Fueled by his success in brokering an unlikely deal on women’s prayer at the Western Wall, Natan Sharansky could be entering a new phase in his career as the key interlocutor between Israel and American Jews, a task viewed as urgent on both sides of the Jewish world’s divide.
Once the celebrated champion of the Soviet Jewry movement, then an Israeli politician with limited accomplishments, Sharansky is carving out a unique role in which his perceived weakness in Israel becomes a strength in America.
“I see myself as a Jew just as connected to Israel as I am to the Diaspora,” Sharansky told the Forward in an April 15 telephone interview. “Every time I’m in the Diaspora I feel very Israeli, and when I’m in Israel I can’t stop talking about the Diaspora.”
The interview took place as Sharansky shuttled between formal events marking Israel’s Remembrance Day and the subsequent celebrations of the nation’s 65 years of independence. At all the public events and ceremonies, a front-row seat is reserved for Sharansky, next to the prime minister and president. But that honor is a sign of the formal stature he enjoys as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, not necessarily an indication of the weight he carries in Israel. While Sharansky is still highly respected there, his political power has declined, and he has lost his place in the inner circle of top policymakers and has slipped away from public attention.
But in the United States, Sharansky is still welcomed as a hero — not necessarily because of his official capacity, but rather thanks to his personal history.
“When I meet with him I feel such a good fortune that he’s in the world,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
This dichotomy between Sharansky’s image in Israel and the admiration felt toward him in the United States could be the secret to his success in producing a plan for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, which is considered Judaism’s holiest site. His personal standing among American Jews proved just as helpful as the fact that he is not perceived as a political threat to Israeli leaders. American Jewish leaders trusted his sincerity; Israelis appreciated his impartiality. “There was no political gain in it for him, so naturally [the government] was less suspicious,” said an Israeli official briefed on Sharansky’s negotiations over the Wall proposal.
Sharansky’s struggle for freedom and his path from the Soviet gulag to a new life in Israel inspired the American Jewish community’s movement to free Soviet Jews and drove 250,000 of them to march on Washington in December 1987, in what may have been the Jewish community’s last major mobilization for a common cause.
“He is still greatly admired by the American Jewish community, particularly among those of a certain generation,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: National Conference Supporting Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. That “certain generation” still makes up the leadership of the American Jewish community, but Levin noted that “it is a challenge” to preserve the story of the Soviet Jewry movement and its leaders among younger Jews.
In Israel, Sharansky’s hero’s welcome faded quickly as he entered politics. He founded Yisrael B’Aliya, a party representing the interests of recent immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, and later joined the Likud. He filled several Cabinet positions and was aligned with Israel’s right-wing politics and with the settler movement. But as the votes of Russian-speaking immigrants began to shift toward a party formed by Avigdor Lieberman and later dissolved into the broader Jewish electorate, Sharansky lost his political base of support and eventually retired. In 2009 he was appointed chairman of the Jewish Agency.
In this role he sought to shift the organization’s focus from bringing Jews to Israel to strengthening Jewish “peoplehood,” a call for Jewish unity based on common values and history. Bridging gaps between American Jews and the Israeli government over controversial issues such as women’s prayer at the Western Wall falls squarely under this definition.
“No one wants the Kotel to turn into a place of civil war,” Sharansky said during the interview, later explaining, with his characteristic sense of irony, that “the Jewish people have a special talent for turning everything into a civil war.”
The Western Wall proposal to create an egalitarian prayer space equal in size and stature to the current gender-segregated spaces controlled by the ultra-Orthodox has won surprising support from all parties involved: Reform and Conservative leaders in the United States, women activists demanding equal prayer at the Wall and the Orthodox Kotel rabbi in charge of worship at the site.
“It was about Natan,” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with the Forward. “When he lends his imprimatur to these recommendations, it makes a difference to the Jewish people.”
Communal leaders involved in the negotiations also pointed to Sharansky’s personality and reputation as the keys to overcoming a dispute viewed for years as too sensitive to resolve.
“Natan focused on finding a practical solution,” said one of the participants in the talks that resulted with the compromise, adding that Sharansky did not allow the discussion to “become a debate on our values versus theirs.”
This is not the first time Sharansky mediated a hot button issue dividing Israel and the Diaspora. In 2012 he stepped in to stop what was known as the Rotem Bill, a controversial measure that would have made the Orthodox rabbinate the sole authority on conversions to Judaism. “My theory,” Sharansky said, “is that every 12 years or so, there is something that ignites the ‘Who is a Jew?’ question, and eventually we find a solution good for another 12 years.” The Rotem bill is now off the table, and Sharansky believes that his Kotel compromise, if it is approved and implemented, will take away one more reason for the next flare-up of the “Who is a Jew?” debate.
But while insisting that solutions should be practical and not ideological, Sharansky said he believes that both sides share the blame for increasing tensions between Israel’s religious establishment and America’s Jewish community. He jokingly noted that while most Israelis don’t go to synagogue, “the synagogue they don’t go to is an Orthodox one” — a point missed by many in the Diaspora who do not appreciate the role of the Orthodox in Israeli life. He also noted that American Jews have difficulty grasping Israel’s state involvement in religious issues. On the other hand, Sharansky said he believes that Israel “has to work harder” in making itself inclusive to all Jews and in “giving every Jew a sense of connection.”
His own religious practices reflect this duality. While supporting the expansion of rights for the Reform and Conservative movements, Sharansky attends an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem regularly, and this past January, as he marked his 65th birthday, he was called up to the Torah to belatedly celebrate his bar mitzvah, a rite of passage he was denied growing up in the Soviet Union.
Looking forward, Sharansky may find himself required to take on other disputed issues, including religious pluralism for all denominations in Israel, equality for other religious groups and integration of Arab citizens in Israeli society, all issues that the American Jewish community has raised in the past and would be happy to see added to his agenda. “He has the potential,” Gutow said. “My hope is that he continues to see that what we need is compromise.”
But Sharansky is still occupied with the Kotel proposal. His main task now is to make sure it is adopted by the Netanyahu government and then implemented on the ground.
“Nothing in the history of the Jewish people ever happened fast or without difficulties,” he warned.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.