JERUSALEM — He has fought the Soviets from inside a gulag, battled against the peace process from inside Israel’s right wing, and spent the past nine years trying to stitch together Israeli and diaspora Jews just as they seemed to be pulling farther and farther apart.
He won the first struggle, claims vindication in the second, and came up well short of success in the third. Much more needs to be done, Natan Sharansky acknowledges, if Jews in Israel are going to avoid permanently alienating their overseas brethren, particularly in America, over religious, political and philosophical differences.
Perhaps a global Jewish parliament could help the two resolve their differences, he muses. But that will be for the next guy to try.
“You never finish anything,” he said. “You do your part, and then you let others continue.”
Always a believer in freedom and identity — what he calls “the twin poles of every human being” — Mr. Sharansky, 70, is freeing himself from the workaday world to revel in his newest identity: grandfather.
His exit from the public stage has been less beatific than his exit from the Soviet Union in 1986, when he was practically sainted among Jews, after applying in vain for emigration to escape persecution and then serving nine years in labor camps and prisons.
In Haaretz last weekend, Anshel Pfeffer bluntly dismissed Mr. Sharansky’s “lackluster leadership” of the Jewish Agency for Israel, saying he had allowed the world’s largest Jewish organization to lose “any real relevance to Jewish life in Israel or abroad.”
If so, it was not for lack of trying. As chairman of the agency’s executive, Mr. Sharansky seemed to have negotiated an important milestone last year, granting Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements a say in management of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and giving non-Orthodox men and women a more dignified place to worship together there.
But when ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to bolt the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abandoned the deal.
Mr. Sharansky remains angry, but also seems to make excuses for the prime minister, a longtime friend and ally. “As a politician, probably he is right,” Mr. Sharansky said. “As the one who is supposed to be the leader of the Jewish people, I think it was a huge mistake.”
“I also don’t think that he would lose his government,” he added. “But he decided that he doesn’t take risk, even if it is a 10 percent risk,” lest Israel’s security be put in another leader’s hands.
The relationship between Israel and the diaspora is at an inflection point, in Mr. Sharansky’s view. Before, each condescended to the other, he said. Israelis believed they were saving Judaism and that those who did not move to Israel would eventually just disappear. American Jews believed they were saving Israel.
“Our poor relative!” Mr. Sharansky said mockingly. “We are ashamed for not thinking about our brothers during the Holocaust. Don’t be afraid: We are rich, we are strong, we’ll save you.”
Those days are gone, Mr. Sharansky said. Israelis know that world Jewry is its most reliable ally against delegitimization, and American Jews have learned that without a connection to Israel, “their grandchildren would not be Jewish.”
It’s not about saving one another, he added. “We are in the business of saving us.”
So he had the Jewish Agency train scores of young Israelis in how to debate and deployed them to American college campuses, the front lines of the fight against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
“The most important thing is to try to build a core of young Jews who are not embarrassed,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you need to defend and justify everything that’s happening — nobody needs that. But to give you enough of an argument that you should not be afraid of your association with Israel.”
Now, however, Mr. Sharansky says that what is needed is for those returning Israelis to teach their compatriots what it means to be a Jew in the United States, where “pluralism,” the development of more liberal strains of Judaism beyond Orthodox, was a necessary strategy for surviving as Jews. Currently, secular Israelis, who face no threat of assimilation, see pluralism as a shortcut to the loss of Jewish identity.
“That’s where this misunderstanding begins,” he said.
And it can only end when enough Israelis understand the needs of the diaspora to support politicians who will do the same, he said. “Nobody’s against, but nobody’s really for” making compromises with the non-Orthodox Jewish streams, he said.
Mr. Sharansky has had quieter disagreements with Mr. Netanyahu. He obliquely scolds Israel’s government over its dalliances with hard-right nationalist governments in Eastern Europe, warning that just as “those who say they love Jews but hate Israel are not our friends, those who say they love Israel but hate Jews are not our friends either.”
He has also shown his own blind spots as a politician, and even as an evangelist for freedom — chiefly, his critics say, by seldom applying as critical a lens as he used against the Soviet Union to Israel itself. Writing in The American Conservative, Michael C. Desch accused Mr. Sharansky in 2005 of failing to show the “moral clarity” he demanded of others, instead demonstrating “moral ambiguity and inconsistency in his advocacy of democracy and human rights, particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Atop the indictment were Mr. Sharansky’s insistence that peace could be achieved only between Israel and a legitimately democratic Palestinian Authority — because real democracies do not try to kill one another, he argues — and his rejection of seemingly any peace initiative that required territorial concessions.
To be sure, Mr. Sharansky is quick to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians, but he lays it at the feet of the entire international community, not Israel alone. “It is a thousand times more difficult to be a dissident among the Palestinians than among the Soviets,” he said.
“There, you knew that even if you will be isolated, you are part of a much bigger world of free thought, and this world is with you. Here, who cares?”
It is “the free world,” he rails, that has cynically allowed Palestinian leaders to keep their people in refugee camps for generations and, of late, to send Gaza residents to be shot by Israeli soldiers along the fence.
“And Palestinians will suffer again, and again, and again until the free world will say, ‘Enough,’ ” he said, and stop funding the Palestinian Authority, “stop dealing with these corrupt dictators,” save up the money for a future Marshall Plan and instead start helping Palestinians build a real democracy, beginning with independent representatives.
“That’s what I was proposing 20 years ago, 10 years ago,” Mr. Sharansky said, “and that’s the only thing which can finish it.”
To hear Mr. Sharansky tell it, his career has been an endless series of proofs of lessons from the gulag — lessons that the West, to his dismay, has still not fully absorbed: that every human being craves both freedom and a sense of belonging — impulses often in tension but ideally in balance; that free countries must spread freedom to those who lack it, even when the oppressors are allies; and that freedom cannot be imposed, but must be built from the ground up.
Barack Obama ignored these in 2009 when he snubbed Iranian protesters for the sake of engaging the regime, Mr. Sharansky says (Mr. Obama and others have disputed this argument). Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin both ignored them in installing Yasir Arafat as a dictator to keep Hamas in check. And every president since Jimmy Carter has given Saudi Arabia a pass on human rights.
Already limbering up for the lecture circuit, Mr. Sharansky welcomes the new leadership of Saudi Arabia, saying he does not know yet how transformational Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will prove to be. “Let’s hope,” he said.
“But then the role of the West,” toward the Saudis, he added, should be as it was toward the Soviet Union before its fall: to encourage democratization, but withhold a full international embrace until they do far more. “You have to push him to continue with this, like with Gorbachev.”
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