Recalling Soviet days, Sharansky hits home for Jewish Agency

Yesterday, the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Steve Schwager gave his pitch for more money from the federation. Today it was the turn of the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky.

This was the fourth time that I have seen Sharansky speak in the past week, and he clearly saved his best for the biggest stage, 2,000 or so people here for the warm up act for Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu.

Sharansky, who is a longtime personal and political ally of Netanyahu, and who was put in place as the Jewish Agency head by Netanyahu, certainly gave his friend a rousing set up. 

Sharansky got received a standing ovation as he took the stage to regal music, befitting of the savior that many in the embattled Jewish Agency believe that he is.

On the 20th anniversary of the day that the Berlin Wall fell – an event in which Sharansky the former famous Soviet dissident played a major role – the Jewish Agency chairman drew more heavily on his past than I have seen him on this speaking tour.

When he was a foot soldier in the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jewry and the fight to bring down the Iron Curtain, Sharansky said that he was often told that he had to choose between the universal cause and the specific national Jewish cause.

But that choice that he had to make in the struggle for freedom is not all that different from the struggle for identity that Jews today face.

“In the post nationalist, post identity world where people are once again asked to make a choice.  Do you believe in the universal value of human rights you are told why do you hold onto individual nationalism. Do we really want to shelter ourselves in the cocoon of a Jewish state?” he asked. “When one young Jew believes he or she must make a choice that he or she cannot belong to both, then they make the choice in favor of universalism, then assimilation erodes our community. Our detractos sense our weakness and our hesitation.”

Sharansky is clearly positioning the Jewish Agency as an identity building organization.

“Identity strengthening is the best answer in the struggle for the freedom of Israel,” he said. The most important thing today, like yesterday, 20 years ago is the return to our Jewish roots. Rebuilding our Jewish identity can allow us to fight for tikun olam everywhere, for justice and for freedom for everyone.

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