columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Heed the lessons of Natan Sharansky

The hero of the struggle for Soviet Jewry’s efforts to foster unity were snubbed by Israel’s government while he was head of the Jewish Agency, but Israelis and American Jews should still be listening to him.

Isaac Herzog, left, speaks with outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, following Herzog’s election as the next chairman, at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors’ meeting in Jerusalem on June 24, 2018. Credit: Nir Kafri/The Jewish Agency for Israel.
Isaac Herzog, left, speaks with outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, following Herzog’s election as the next chairman, at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors’ meeting in Jerusalem on June 24, 2018. Credit: Nir Kafri/The Jewish Agency for Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Natan Sharansky is exiting the center stage of Jewish life. The 70-year-old former Soviet dissident and prisoner of Zion turned author, Israeli politician and, for the last eight years, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is leaving office as of Aug. 1.

Though his place in Jewish history is not in question, the important question to ask is why it is that so many people who claim to admire Sharansky still won’t listen to or think seriously about the lessons he has been trying to teach both the Jews and the world in general during his public career.

As a recent New York Times profile and a number of articles in Israeli newspapers have made clear, Sharansky’s tenure at the Jewish Agency didn’t win him rave reviews from critics. Some accused him of “lackluster leadership” that allowed the institution that helped build the State of Israel become irrelevant.

Isaac Herzog, left, speaks with outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky following Herzog’s election as the next chairman at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors’ meetings in Jerusalem on June 24, 2018. Photo credit: Nir Kafri/The Jewish Agency for Israel.

That’s unfair since the agency ceased to be the driving force in Jewish life a long time ago. The problem is that given Sharansky’s epic stature as the living symbol of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, expectations for his post-gulag career in Israeli politics, and then philanthropy, have always been out of proportion to what any normal human being could accomplish within the creaky bureaucracies and political tangles of Israeli and Zionist life.

But it’s especially important to ask why Sharansky’s attempt to broker a compromise on one of the key sources of tension between Israel and the Diaspora fell flat. Instead of just mouthing platitudes about trying to bring Israelis and American Jews closer, Sharansky went for broke and sought to come up with a compromise solution for the future of the Western Wall Plaza.

The Kotel has been source of controversy for years as Reform and Conservative groups resented their inability to conduct egalitarian prayer services at the shrine, which has become, for all intents and purposes, an open-air Orthodox synagogue.

Like everything else about the debate about religious pluralism in Israel, the battle over the wall is a dialogue of the deaf. Those who support the Orthodox rabbinate’s efforts believe that they are merely asking visitors to behave in accordance with the traditions of the site and view groups like the Women of the Wall as provocateurs who are disturbing the peace. But the non-Orthodox see the efforts to repress their desire to express faith in their own way as tyrannical; they are especially angry about the way the Women of the Wall suffered physical harassment and had their services disrupted.

Sharansky came up with a solution that, at least in theory, should have satisfied everyone. The southern section of the wall at the archeological park at Robinson’s Arch, where a small egalitarian prayer area exists, would be expanded and ultimately be part of a broad plaza where visitors could choose to pray there or at the far-larger men’s and women’s sections at the main Kotel area. In that way, the existing arrangement at the plaza could be preserved, while also demonstrating that non-Orthodox Jews were both welcomed and respected.

But though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Sharansky’s proposal, opposition from the religious parties stalled the project, and he ultimately backed away from it. This past week, Miri Regev—one of the cabinet ministers from his own Likud Party, who chaired the committee tasked with moving forward on work on a paired-down version of Sharansky’s plan—resigned because she felt it went against her “conscience.” Others have also done so as well, and while Netanyahu has replaced them, it’s not clear whether even the limited plan will ever be completed.

The reason for this crisis in “conscience” may be partly due to their fear of alienating Orthodox voters. But as Regev’s comments exemplify—she said that Reform Jews could practice Judaism as they liked in the Diaspora, but not in Israel—the difficulty also stems from what can only be described as contempt on the part of some Israelis for those with different points of view about Judaism.

What is so discouraging about all this is the way the government ignored the core idea Sharansky has sought to promote during his time at the Jewish Agency. What’s needed now is an end to Diaspora condescension, in which Americans sought to save poor Israel or Israelis dismissed the importance of Jewish communities elsewhere. Mutual respect for different religious streams, including those that are small in Israel but dominate in North America, and prioritizing Jewish unity is what Sharansky preached. And yet, Israeli politicians who pay lip service to these ideas pour contempt on the non-Orthodox, while at the same time, many American Jews have just as little understanding or respect for those coping with Israel’s security dilemmas.

Some on the left never forgave Sharansky for backing Israel’s right to defend itself against Palestinian terror, but his message has been one that drew important conclusions from his experience as an advocate for freedom and then as a prisoner of the totalitarian Soviet regime.

In the fight for Soviet Jewry the distinctions between Jewish denominations were meaningless. Facing a common foe determined to suppress Jewish identity, it was easy to remember that standing together with our fellow Jews—whether or not we agreed with their politics or religious beliefs—was essential for the cause of freedom and the survival of Israel.

The same is true about Sharansky’s attempts to teach the world that democracy and respect for human rights are necessary for all peoples (including the Palestinians), as well as a vital component of any Middle East peace plan. Freedom is not an option for Jews, Arabs or anyone else. It’s essential.

Rising above our mutual contempt and misunderstandings is difficult work and clearly beyond the capacity of many players on both sides of the Israel-Diaspora divide. But so long as he’s around to inspire and prod an often-unwilling Jewish world in the right direction, we’d all do well to finally start listening to Natan Sharansky.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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