Wednesday, 15 February saw the official launch of the Project Ten Center in Durban. The guest of honor for this occasion was Mr. Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel and well known "Refusenik". Prof Antony Arkin had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Sharansky during his visit to Durban.
1. JAFI IS PRIMARILY CONCERNED WITH JEWISH CONTINUITY AND IDENTITY.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE STATE OF WORLD JEWRY TODAY ?
JAFI’s mission is to connect Israel to the Jewish world. Historically their main emphasis was on Aliyah. This is still a key component of JAFI’s mission. The numbers are high and are growing. Currently the big operations are in Russia, Ukraine, France and Brazil.
The reasons why people are leaving those countries are very different. In Ukraine there is a war and the collapse in large areas of government infrastructure. In Russia there is increasing concern at the authoritarism of the Russian government and the concern that the Jewish community is being isolated. In France the rising anti-Semitism is putting increased pressure on a well established community. In Brazil the economy at times seems very close to a meltdown.
While JAFI obviously takes no credit for these push factors, its hard work has ensured that Israel is the first choice for those leaving. Ongoing programs such as Birthright and MASA have played important roles in strengthening Jewish identity.
The second strand of JAFI’s work then is not only bringing Jews to Israel, but bringing Israel to the Jewish world. New types of shlichim with new programs have been introduced. Previously JAFI concentrated on Aliyah and youth, now there is a movement to place shlichim on the university campuses. These are the driving force for the deligitimisation of Israel. The college students need all the support they deserve. The first shaliach for SAUJS is being put in place. Worldwide there are more than 80 shlichim.
2. IS THE CONCEPT OF ISRAEL AS BEACON FOR THE JEWISH WORLD STILL VALID ?
Historically Herzl’s vision was that World Jewry would move voluntarily to Israel or would assimilate into their host nations. The diaspora was seen then as a passing phase. This is not happening. Millions of Jews continue to live abroad in vibrant, thriving democratic communities. However there is enormous assimilation in these societies. The only effective bulwarks are Zionism and a strong religious identity. Without these countervailing forces, the existing communities’ grandchildren will not live as Jews.
Israel then is essential for Jewish continuity. Much of JAFI’s work is to strengthen these links with World Jewry. So while Israeli society is not monolithic and highly opinionated on many issues including Jewish identity, it plays the central pivotal role in the life of the Jewish people everywhere.
3. KNESSET MEMBERS ACROSS THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM WERE TERRIBLY DISAPPOINTED BY THE LACK OF SUPPORT BY AMERICAN JEWRY FOR ISRAEL’S POSITION ON THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL. HOW SERIOUS IS THIS DIVIDE?
One needs a nuanced answer. American Jews voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. While I do not agree with every aspect of the administration’s policy towards Israel, it was considered a pivotal issue and Obama genuinely thought he was working for Israel’s best interest.
The Iran Nuclear deal was very polarizing for American Jewry, especially as all major political parties in Israel thought it was fraught with danger. Personally, unlike the fight for the freeing of Russian Jews from the Soviet Union, where strong linkages were made with the regime’s behaviour, Obama made no such linkages with Iran. He should have built far greater safeguards into the process to counter Iranian threats to destroy Israel and to arm Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups.
So it is a great disappointment that the Iranian nuclear deal was not linked to Iran’s destructive actions against Israel. It is hoped that President Trump will emphasize far more these linkages going forward.
4. YOU HAVE PLAYED THE LEADING ROLE IN TRYING TO FINALISE THE KOTEL PRAYER PLAZA AND FREEDOM OF RELIGION FOR ALL STREAMS OF JUDAISM. YET PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU HAS BAULKED AT IMPLEMENTING THE DEAL, APPROVED BY THE CABINET. HOW WILL THIS IMPACT ON DIASPORA – ISRAEL RELATIONS? THE LARGEST SEGMENT OF THE DIASPORA IS STILL STIGMATIZED BY THE JEWISH STATE.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has played a very positive role and has been most supportive during the three years of negotiations. He brought me in to lead the discussions. Netanyahu however faced some critical moments. Though he worked very hard, his new government coalition relies on the Ultra-Orthodox and Haredi parties. They have blackmailed him by threatening to bring down the government if the Kotel deal is implemented. The Prime Minister is asking for more time to find a solution that can be achieved without the collapse of the government.
The Supreme Court is likely to be a determining factor and should help to achieve a realistic solution.
5. FOR NINE YEARS YOU WERE LOCKED UP IN THE GULAG. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE RUSSIAN / ISRAEL RELATIONS WITH PRESIDENT PUTIN TODAY?
There is a very good side to the current Russian government. There is very little anti-Semitism and the administration has a very positive attitude to the Jewish community. There are increasing links to Israel and lot of serious dialogue is taking place.
But there are real concerns. The Jewish community was alarmed at the recent expulsion of the senior Chabad rabbi and the increased authoritarianism of Russian society.
Russia’s increasing support for the Assad regime in Syria and close ties with Iran which is trying to build a Shi’ite hegemony on Israel’s northern borders is a matter of deep concern. There is also a significant leakage of Russian technology and weapons to Hezbollah. Fortunately there is a close dialogue between the Russian and Israeli leadership.
6. PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU MEETS WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP TODAY. WILL TRUMP BE GOOD FOR ISRAEL?
There are good intentions on both sides. However the Trump administration is not yet fully in place, so there is very little experience and policy developed. Statements that he sees Israel as a main ally are very positive. We will know more, however after Netanyahu’s meeting with him today but there are many friendly voices in the administration.
7. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON PROJECT TEN?
We have just visited Entebbe and Durban, two cities that resonate with me very personally. The Entebbe rescue mission symbolized for me Jewish freedom. When the Soviets came to arrest me a picture of Yoni Netanyahu was on my wall. Durban, for the Jewish world was the disgraceful Racism Conference of 2001 where the program to delegitimize Israel and accelerate anti-Semitism was introduced. Project Ten is the perfect antidote as a response.
Project Ten empowers young Jewish adults both from Israel and the diaspora to create change in vulnerable communities. It brings together young Jewish volunteers to work with local NGO’s. This Jewish Peace Corps embodies the essence of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. The Durban Project is unique in that it is a partnership between JAFI and the SAZF with funding from the Victor Daitz Foundation. It fits perfectly into JAFI’s mission of building Jewish identity and fulfilling Herzl’s vision for Israel to be a partner in African emancipation. There can be no better answer to the racism of the 2001 conference in Durban than the enthusiasm and assistance of the young Jewish volunteers in Project Ten Durban.