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INTERVIEW: Natan Sharansky on Funding, Identity Building, and Democracy

March 13, 2012 1:55 pm 0 comments

Ronald Reagan with Natan Sharansky in 1986. Photo: White House.

After spending nine years in the Soviet Gulag, Natan Sharansky learned not to get too caught up in current events.

“You have to look at [the world] from the perspective of the history of tens or sometimes even hundreds of years, and that’s what gives you the opportunity not to be too excited—it’s easy to be excited at least 10 times a day from different news,” Sharansky tells JointMedia News Service at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies office in Boston. “But when you look at it philosophically, in a historical perspective, you can react more appropriately.”

The former refusenik—who established the Yisrael B’Aliyah party in Israel, served as deputy prime minister, and is now chairman of the executive at the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)—has for the last two years overseen JAFI’s shift in attention from aliyah to building global Jewish identity. In the following interview, Sharansky discusses that shift, the Jewish Federation system’s new overseas funding model, and the Arab Spring:

How is JAFI’s strategic shift progressing?

“We have spent more concentrated efforts on Israeli engagement in a number of ways—bringing Birthright into countries like Russia, Germany, Hungary, and so on. And adding more tracks to Masa [Israel study programs], especially with building leadership programs, because we believe that Masa is not only a good way of bringing Jews [to Israel] to study for a year, but also to prepare them as leaders of their communities.

“Many Jews in the world are spending time in ‘repairing the world activities,’ or tikkun olam activities. But unfortunately, for many of them, that is a way for them to abandon their Jewishness, to abandon their identity. We believe that it has to be absolutely the opposite. It is very important that they understand that the source of the energy, the motivation to make the world better all comes from your connection to your identity and to your family. So, this year we started four centers of tikkun olam in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Israel, where Israelis and Jews of the Diaspora together work on social programs, and we hope that very quickly we will grow this project to 10 centers.

“Now, of course, if you plan to connect young Jews with their heritage, with their communities, and with the state of Israel, you have to be where young Jews are, mainly the campuses and the universities. So, in the last two years we more than tripled our program of [placing JAFI Israel Fellows to Hillel] on campuses. When I came to the Jewish Agency we were working on 15 campuses, today we are working on 50. And our aim in the years to come is to work on 100 campuses.”

Last November, the Jewish Federations of North America broke from its automatic overseas funding split of 75 percent for JAFI and 25 percent for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in favor of a new “Global Planning Table,” consisting of Federation system leaders who analyze Jewish needs in Israel and around the world before determining the JAFI-JDC funding split. What challenges has this new system presented for JAFI?

“The idea that the projects of Jewish people have to be more attractive to donors is absolutely right. We all hope that this opportunity will be used to attract new donors to the new projects of the Jewish Agency. The potential danger is that if all the attention is [placed on] how to organize competition [for funds] between different projects, it might lead to losing sight of core obligations. After all, the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee can fulfill their global obligations—whether it’s in the field of social help for the weak like JDC, or whether it’s in the field of building Jewish identity and connection to Israel of the young generation, of helping Jewish communities—only if there is kind of a core commitment, core obligations, from Jews of the world.

“When we help the Jews of Greece [endure economic hardship], when we create summer camps in Russia, or when we are dealing with the absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, all this is part of our core activity, which can be done only if our major partners—first of all, American Jewish federations—have this commitment. So, we do hope that this commitment will not be weakened; to the contrary, [we hope] it will be strengthened.”

What do two of your books—The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror and Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy—teach us about the Arab Spring and the larger definition of democracy?

“The main conclusion of these two books, and the main conclusion of my life experience, is that there are two basic desires which all the people have: the desire to be free, and the desire to belong. The problems are coming when one of these desires is working against the other, when your desire to be free means that you are abandoning your identity, your community, your family, that you want to live in the post-modern world. Or, that your desire to belong is undermining or erasing your belief in freedom and human rights. But when these two desires work together, strengthening one another, then life becomes really meaningful, and full, and interesting, and deep, and important.

“We Jews have unique perspective, unique experience, because we became people when we became free. Only when we went out of Egypt did we turn into ‘Am’ (a nation). And all our life until the creation of the state of Israel, and including the existence of the state of Israel, is made up of the challenge of how to at the same time be free—universalists—and particular—nationalists—and have a Jewish democratic state.

“If you view what’s happening in the world today, you think the example of Israel as ‘Or LaGoyim’ (a light unto the nations) is even more important. Why? Because on one hand we have the Arab world, which had a lot of identity, and at some moment people said: ‘It’s not enough, we want to have freedom.’ They fought, and they still didn’t find the balance. On the other hand we have Europe, which had a lot of freedom, and more and more people feel that it’s not enough, ‘We also must to go back to our identities.’ And here in the middle, between these two worlds, we have the state of Israel, which is insisting on and equally involved in the struggle for its right to be free, independent, and at the same time to have a strong Jewish identity. So that’s our contribution to the world.”

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