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Sharansky sees campuses as Jewish battleground
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Sharansky sees campuses as Jewish battleground

Former refusenik says Israel trips strengthen ‘weak identity’

Jewish Agency for Israel chair Natan Sharansky says the young people who took part in Birthright Israel “discovered they are a part of a much more interesting story than they thought.” Photos by Robert Wiener
Jewish Agency for Israel chair Natan Sharansky says the young people who took part in Birthright Israel “discovered they are a part of a much more interesting story than they thought.” Photos by Robert Wiener

Speaking in Whippany at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ May 22, Natan Sharansky suggested that a Jewish community once focused on distressed Jewish populations the world over must now confront eroding identity among young Jews growing up in relative security.

There “is weak Jewish identity and we need to strengthen it,” said the 63-year-old chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “The best way to strengthen Jewish identity is to have an Israel experience.”

Sharansky addressed a gathering of about 300 people on the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus.

Sharansky shared anecdotes from his time as perhaps the best known of the Soviet Jewish refuseniks and “Prisoners of Zion” as he urged his audience to support Jewish identity efforts such as MASA, which coordinates some 160 long-term study programs in Israel.

Sharansky said the most important battlefield against perpetrators of anti-Semitism is on American college campuses.

“The American campuses are occupied territories,” he said. “The debate is why Israel should exist as a state. And as result, I have spoken to many young Jews who say, ‘For us as Jews it is better to live in a world where Israel doesn’t exist. Then we don’t have to be responsible for all of these awful things we hear.’

“Our enemies have succeeded to disconnect a young generation of Jews from Israel,” Sharansky said. “Our mandate as the Jewish Agency is to connect Jews with Israel.”

To do so, his agency has placed “Israel Fellows” at 50 American campus Hillels. The recent Israeli college graduates assist with Israel education and advocacy, training young advocates how to debate on Israel’s behalf.

The fellows’ task, Sharansky said, “is to bring as much as possible of Israel to their universities, bring as many Jewish students as possible to Israel, and create a network of Jews who are not afraid to speak and defend our cause. The more Jews there are who know how to debate and defend Israel, the more the atmosphere can be changed very quickly,” he said.

‘People with roots’

Sharansky recalled the birth of Jewish identity among his cohort of then young Soviet Jews.

“We were absolutely assimilated from our Jewishness. On the other hand, we had no freedom,” he said, recalling a time when “the only value of your life is survival.”

He also recalled the small demonstrations in Moscow that would eventually inspire “a huge campaign of Jews from all over the world.”

Jewish activists in the USSR “discovered their identity as part of a much bigger, more exciting, more interesting story of being one people,” he said, suggesting that the Birthright Israel program has similarly proven successful at forging ties between his adopted land and Diaspora Jews. The program, a partnership between the Jewish Agency and Diaspora philanthropies, offers free trips to Israel to young Jews.

What happened to the Birthright participants, he said, “is what happened to us. They discovered they are a part of a much more interesting story than they thought. They are a people with roots.”

Asked about the tensions between democratic movements and Islamic fundamentalism in Israel’s neighboring Arab countries, Sharansky said, “Sooner or later corrupt dictators will be overthrown. But the later it happens the stronger the Muslim Brotherhood….” If Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “was removed 10 years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood would have the support of 3 or 4 percent of the Egyptian population. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood has the support of 30 percent of the Egyptian population. In another 10 years the Muslim Brotherhood could control all of Egypt. The sooner [a revolution] happens, the less chance the Muslim Brotherhood will control.”

Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, opened the evening’s program, saying that winning Sharansky’s freedom “was not only a victory for the Jewish people, it created a momentum by which the Iron Curtain fell.”

Introducing Sharansky was Jacqueline Levine of West Orange, who served in 1986-87 as national chair of the Mobilization for Soviet Jewry, which brought 250,000 American Jews to Washington to protest Soviet repression.

She thanked other activists “for coming to Washington to encourage President Reagan to do what he did. He said to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘You have to let the people go,’ and indeed, within a few years, hundreds of thousands of Jews have left the former Soviet Union.”

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