Home July 2013 For the Love of Israel

For the Love of Israel

Israel faces internal challenges about questions such as who is a Jew and who should be allowed to pray where.  The Jewish homeland also faces the challenge of being a tiny island of democracy, freedom and human rights in a sea of unfriendly neighbors where the concept of human rights barely exists.  Still, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, thinks Israel has even bigger problems.  He also loves Israel passionately, having gone to extraordinary lengths to prove it.
Sharansky has come up with a good compromise to resolve the conflict between women who want to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and traditionalists who oppose them on religious grounds.  Tapped by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be a one-man commission and make recommendations on the issue, Sharansky has met with leaders in Israel and the Diaspora on both sides of the issue.
Noting that “the wall belongs to all of Israel,” Sharansky’s solution is not to divide the area for prayer but rather to double it, renovating the southwest side of the Wall so that in the end it will be the same size as the current traditional prayer area.  One area will remain for traditional prayer, the other for egalitarian prayer.  While both sides will take issue with some of the proposal, Sharansky thinks he can make the compromise work.
“We’re so busy debating one another that we stick to our faith,” said Sharansky, who was in Orange County to speak at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin in June.  “The Wall is a national symbol that is also religious.  The desire to keep Israel as a place for all Jews is the most important thing.”
He believes that the Women of the Wall “deserve respect” for their efforts to pray with full equality at the Kotel.  “They’ve been attempting to do this for 24 years,” he said.  “There are no villains in this story, because all the people involved are concerned about the future of Israel.”
Sharansky, who spent nine years imprisoned in solitary confinement in a Soviet gulag and a total of twelve years waiting to obtain a visa to Israel, said that he found religion during his imprisonment.  He knew he was Jewish while growing up, but he discovered his history, culture and faith during those dark years.  His wife, Avital, whom he married the day before she made aliyah, thinking he would join her shortly, sent him a prayerbook that was confiscated.  In 1986 he was the first Soviet prisoner freed by Mikhail Gorbachev.
The author of three books, Sharansky also served in four different Israeli governments.  He chose to work with the Jewish Agency, because he wants “the Jews to stay one people, to guarantee the future.  I want to connect every Jew with Israel and bring Israel to more and more people.  At the Jewish Agency, all Jews sit at the same table.”
Explaining that 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel, 41 percent in the U.S. and 16 percent elsewhere, Sharansky said that the U.S. has the biggest potential for helping Israel but also poses the biggest challenge: “We’re losing a few hundred Jews a day to assimilation.  I want to strengthen Jews by connecting them with their roots and with the state of Israel.”
Another concern of Sharansky’s is the gaps between rich and poor in Israel.  He believes that the Israeli army is “a unique instrument of integration.”  He added that the one million Jews who came from the Former Soviet Union – including engineers, doctors and scientists – came to Israel needing jobs and needing to fit into society.  Today, many of those people have had a huge impact on the healthcare and high technology industries that have brought Israel so many accolades and strengthened its economy.
Also, as Sharansky reasoned in his book, A Case for Democracy, “There will be no real peace unless there is a civil society in Palestine.  Democracy is not about elections unless you have a free society.”  He worries, because, as he pointed out in 2005, it is impossible to try to make peace agreements with individual leaders; eventually they will be hated and ousted.  He sees Arab Spring as a missed opportunity.  “Overthrowing dictators doesn’t mean democracy, but if it had happened years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-Israel groups would have had less power,” he said.
Sharansky is hopeful that there have been signs of a civil society in the West Bank in the past three or four years.  As he explained, “You can’t impose peace from the top to the bottom.  It will come from the bottom up as there are more joint ventures.”
Obviously, Sharansky has found his true calling.  He can connect the Jews of  the world with Israel, starting with showing college students that they should be proud of Israel and their Jewish identity, using his own hard-fought battle to be there as a shining example.
The Jewish Agency now has programs on 70 U.S. campuses, as well as summer camps around the world.  Sharansky wants to see programs on 150 campuses and to see 100,000 Jews a year going to Israel on Birthright, internships and other programs.
“My dream for my grandchildren is to live in a world where 75 to 80 percent of Jews will live in Israel, where Jews will be strong and continue to argue,” he concluded.  “Jews try to define one another, but we are really one people.  It’s OK to argue as long as we stay Jewish.”

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