Natan Sharansky, newly elected Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive
addressing the Jewish Agency Board of Governors flanked by Richard Pearlstone
Chairman of the Board of Governors.
July 2, 2009 / 10 Tammuz 5769
Dear friends: I want to thank the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, I want to thank Yuli Edelstein; I want to thank Ritchie Pearlstone; the Chairman of the Board of Governors, I want to thank Amos Hermon, the head of the Nomination Committee and each and everyone of you for this honor and this challenge. My special thanks to my wife Avital.
I know that for her this decision was specially difficult because after all, after many years of struggle and separation and public life and building our family home in Israel in the middle of the public attention, we finally had a little bit less than three years of great life where you can read books, write books, marry your daughters and not be criticized for this. Now to abruptly stop this great life and to move back into public eye is not an easy decision for us. But we did it together.
Being elected the Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency is not only a great honor and challenge, it is also the closing of a very large circle. A circle, which started many years ago in Moscow, when we were ordinary loyal Soviet Jews -- which meant we were deprived of our freedom and our identity and were powerless and helpless.
We discovered there is the State of Israel, which fights for its right to exist and also for our dignity, a state which is waiting for us. Then we discovered that there is a great history, which started with Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and continues -- and we are part of this exodus. Then we discovered that we are a part of great people whose solidarity, whose struggle will be always with us. That is when we began to fight for our freedom.
That is why, when the judge, some minutes before sentencing me, asked me, “What are the last words which you want to say to the court?” I told him: “I have nothing to say to the court, but to my people and to my wife I am saying “L’shanah ha’bah b’Yerushalayim, next year in Jerusalem.” I said it because I knew that this is what connects me with the generations of Jews before, and with those Jews who had been fighting for me all these years.
Let me take you for a second to the prison thousands of miles from Jerusalem and from Moscow, to Ural, on the border of Siberia. There I was in the solitary confinement and near me in the other cell was another Jew, another Prisoner of Zion, Yosef Mendelevitz, also in solitary confinement. We couldn’t talk to one another, but we could signal in Morse code.
We could not see one another on what we believed was Independence Day in Israel, at the time which we believed was eleven o’clock in Jerusalem, the time the siren goes off. We looked, we stood still together and looked in the direction of Jerusalem. We heard the siren and we saw the people of Jerusalem standing in the streets. We heard the voice of Menachem Begin promising that they will never stop fighting until we will be released. We knew that the whole Jewish world was united in the struggle. And we knew that the day will come and the airplane will come and will take us from that prison to Israel.
That day came for me five years later. Then, one after the other, all the other Prisoners of Zion were released and then, as the result of twenty-five years of the struggle of all Jewish people, millions of Jews were able to leave the Soviet Union. That was the power of this connection with Israel, with Jerusalem, and with the Jewish people.
Today we live in a much better world, a world where there are no walls or prisons standing between us. We can talk to our friends all over the world in real time and even to see them.
Yet, why are we so lonely? Why are we so weak in facing external threats? We are not in solitary confinement. We live in big communities, the great community of the State of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. But these communities look like they are running in different directions. Is there a way to change the world? Is there an organization that can do it?
Great ideas change the course of history. Ideas inspire people, mobilize their commitment, their energy, their talents. Then an organization unites these people and their talents and this energy and so history can be changed. That is what happened more than a hundred years ago when Theodore Herzl came up with a simple idea. He said the time has come to translate our great prayers and dreams and desires into a political act to build the State of Israel.
But his was not only an idea; he created an organization -- the Zionist Organization. It became clear that it was not enough to have a small group of people who want to come to Palestine to build the State of Israel. You have to unite the forces of the whole Jewish world and so the Jewish Agency was created.
Israel was built long before the State was declared; before and after the declaration the Jewish Agency brought millions of Jews in many different waves were brought and the state was developed.
Today we are in a different world with different challenges. We are in, what I call, the world of post-identity. Today for many people in the free world any connection to their religion, to their people, their roots or their history seems like something which goes against the principles of freedom. In this world of post identity, we Jews are especially in danger because of assimilation and the weakening of the connection to our roots and to our tradition.
One of the principle aims of the Jewish Agency was and will be aliyah to Israel. But how do you bring an oleh from America or from France or England if you are not strengthening their identification with the Jewish people. This is our greatest challenge.
We see, for example with Birthright, that if you want to strengthen Jewish identity of Jews of the Diaspora, you need Israel. But we also see that if you want to strengthen Jewish identity of Israelis, you need the Diaspora. Where is the organization uniting this effort? Where is the organization in which Israel and the Diaspora meet and build projects together? There is only one organization in all the big world of Jewish organizations where the State of Israel and Jews of the Diaspora are in constant dialogue and are constantly working together. That is our organization, the Jewish Agency.
We should speak big and think big about our goals. Our aim should be no less than to make sure that Jewish Zionist education is available to every Jew in the world. It is a difficult task, but it is possible. Not only should Jewish Zionist education be available, it should be desirable, in demand, it should be cool, as my daughters say.
The Jewish Agency can do it. It should be done through the strength of our bond with the State of Israel. Important decisions should be made together. Important questions, which are discussed here, should also to be discussed at the Government meetings and in the hearings in the committees of the Knesset.
Now let’s go back to that moment in Soviet prison. I stood silent in honor of Israel’s Independence Day, I felt such a close connection with all the Jews of the world. I have to say that I remember that moment, often nowadays, especially when I travel to campuses. (In the last six years I visited seventy universities all over the world, fifty of them in the United States of America and twenty mainly in Europe.)
The college campus is one of the most challenging places today for us as a people. It is a place where our youth is under constant pressure to be ashamed of and distanced from their people and their country.
The first question I was asked by a young, talented Jewish student on the very first campus I visited – a question repeated again and again – was: “Explain to me why we need Israel. Tikun olam means that justice for everybody. So let us work for justice for everybody.”
I told him: “Ask your parents how the world looked when there was no Israel.” I could have explained about Jews who are left their heritage and went on to make a revolution. But we in the Soviet Union did the opposite. We went back to our roots, back to our identity to fight for our freedom. And in this way we helped fight for freedom all over the world.
The most important challenge for all of us is to make sure that this student at Columbia University or that student at Berkley or a young couple in Sderot or Jews of Venezuela or Kiev – that they all feel themselves empowered by this connection to the Land of Israel, to the State of Israel, by the connection to Jerusalem, by their pride for our history and for our tradition.
In this post-identity world, if there are strong, vibrant Jewish families united around Jerusalem and the State of Israel then our lives will be meaningful and we will be able to fulfill the mission for which we are chosen as a people: to do tikun olam, to make our world a better place.