Last week, before a very international group of younger Jewish leaders, Prof. Ruth Gavison asked Natan Sharansky a timely question. “The ‘Arab Spring’ may turn out to be less stable than nondemocratic regimes,” she began. “What impact will this have on Israel’s prospects for peace?” Prof. Gavison, who was awarded the Israel Prize this year for legal research, is the founder and president of the Center for Zionist-Jewish-Liberal- Humanistic Thought. Natan Sharansky is of course the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Sharansky’s response was unequivocal. “I’m very glad about what’s happening,” he began. “I don’t miss Mubarak and I won’t miss Assad.” He elaborated, “I prefer to deal with democracy. Democratic leaders depend on the people, who want peace, good economy, a good education. Dictators need an external enemy to control the people. Mubarak turned Egypt into most anti-Semitic country in the Middle East. Syria didn’t make peace so that it could have emergency laws.” More than 40 years after becoming a dissident in the Soviet Union, Sharansky still prefers the uncertainties of democracy over the grim predictability of dictatorships.
Both Sharansky and Gavison had traveled to the north of Israel, on the shore of the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), specifically to speak before the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, where their conversation took place. Fellow eJP contributor Stephen Donshik was on the faculty of this year’s Fellowship and wrote about it here last week. It is largely unknown and unrecognized despite having included over 700 mid-career Jewish leaders from all over the world since the Fellowship’s inception in 1987.
Its sponsoring organization, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, saw the value of nurturing new leaders long before it became commonplace, and recognized from the very start the global dimension of Jewish leadership. The 1987 Fellowship was held in Western Europe, and subsequent convenings have taken place in Latin America (four times), Australia, India, and South Africa, as well as Israel.
The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship is unusual among leadership-centered programs for incorporating the study of classical Jewish texts in its week-long agenda, which largely addresses issues of Jewish community and identity. The Fellows – 45 of them this year – personify diversity in terms of religious observance as well as national origin. They come with a shared desire to strengthen their own Jewish communities, and many of them leave with a changed sense of their personal Jewish identity, questioning their own assumptions as a result of the intensive discussions.
Under the rubric of this year’s Fellowship, “Repair, Rejuvenation, and Redemption of the Global Jewish Community,” Prof. Benjamin Ish Shalom, president of Beit Morasha, explained why there is essentially no shared discourse in Israeli politics. “There are four ideological subgroups in Israel,” he noted, “and the dream of each is the nightmare of the others.” He identified them as ultra-Orthodox, radical secularists, religious Zionist, and secular nationalist/labor Zionist. In another session, Ruth Gavison proposed a redefinition of Zionism that finds a balance between shared Jewish interests and political and human-rights concerns.
Discussions like these are the stock in trade of these gatherings, whose Fellows have long been making an impact on Jewish communities across the globe. There are now many outstanding programs for younger Jewish leaders, but the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship deserves special credit for charting the path and staying the course.
Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, also writes the “At Home Abroad” blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. He is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and lives in Jerusalem.