who have gotten Israeli citizenship, who may be up to no good, financially and/or politically? Your thoughts.
When our big aliya came in the late 1980s-early 1990s], there was a lot of talk about Russian mafia. When we created our party [Yisrael BaAliyah in 1995]], there were seven articles in Yedioth Ahronoth asserting that Russian mafia, through oligarchs, is creating a Russian party and conquering Israel. There is nothing left of this because it was all nonsense.
In the history of Israel, there have been some outstanding Soviet spies — Markus Klingberg in biological weapons, Udi Adiv. Not immigrants from Russia. Good sabras. What am I trying to say? Are there spies who were sent by the KGB? For sure. What does the KGB get paid for?! Does that mean we have to be careful with Russian immigrants? No more than with Israeli citizens of any origin or with sabras.
Successful spies are ideological spies. There is no ideology today in Russia. There is no ideology in the KGB. There are interests. Every secret service can find people who have interests. Just now we learned of an Israeli MK [Gonen Segev] who allegedly became an Iranian spy. You have to be afraid of any Israeli who went to Africa and did some work and is exposed to different situations no less than [anybody else]. The fact that you, David, are specifically asking about Russian aliya, which by the way is such a huge success for Israel, shows that you are also exposed to these prejudices.
Yes and no — though it’s okay: You can attack me.
But you had a terrible time at the hands of the Soviet regime.
On the one hand you are protective of Soviet Jews…
No, no. The Shin Bet or whoever has to do their work about potential threats. All I am saying is that there is no reason to believe that the danger [potentially] posed by a new immigrant from Russia is in any way bigger than from somebody making aliya from America, or some Israeli who was in Africa, or some Israeli who was seduced by some secret service. I don’t see today how these services, definitely not from Russia, can mobilize people on an ideological level. But the interests: Segev was presumably motivated, allegedly, for money. We do know that he was twice sentenced for smuggling drugs, using a diplomatic passport…
Let me come back to my question: You were persecuted by the Soviet Union. And now you see alleged interference in the American elections…
The Americans have to do their best to find the truth about this. The English have to do their best to find the truth about the poisoning of [Sergei] Skripal. Take into account the history of Skripal. He was an American spy in Russia. He was arrested and sentenced. Russia never exchanged their own citizens. But then Putin urgently needed to release somebody. so for the first time in history they released one of their own. They’ll do everything to kill him.
The truth has to be found. The free world has to protect free elections from all possible interferences.
Can the KGB morally afford such a thing? Of course, it can morally afford it. If you’re asking me if we have to be aware, wary of the dangers of secret services…
That’s not what I’m asking you. I’m asking you, when you look at Russia now, as somebody who was persecuted by a previous Russia, if it’s the same Russia?
I was an activist of two movements: the human rights movement and the Jewish movement. As an activist of the Jewish movement, I can say a lot of nice words about Putin. As an activist of the human rights movement, I can say a lot of bad words about Putin.
For the first time in the thousand-year history of Russia, the leader of Russia doesn’t hate Jews. To the contrary. He has a very positive attitude to Jews. He believes that Jewish life is good for the country and not bad for the country. And that’s really something new.
On the other hand he is far from being a democrat. And for all his sympathy for Israel, as a Russian speaking Jewish country — and he has a lot of sympathy — his interest in using Iran and Syria against America strategically is much more important to him.
When do you step down here?
On July 20. And Bougie is entering this office on August 1. I have a lot of material to take out of here.