Sharansky: Our Loyalty is to Our People

Natan Sharansky in conversation with NASA astronaut Garret Reisman at Limmud FSU 5th anniversary reception held during GA. Looking on, Sandra Cahn and Chaim Chesler, co-founders Limmud FSU; image courtesy JAFI

Remarks by Natan Sharansky delivered at the New Orleans GA.

Good Morning
Mr. Prime Minister
Kathy Manning, Michael Gelman and Jerry Silverman,
Ladies and Gentlemen

Our history consists of a combination of external and internal challenges.

We always fought enemies externally and at the same time we fought among ourselves.

Thousands of years ago when the powerful Roman army encircled Jerusalem we inside Jerusalem were debating about who is a better Jew.

Thousands of years later, when our enemies are trying to deligitimize the Jewish State we still continue this very same debate.

I must say that even though the debate among us sometimes becomes very strident it is not always counterproductive!!

Take the example of Soviet Jewry – which in retrospect looks like one homogeneous victorious movement. Thirty years ago there were many groups in the movement fighting each other on such issues as whether to have open or quiet diplomacy, whether to link the struggle to human rights or isolate it from this universal platform, whether Jews should be allowed to go only to Israel or they should be able to go to their country of choice. But in the end it was this very motley group of organizations, grass roots, establishment, religious and secular which connected the struggle with all the Jewish people and united all of them to one aim.

But the problem becomes more complex when there is one organization with one purpose that includes people whose world view doesn’t necessarily take them to the same goal.

This was the genius of Ben Gurion who 81 years ago succeeded to put together big parts of world Jewry and succeeded in uniting all those who were called Zionists and non-Zionists to one aim in order to support the emerging state of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.

And it worked well, three million Jews were brought to Israel and together with the help of world Jewry and through the Jewish Agency 900 cities, towns and moshavim were built.

But with time, the more Israel was changing from being a poor defenseless relative into a successful start up nation and the more Jews in the Diaspora live in the free world and not in persecution, the more this inner conflict emerges.

We hear voices which say: Doesn’t aliyah weaken our communities which are becoming weaker anyway?

And on the other side we hear: Isn’t the idea of strengthening Jewish communities betraying the idea of aliyah?

For an organization which is the global Jewish table of Israel and the Diaspora this can be a schizophrenic nightmare!!! The situation has changed dramatically in the last few years. It has changed because on the one hand American Jewry discovered that in the situation when they are facing global assimilation, shrinking Jewish communities and they urgently need to strengthen the Jewish identity of the young generation, there is no better way to do this than to connect them to Israel. On the other hand, Israeli leaders clearly see that in this rampant campaign of deligitimization of Israel we have no better ally than World Jewry – and that’s why it is so important to invest in keeping them strong.

And that is why strengthening One Jewish people by connecting them to their heritage, to their communities and to their state becomes One and the same answer to the challenge of shrinking Jewish communities, of delegitimizing Israel and of continued aliyah. That is the very essence of the idea of the new strategic plan of JAFI.

This strategic plan was built together with you, our partners and with the Government of Israel.

A few days ago in Jerusalem, after the approval of this plan by the Board of Governors, it was brought to a discussion with the PM. As we were in the middle of presenting the central idea of expanding and connecting different platforms of Israel Experience, one minister present voiced strong criticism about it saying aren’t you replacing real challenges of Aliyah by spending government funds on bringing American Jewish children for tourism? The PM responded:

as a politician one must understand that keeping your base is the first rule of political life and for the Prime Minister of the Jewish State the Jewish people are his political base.

Last night my wife Avital addressed the Prime Minister’s Council dinner on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus.

I must confess that I learned a lot from her speech.

And I was also reminded where all the big ideas in our family come from.

As she told her story she reminded me and I hope many of those who heard her, how we Jews in the FSU and Jews all over the world discovered one another, step by step, realizing that we are part of a much bigger and more exciting story of the Jewish people and how this discovery of our common identity inspired us, connected us and empowered us and gave us a lot of strength to fight for one cause on both sides of the ocean.

It also reminded me of one of the first pieces of advice which I received from Avital when we were reunited in Israel.

She said to me, there are many good Jewish organizations and they all mean well. They will all try to mobilize you. Don’t rush to join any one of them. Continue our struggle and cooperate with everyone. Today when I can no longer hide the fact that I am part of the Jewish establishment, I believe I am true to her advice by believing, as I think all of you believe, that our loyalty is not to our organization. But rather our loyalty is to our people, to our efforts to strengthen our common aim – to build strong Jewish communities connected to a strong Israel.

Let’s make sure that our wonderful organizations, the Jewish Agency, Federations, and JDC serve this aim in the most powerful way possible. Thank you.

Natan Sharansky is Chair of the Executive, Jewish Agency for Israel.