Natan Sharansky feels the revolutions in Egypt and the Arab world offer a challenge the West is not meeting.
“It’s good because it creates new opportunities,” Sharansky said of the so-called Arab Spring. “It’s bad if these opportunities will not be used.”
The former prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union and Knesset member in Israel currently chairs the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). He was in Paramus last week to speak with donors to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which directs most of its Israel charity through JAFI.
“For the first time, there are millions of people who are ready to risk their lives to not live under dictatorship. They are protesting not because they want to destroy Israel, demonize America, or empower Islam. They want to live better lives,” he said.
The challenge for the free world, he said, is to stop seeing a partner in the non-democratic forces, and to turn to the democratic forces instead.
“Who is America giving their $2 billion to? To the Egyptian military,” he said. “Now is the time to give to the NGOs [non-governmental organizations], the human rights organizations, with the full power of the free world. The fact that the free world is waiting to see what happens, that is a bad sign.”
Without proper support for the democratic forces, Sharansky worries that the militaries and the Muslim Brotherhood “will come to an agreement, new dictatorships will come to power, and democracy will have to wait another 20 years. The longer dictatorships exist, the stronger will become the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalists.”
In contrast, what Israel needs for peace is for democracies to flourish in the region, he said.
“Governments that have to be concerned about the well-being of their people can have a real stable peace. All these attempts to make peace with dictators who are hated by their own people are doomed to failure,” he said.
That is why he opposed the Oslo peace process, he said.
Recently, however, he has begun to see some encouraging signs among the Palestinians.
“In the last two years, in the west bank there has been free economic development,” he said. “That type of process can bring to peace,” if added to it is a “reform of the Palestinian school system, ending the campaign of hatred against Israel, and a dismantling of refugee camps.”
Yet there remains a shortage of the “leadership which is needed for a serious reform of Palestinian society.”
He criticized Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, known commonly as Abu Mazen, for replacing “serious reforms with propagandistic reforms, with steps in the United Nations.”
Abbas’ effort to achieve Palestinian statehood through the U.N. proves that “he is not ready to see the establishment of a state as the end of the conflict” between Arabs and Israel.
“It’s an attempt to simply continue the ideological war against Israel forever,” he said.
“If the world will be buying this strategy of Abu Mazen, this campaign of delegitimization of the State of Israel, that can be a strategic threat. That’s an important struggle we have to be in,” he said.
Part of that threat, he said, is an effort by Palestinian activists to distance the young generation of American Jews from Israel.
That is why JAFI is active on American campuses, sending 50 Israeli sh’lichim, or representatives, to work in conjunction with Hillel. “The critical thing is that the Jews of the diaspora should be connected to Israel,” he said.
JAFI has played a leading role in that connection, helping bring 350,000 American Jews to Israel through Birthright, which underwrites short trips, and Masa, which offers year-long experiences.
“The Jewish Agency, which in the past was mainly dealing with how to help Jews to come to Israel, how to build up the Jews of Israel, is more and more involved in how to strengthen the identity of every Jew in the world, and how to use Israel to strengthen Jewish identity,” he said.
“World Jewry has discovered today that the best way to strengthen Jewish identity of their children is to send them to Israel.”
“It is in the interest of world Jewry to see a society that is an ‘or lagoyim,’ a ‘light to the nations,’ because that is what strengthens their feeling of identity and pride,” he said.
The partnerships between U.S. and Israeli communities under JAFI’S Partnership 2Gether program are important “not only because they help Nahariya [with which JFNNJ is twinned], they are important for both sides to strengthen Jewish identity and to stay Jewish,” he said.
“Israel is investing more and more in world Jewry,” said Sharansky.
“Twelve years ago, there was a big debate in the Knesset [whether we should] give money from our taxpayers to rich American Jews to send their kids to Israel. Today, there is no question. The Israeli government is giving tens of millions to Birthright and $24 million to Masa to bring American Jewish students to Israel so that they will become better Jews,” he said.
The Israeli government pays half of the costs of Masa and a third the costs of Birthright.
Before assuming the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency in 2009, Sharansky spent nine years in the Knesset – a term that he noted matched his nine years in Soviet prison.
“I feel it’s all one career. In terms of titles, I was a little lucky. I got my highest title in the very beginning. I became a Prisoner of Zion.”
“From the moment I discovered my Jewish identity in ’67, from being a Jew who was assimilated to being proud of his history and the State of Israel, all of my struggle is how to strengthen the identity of the Jewish people,” he said.