Q&A with Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky

The Russian-born Israeli Natan Sharansky, 65, a former member of the Knesset and now chair of the Jewish Agency, visited Los Angeles last week, hosted jointly by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills. A refusenik who spent years in a Soviet prison accused of spying is now running an 83-year-old, $400 million organization with a very broad mandate, and he has become the go-to Israeli leader on a host of controversial issues, ranging from conversion to the Kotel. He sat down with the Journal for a wide-ranging conversation about the role of religion in Israel, the spread of democracy in the Middle East and what he thinks he can — and can’t — accomplish in the three remaining years of his term. 

Jewish Journal: You’re dealing with some of the biggest questions facing the Jewish people today, including trying to broker a deal that would create a new section for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Is the compromise still viable? 

Natan Sharansky: It’s up to the Jewish people. I think there is surprisingly broad consensus around it, so I think it has a good chance. 

JJ: Both sides — the religious authorities and the Women of the Wall — seem to have stepped back some of their support, particularly following an Israeli court’s decision saying women can pray near the Kotel as they wish. 

NS: Everybody has his or her reservations. The Women of the Wall [a group holding monthly prayers at the Kotel] are fighting for having something specific for one group, one hour in a month. My proposal deals with this issue strategically, to make sure there is enough space near the wall for everybody. Each side wants to improve it in a way that will make it unacceptable to the other, but in the end everybody is loyal to this compromise. 

JJ: The Kotel was one of the first places you went to when you first arrived in Israel. How do you describe it? As a place of prayer?

NS: That’s what people don’t understand; they try to make the Kotel much less than it is. Many in American Jewish federations will say, “Why don’t we have this problem at the Lincoln Memorial?” Or, to the contrary: “Nobody will think to try to change the prayer in the Vatican, so why are we trying to change it here?” The Kotel is not the Lincoln Memorial; it’s not the Vatican. There is no other civilization that has such a symbol, which at the same time is the central symbol of their national identity, the central symbol of their historical redemption and at the same time the most important religious place, the closest to God. 

JJ: In a way, it also might be called a town square. 

NS: A town square is not a place for prayer. You are not putting pitkaot [notes] to God in the town square. At the same time, the Kotel is not only a synagogue, because it’s also a town square, it is also the place where the parade of your national pride is the most appropriate. That is why it is very important that there will be place for everything: for the oath of the military, for prayer, and for the place where new immigrants are getting their citizenship. That’s the uniqueness of this place. 

JJ: The “town square” was the metaphor you used in your 2004 book, “The Case for Democracy,” to assess whether a society allowed the free expression of dissent. Seen one way, the dispute at the Kotel raises the question of whether Israel today is, in your words, a “free society” or a “fear society.” 

NS: You’re simply trying to play with the words. What does that have to do with the town square? I said that a free society is one where, in the center of the city, you can come and express your views. 

JJ: Isn’t Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, doing just that? 

NS: Can you come to the Catholic cathedral in the middle of New York and have Muslim prayer there? And if not, does that mean that America is not a free country? No, simply that a Catholic cathedral is not a town square where everybody can say whatever he wants. Anat Hoffman comes to a place which, at this moment, it was decided it’s an Orthodox synagogue and says no, it’s not a synagogue, it’s a place for my prayer, and the debate in the society is whether it should continue to be only an Orthodox synagogue
or it should be a place for all the other prayers as well. 

JJ: Let me push back a little bit, because I think that the debate is happening in the context of a number of other debates, about where religious power and authority lies in Israel. Whether it’s segregated army service or segregated bus lines.

NS: Oh, segregated bus lines. I just was told about some area in New York, near Monsey, where there are streets where women go on one side and men go on the other side, and the buses have segregated places for men and women. Somehow I didn’t hear that anybody goes to the Supreme Court in the United States of America and appeals to the First Amendment. I’m very much against all those phenomena, but these attempts to say that it turns Israel into some kind of restricted democracy, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. As long as we have the most independent Supreme Court in the world, the most independent free press and all these institutions, we are absolutely a free society. 

JJ: You seem to get all of these hot topics that really get under the skin of American Jews. Take conversion: In 2010, when the Jewish federations in the United States were up in arms about the Rotem bill, someone said,“OK, Natan will fix it.” So, where are we?

NS: We fixed it. With the Rotem bill, it was the Jewish Agency which warned the government that it’s a nonstarter. When, nevertheless, it went to a first hearing, we, together with the Jewish federations, orchestrated the campaign of bringing different delegations, and organizing meetings with many different members of Knesset. For many members of Knesset, this was the first meeting of their lives with Conservative and Reform leaders. And, in the end, it was stopped.

JJ: Earlier this year, you were given four more years in your current position. What do you hope to accomplish? 

NS: We just developed some proposals with the prime minister’s office, over increased cooperation between the government of Israel and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The idea is to have 100,000 young Jews visiting Israel on different programs, strengthening their identity, to have 1,000 Jewish institutions all over the world with strong presence of Israel there, to designate 150 university campuses all over the world as Israel-engaged campuses with much stronger connection to Israel, and to double the opportunities for the absorption of young Jewish academicians. And of course, I’d like to finally find a common approach to the question of how the conversion should look. And I’m not speaking now of non-Orthodox conversion; I’m speaking now of Orthodox conversion, which is a big debate in Israel. 

JJ: What about marriage? Does the Jewish agency have something to say about freeing up the marriage establishment and who’s in charge? 

NS: (Laughs) Really? You want the Jewish agency to be —

JJ: I don’t know how far your mandate goes. These issues seem connected.

NS: There was a period when I was receiving a lot of e-mails from the members of Reform Jewry: “We were fighting for you; make sure that our rights are respected.” The Orthodox establishment probably began to understand that they also have to be organized better, so now I’m receiving an increasing number of e-mails, almost more than the Reform, saying, “We were fighting for you, make sure that our Judaism is protected in Israel and not destroyed.” All of them they are fighting for me, and all of them are part of the Jewish people. I don’t think that the role of the Jewish Agency is to protect the rights of Reform Jewry against the Orthodox, or Orthodox Jewry the other way. The role of Jewish Agency is to make sure that every Jew in the world feels that the State of Israel is also his or her state, and that’s a big challenge, believe me. 

The fact that there are people who are citizens of the State of Israel who don’t have the normal way of registering their marriages in Israel has to be dealt with. We in the Jewish Agency can bring together Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, government, opposition — that’s what can facilitate the discussion. But we can’t solve the problem of civil marriage in Israel. We don’t have a mandate from our electorate. 

JJ: In a 2011 interview with The Jerusalem Post, you expressed optimism about what was then still developing as the Arab Spring. What do you see now? 

NS: The source of my optimism is the same and the source of my fears is the same. In “The Case for Democracy,” I was speaking about “inevitable revolutions” in Egypt, Syria and Libya. It was, what, seven years before the Arab Spring? You cannot keep the people all the time in the state of mind of “doublethink”; the longer the dictatorship, the bigger the desire is of doublethinkers to get rid of this doublethink. Sooner or later these regimes will be overthrown. 

The mistake of the free world is that each time they build their hopes that their dictator will be forever. And the source of my skepticism is that it is very difficult to hope that the free world, in the end, will decide — not only for a short period of time, but for the long term — not to support “our” dictators, but to support development of civil society.

JJ: You’ve had a remarkable life and a remarkable career, first as a dissident and since your release. What’s next? 

NS: You say “dissident” or “minister” or “chairman of Jewish Agency” as if it is some value in itself. It’s all different positions from which you are dealing with the same issues. I spent my life dealing with the issue of identity and freedom, the connection between that and the life of our people. It’s a great topic, which never ends, and I am going to continue dealing with it.

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