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Sharansky: Jewish Outreach Important in Former Soviet Union

March 28, 2000
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Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of industry and trade who was the foremost Jewish refusenik in the Soviet Union during the 1970s, takes the middle ground on the urgency of immediate Jewish emigration from his native land.

Potentially a million of his brethren could move to Israel and continue to enrich that nation’s society and economy, says Sharansky. “But they must have the option to live as Jews or leave as Jews,” he declares.

Meanwhile, Sharansky is concerned that “without special effort, they may just disappear, “victims of 70 years of assimilation and erosion of their culture, heritage and roots.

Sharansky discussed the outlook for Jews of the former Soviet Union during a recent four-day trip to the United States and Canada, in which he made several Israel Bonds appearances and conducted some private meetings.

The renowned refusenik sees no government-supported anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, but is more concerned with economic and political instability in that part of the world. Top Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have expressed to him an aversion to “local anti-Semites who wish to cause and benefit from loss of control.”

Sharansky, a native of Ukraine with a degree in computer science, applied for an exit visa to Israel in 1973, but was denied one for “security reasons.” He went underground, continued refusenik activities and was arrested in 1977. Convicted as a “spy” and sentenced to 13 years, he was freed in 1986 after an international uproar spurred by his wife, Avital.

“We must strengthen their feeling of belonging,” says the Israeli minister of his brethren still in the former Soviet Union. Outreach is vital to Jewish schools, clubs, synagogues and other communal causes now emerging and growing there, he adds.

“If we educate, as many as a million could come out” and make Israel richer and stronger, he comments. The 1990s flood of immigration from the Soviet Union to Israel trickled down to 60,000 in 1999, he notes.

Sharansky also repeats his opposition to “non-Jews who wish to immigrate and become illegal visitors or residents,” which has become an issue in Israel. The matter of “quickie” questionable conversions is now in Israeli courts.

During his rise in influence and eventual political strength in Israel, Sharansky steadfastly declined to revisit his native country, although the locked gates had disappeared in 1989. In 1997, after becoming a minister and Israeli Cabinet member, he returned for the first time and paid an emotional call to the exact site of his original imprisonment.

His understated reaction: “There have been many changes.

“No more KGB, no more Politburo,” he concludes.

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