Stepping down, Sharansky pleads for ‘advisory Knesset’ to heal Diaspora ties

Israel and Jews abroad have different needs, and often don’t understand each other. The asymmetry threatens ‘our capacity to live as one people,’ warns departing Jewish Agency head

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Incoming Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog with outgoing chairman Natan Sharansky, at the board of governors conference of the Jewish Agency, at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Incoming Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog with outgoing chairman Natan Sharansky, at the board of governors conference of the Jewish Agency, at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Natan Sharansky, the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency, has called for the establishment of a permanent, public council — “a kind of advisory Knesset — at which Israeli and Diaspora leaders would discuss and seek to resolve areas of disagreement.

Sharansky, a former Prisoner of Zion and icon of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, who later became an MK and Israeli government minister, is stepping down from the Agency helm this week after nine years, amid deep frictions between Israel and parts of Diaspora Jewry over issues including provisions for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall and Israeli policies on conversions to Judaism.

The Agency chief, who last year warned that the Western Wall crisis has led some Jewish communities and individuals to reconsider traveling or donating to Israel, told The Times of Israel in an interview that much of the “distancing” between Israel and the Diaspora stems from the simple fact that “we don’t talk directly to one another.”

To that end, Sharansky, 70, proposed setting up a forum where Israeli and Diaspora leaders “can meet and discuss their disagreements publicly.” He stressed that it could only have an advisory role, and thus could not be described as a senate or a parliament. But simply by meeting on a regular basis, and having public discussion, he said, it could reduce tensions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with head of Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky in New York, March 7, 2018. (Haim Zach/GPO)

He noted that the idea was not original. It was proposed by presidents Ezer Weizman and Moshe Katsav, among others. Weizman actually managed to convene Diaspora leaders for an initial such dialogue in 1994, but the first thing that happened was that Weizman asked them why they hadn’t made aliya, recalled Sharansky, and “that was the end of the conversation.”

Citing opinion polls that indicate American Jews largely supported president Barack Obama and dislike President Donald Trump, while with Israelis it is vice-versa, he argued that the world’s only two multi-million strong Jewish communities often have very different priorities and very different needs — requiring constant dialogue and mutual understanding.

Those contrasting attitudes to Obama and Trump, he said, have “nothing to do with ‘arrogant Bibi [Netanyahu]’ or ‘the suicidal impulses of Reform Jewry.'”

Then president-elect Donald Trump with then president Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Washington DC on November 10, 2016 (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

Rather, Sharansky posited, “Israel sees the nuclear threat of Iran as the biggest threat” and Netanyahu is supported by most Israelis in dealing with it, while the fact that Obama was ready to turn the Iranian regime into a local superpower “without demanding even that they stop threatening Israel,” made him “objectively unpopular” in Israel.

On the other hand, Sharansky went on, survival for American Jewry requires 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.”

Rather than allowing this kind of asymmetry to become an eternal threat to the capacity of the Jews to live as one people, he urged, “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.” Hence, he said, the imperative for ongoing, high-level, open dialogue.

Sharansky cited several other examples of the current destructive non-dialogue. Regarding the appropriate policies on the 38,000 migrants in Israel, for instance, he said, “for some people it’s so clear: We have to defend our Jewish democratic state; it’s important not to give them anything.” But “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.”

Similarly, as regards tensions between the different streams of Judaism, notably over prayer at the Western Wall, he said, many in Israel “think the Reform are some kind of a sect” while “most American liberal Jews think that it’s all simply surrender to a small group of ultra-Orthodox fanatics, and that if only the prime minister wasn’t so weak, it could have been all very different.”

The fact is, he said, that there is a “different type of mentality” on such issues between Israel and the Diaspora, and bridging the gaps “needs permanent discussion.”

Sharansky called Netanyahu’s decision last year to freeze the painstakingly negotiated deal he oversaw between Israel and the Diaspora for a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall “very dramatic… even tragic.” But he argued that the process was still moving “in the right direction.”

“It looks like a big failure,” he allowed, “but it’s a success, although we have not yet reached a happy end.”

“Because the government is always vulnerable to coalition considerations, it will never be smooth,” Sharansky said, but he was convinced Netanyahu would now go ahead and build the permanent pavilion, albeit without delivering on the deal’s frozen commitments to a shared entrance to the whole Western Wall area and a formal role for non-Orthodox Jewish representatives in the oversight of the pavilion. Those two other commitments are prisoners of Israeli coalition politics, he acknowledged, but added: “My goal is that at some moment, the prime minister will decide that his leadership is not in danger [from ultra-Orthodox coalition parties threatening to bolt], or that this is important.”

A group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and members of the Women of the Wall carry Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In the meantime, “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.”

Sharansky said he had entered the job as an ally of the prime minister, and believed Netanyahu still saw him in that light, even though they had been at such public odds over issues like prayer at the Wall. He said he was proud that the Agency, during his tenure, had acted as “an independent voice, representing the interests and opinions of world Jewry in the dialogue with the government.” But at the same time, it had served as “a strategic partner of the government in representing the interests of Israel and the Jewish people all over the world.” This was underlined, he said, by the dramatically increased Israeli government involvement in and funding of Jewish Agency projects.

He also highlighted his pleasure that annual aliya during his term had grown “from 16-17,000 to 29-31,000.” That increase, he said, stemmed “mainly from people who were here on MASA [the Agency’s flagship 5-12 month Israel study-volunteer program] and then came back and stayed, who were on our seminars, at our summer camps.”

Young Jewish adults from all over the world participating in the Taglit Birthright program celebrate 10 years of Birthright at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Crucially, he said, there had been a fundamental argument over whether Israel, in seeking to encourage aliya, should be allocating funds to strengthen Diaspora Jewish communities and Jewish education there. Sharansky said he emphatically believes in this approach, and that it has prevailed. “The main thing is to strengthen Jewish identity,” he said. “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.” But, he said, the facts and figures had shown that it was correct.

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