“I don’t want to be the Commissar of Aliyah”

  • Sharansky with Vladimir
JA head wants all Jews to make Aliyah, but doesn't believe they should be forced to. He sat down for an hour with SAJR’s Ant Katz at his Sandton hotel. He was a keynote speaker at the Fed’s four-yearly national conference. Sharansky’s key message to SA Jewry: “How long is there a future for Jews in SA? You must decide. If you want to come (to Israel), we will welcome you.” But, he added, the JA would support & strengthen Jewish life in the diaspora for those who chose to remain. Read his views on tackling anti-Semitism & a host of different issues.
by ANT KATZ | Mar 11, 2015

Sharansky is one of the most powerful figures on the Israeli scene. He is currently on his fourth visit to South Africa and says that SA Jewry is very connected to Israel and probably the most together among all diaspora communities.

South Africaa, he says, is the diaspora community with the world’s highest level of kids at Jewish day schools – by far (the last research by the Kaplan Institute at UCT pegged the percentage in the seventies). Australia probably comes in second at 55 percent, says Sharansky, while in the US only 12 percent of Jewish kids attend Jewish schools.

15-Jewish population stats“As the Jewish Agency, we like to work with South African Jewish organisations,” he said, because of the high level of connectivity with Israel among SA Jewry.

The Ukrainian (Soviet)-born Israeli politician, child chess prodigy, scientist, human rights activist and author spent nine years in Soviet prisons as the most famous of the “refuseniks.”

He was integral in paving the way for a million Russian Jews to immigrate to, and be absorbed by Israel growing the holy land’s population by 25 percent.

As a politician Sharansky served in the following cabinet posts (1996 to 2005) as Ministers of: Industry and Trade; Internal Affairs; Deputy Prime Minister; Housing & Construction; and Jerusalem Affairs.

15-Jewish pop statsSince June 2009, Sharansky has served as Chairman of the Executive of the JEWISH AGENCY FOR ISRAEL. Their SA arm, The Israel Centre, has offices in both Cape Town and Joburg.

So much has been written on Sharansky’s remarkable life story, that Jewish Report quizzed him his opinions of current and pertinent issues – issues that, for the most part, his opinions are not in the public domain. Much of the following interview is writing in paraphrase, unless indicated as a direct quotation.

Personal perspectives from Natan Sharansky…

Can one feel “Proudly Jewish South African”? Sharansky says he knows and understands that there are Jews living in the diaspora who love Israel but feel a need to disengage themselves from anti-Israeli feelings.

Sochnut JASA LOGOSharansky’s message to SA Jewry: “How long is there a future for Jews in SA? You must decide. If you want to come (to Israel), we will welcome you.”

“My role… (is) to bring Israel to the diaspora; and the diaspora to Israel.”

Old classical anti-Semitism when Jews were accused of blood libel. The new anti-Semitism (spread by Arabs and Muslims) is to accuse the IDF of harvesting organs. “It is the same blood libel.”

“We have to be the masters of the internet,” to disseminate information to our own people and dispel the lies told by our enemies, he says.

Ashkenazi’s at first thought they were the masters in Israel. It took two generations for them to realise their mistake.

Having won so many significant awards and been part of so many rewarding experiences, Jewish Report asked Sharansky if he could singe out his single most significant achievement. He didn’t miss a beat or take a second to think about it: “My marriage,” he said emphatically. “Before you go to prison, get married” he advised. He says when he married Avital, he says, “she was a quiet girl.” A few years later, he says, she was leading the struggle for Soviet Jewry, engaging heads of state and creating chapters of the movements worldwide.

Is anti-Zionism necessarily anti-Semitic? Sharansky says it is the same thing only packaged in a modern way. He gives the example of the old classical anti-Semitic situation where Jews were accused of blood libel. “Many times in history of the world people believed that Jews used Gentile blood to make our matza,” he says. Now, the world accuses Israel of war crimes. Their accusations that the IDF harvests Palestinian organs, he says, it is just as ridiculous and it “is the same, a blood libel.” That is how countries apply hypocrisy, he says, and every diaspora Jew needs to understand this.

For world Jewry to be able to put the true parable out there and counter lies told by our enemies, says Sharansky, “We have to be the masters of the internet!”

On eastern Ukraine…

Having grown up until his university days in the city of Donetsk in Ukraine, which is currently the centre of the civil war being fought in that country, Jewish Report asked Sharansky if he was still emotionally attached to the region.

Of course, he said, “I am emotionally and practically attached.” Every day the JA is helping Jewish people who are trapped there. “I know all of these places well from my childhood,” he says. “In those days - I left in 1966 – we were absolutely assimilated. There was no Jewish practice, but we knew we were Jews and we faced a lot of anti-Semitism. Friends would say things like: ‘What a good guy, pity he is Jewish’!” It is strange to think back, he says. Had someone asked in the sixties if they thought there was more chance that Ukraine would be involved in a future war with Russia or with Aliens, he says, “we’d say, ‘of course Aliens’.”

Sharansky says the JA is involved in a major operation in the region. In 2013 they took in 2,000 olim. Last year it was 6,000 and this year Israel is likely to absorb even more. The JA is working with the help of local Christians and moving Jews from the war zone to “a more stable place,” says Sharansky, referring to settlement camps they have set up in the west of the country. From there, the refugees are moved to Israel.

“I was there recently and met a fellow Ukrainian who said what is happening with Jews is very unfair,” he says. “Why are only Jews being looked after? I took it as a compliment,” says Sharansky. Being a Jew in Ukraine used to be a curse, now they feel chosen, he says. This is “a reminder of what the Jewish Agency Is all about.”

On Israel’s absorption of olim…

Jewish Report asked Sharansky what Israel’s annual and long-term capacities were to absorb olim?

Natan Sharansky is confident that Israel could manage to absorb a million olim in a hurry if they had to. Like with the Russians, he says “every million we can manage.”

15-Jewish population statsHe says that the Negev, which represents more than half of Israel’s territory, has been under infrastructural development for some time. Today, he says, much of the Negev is a one hour road or rail commute to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. And, he adds, there is a readiness on the part of Israeli society to absorb all Jews who want to make Aliyah.

In fact, says the JA head, the last decision of the recently-dissolved Knesset was to allocate funds for more immigrants expected from France.

This is not to say that there are no problems with regard to absorption, he says. Cultural integration is more of a problem, he admits, but it is easier for those who can speak so0me level of Hebrew. Israel will have closed the gap on its ability to integrate newcomers in cultural and Hebrew (ulpan) programmes within a few years.

When Russian absorption added 1-mil to the then-4-mil Israeli population, it represented a 25 percent increase in population in one year. They arrived with nothing (but education), says Sharansky. Special low-interest mortgage bonds were made available to assist the new Russian immigrants to buy property.

Many of the Russians were highly educated. They doubled the number of doctors and tripled the number of engineers in Israel. At first, some doctors had to work in lesser positions in health care, says Sharansky.

On the engineering front, Israel started to create industries to accommodate their new, highly skilled, Russian engineers. And the rest, on the tech front, is history.

The Russian doctors, whose credentials were questioned at first, were soon absorbed into the system. Today, says Sharansky, Israel has a problem. It is 25 years on, he says, and all many of the Russian doctors are retiring.

In fact, he says, Israel is now looking for doctors to make Aliyah, from Russia, France, and other countries. Hospitals are fast-tracking Aliyah arrangements to get the doctors in as soon as possible.

Today, says Sharansky, contrary to popular belief there is no shortage of housing for olim in Israel. “There are enough apartments but they are expensive… It’s not an Aliya issue. We are seeking solutions…. The real problem is how to make accommodation available to first time buyers, even young Israelis.”

There is also enough work for migrants to Israel, he says. The economy is doing better than almost any developed country and unemployment is among lowest, if not the lowest, in the developed world.

“The story that there is not enough space in Israel (for all Jews) is not true, it’s a pretext,” he says. In any case, 100 percent of Jews will never live in Israel .


On the initiative to slow down assimilation…

Israel has changed its philosophy to one in which Israel and diaspora Jewry are partners, says Sharansky. The paternalistic past, where Israel was the poor relative (and the diaspora was seen as somewhere to fish for olim and collect cheques), has changed.

Israel is no longer a poor relative, says Sharansky, and can play a part in strengthening Jewish identity in the Gola.

“This appeals to our philosophy that Israel and Jews in the diaspora are partners and not paternalistic,” he says.

Israel is now spending taxpayers’ money to strengthen Jewish identity among diaspora communities. The government has already spent $100-mil towards this end and the Jewish Agency has proposed that the Knesset provide it with another $100-mil. Sharansky says the discussion will continue with the new government after the election.”

US Jewry is losing 300 people a day to assimilation, says Sharansky.

But the figures are actually higher as they are being skewed by each successive survey broadening the criteria (of who is a Jew). “Were the criteria to remain the same,” he says, “the figure would be much higher.”

One of his two biggest concerns as head of the JA is the loss of Jews to assimilation due to communities not having a connection to Israel.


On the new-anti-Semitism…

Sabras don’t understand anti-Semitism as they have never experienced it, he agrees. “They only understand it theoretically.”

Sochnut Israel CentreThe second of Sharansky’s two biggest concerns is that Israel’s enemies constantly try to delegitimise the country.

The roots of Israel’s delegitimisation, he says, started under auspices of the United Nations’ Durban conference on Racism.

Boycott Divest and Sanction (against Israel) is the US-based NGO that led the charge against Israel (BDS-SA is their local affiliate).

Together with other pro-Palestinian movements, they seem to have successfully created anti-Zionism as the cause célèbre of the day.

This has resulted in an anti-Zionist force which is organised, centralised and well-funded. Diaspora Zionist Federations, on the other hand, work in self-funded and self-informed silos. This needs to be overcome.

Natan Sharansky first popularised the concept of the “Three Ds of the new anti-Semitism” a decade ago. They are: Demonization; Double Standards; and Delegitimisation.

“The biggest victory for our enemies is to disconnect Jews from Israel,” he says, so the Jewish Agency’s aim is to tell Jews they have no reason to be ashamed of Israel.

In 1973, Israel’s then-Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, identified anti-Zionism as ‘the new anti-Semitism’ which was propagated by pro-Palestinian Arab nations and Muslims.


On Aliyah & the ingathering: "I am against dogmas"

15-Jewish pop statsAsked about his feelings towards the existence of diaspora Jewry, Sharansky is clear that he does not feel prescriptive about the ingathering: “I am against Dogmas,” he says.

He believes the best place to live is Israel, "but I am against saying people are obliged to."

Choosing to change one diaspora for another is a choice people have to be allowed to make, he says, adding that the Jewish Agency remains committed to supporting and strengthening Jewish life in the diaspora for those who chose to remain there. .

Thirty percent of emigrant French Jewry choose not to go to Israel.

There will always be Jews in the diaspora, says Sharansky.

15-Jewish pop statsSince the time of our Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), there have always been Jews living abroad. “I don’t want to be the commissar of Aliyah – it must be a personal decision.”  I think (the ingathering) is an artificial concept. It will never happen. There was always part of our people living abroad

The existence of Israel, however, is essential. It guarantees safety for all Jews. “Where would Jews be in this world without Israel? On the other hand, I am against indoctrination. I don’t want to be the commissar of Aliyah. It is a personal decision,” he says. “I can only show (people) what there is in Israel.”

“My role, and that of Jewish state, is to create a unique society, through the tools available to us. We need to bring Israel to the diaspora; and the diaspora to Israel.”


On world Jewish population

The core Jewish population of the world is around 14 million.

The expanded Jewish population (which includes those with a Jewish father or spouse as well as children living in a household with a Jewish step-parent), stands at approximately 18.2 million.

The total number of people who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Raw of Return Law (which defines it as anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, and who does not actively profess any other religion) as enshrined in Israel’s Basic Law (the nearest thing Israel has to a constitution) is around 22-mil, of which just 6.3 million are currently living in Israel.

Jewish Report asked Natan Sharansky if he could verify these facts and figures. He did.

“The law is the law,” said Sharansky. “The Jewish Agency is only the implementer (of the law).”

If people or their forefathers have assimilated and now want to return to Israel, he says, they can. If they are prepared to serve in army, learn the culture and help build the country, he says, they are welcome. But Israel has to “create much more welcoming arrangements” for this class of migrants. This includes conversion programmes, he said.

The Core populations of the most populous Jewish communities (and the expanded population in brackets) by country follows:

Israel, 6.2m (6.3m);  US, 6.1m (8.3m); EU, 1.1m (1.6m); France, 480k (600k); Canada, 380k (500k); UK, 290k (360k); Argentina, 230k (300k); and Russia, 190k (380k);.


Sharansky with Ronald Reagan 1986

About Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky  was born on 20 January 1948 in Donetsk (then called Stalino), in  the then-Soviet Union to a Jewish family. He graduated with a degree in applied mathematics from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. As a child, he was a chess prodigy. He performed in simultaneous and blindfold displays, usually against adults. At the age of 15, he won the championship in his native Donetsk. When incarcerated in solitary confinement, he maintained his sanity by playing chess against himself in his mind. Sharansky beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a simultaneous exhibition in Israel in 1996.

The Israeli politician, human rights activist and author spent nine years in Soviet prisons for allegedly spying for America.

Born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky, he was given his current name in 1986 by the Israel’s ambassador to West Germany, after he was freed from the Soviet incarceration as part of prisoner exchange.

He is married to Avital Sharansky and has two daughters, Rachel and Hannah. In the Soviet Union, his marriage application to Avital was denied by the authorities and so they were married in a Moscow synagogue in a ceremony not recognized by the government.

ACTIVISM: Sharansky was denied an exit visa to Israel in 1973. The reason given for denial of the visa was that he had been given access, at some point in his career, to information vital to Soviet national security and could not now be allowed to leave. After becoming a ‘refusenik’, Sharansky became a human rights activist, working as a translator for dissident and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, and spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group and a leader for the rights of refuseniks.

15-Jewish population stats

PICTURED RIGHT: Sharansky and Vladimir Putin

ARREST AND IMPRISONMENT: On 15 March 1977 Sharansky was arrested on multiple charges including high treason and spying. In 1978 he was sentenced to 13 years of forced labour.

RELEASE FROM DETENTION: As a result of an international campaign led by his wife, Avital (including assistance from East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel, New York Congressman Benjamin Gilman and Rabbi Ronald Greenwald), Sharansky was released on 11 February 1986 as part of a larger exchange of detainees. He was the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev due to intense political pressure from Ronald Reagan. Sharansky, together with three low-level Western spies were exchanged for Czech spies held in the US, and three others - a Soviet, Polish and East German spy.


15-Jewish pop stats

PICTURED LEFT: Sharansky and Ronald Reagan, December 1986

AFTERMATH: Sharansky immediately immigrated to Israel, adopting the Hebrew name Natan and eventually simplifying his surname to Sharanski. His wife had become religiously observant during his detention. Once free, Natan also became kosher and shomer Shabbos.

In 1988, he wrote Fear No Evil, his memoirs of his time as a prisoner, and founded the Zionist Forum, an organization of Soviet immigrant Jewish activists dedicated to helping new Israelis and educating the public about integration issues, known in Israel as klita (lit. "absorption"). Sharansky also served as a contributing editor to The Jerusalem Report and as a Board member of Peace Watch.


In 1995 Sharansky and Yoel (later Yuli) Edelstein founded the Yisrael BaAliyah party (a play of words, since "aliya" means both Jewish emigration to Israel, and "rise", thus the party name means "(People of) Israel immigrating (to the State of Israel)", as well as "Israel on the rise"), promoting the absorption of the Soviet Jews into Israeli society. The party won seven Knesset seats in 1996, six  in 1999 when it gained two ministerial posts. They left the government in 2000 in response to suggestions that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's negotiations with the Palestinians would result in a division of Jerusalem. After Ariel Sharon won a special election for Prime Minister in 2001, the party joined his new government, and was again given two ministerial posts. In the January 2003 elections the party was reduced to just two seats. Sharansky resigned from the Knesset, and was replaced by Edelstein. However, he remained party chairman, and decided to merge it into Likud (which had won the election. He resigned from the cabinet in April 2005 to protest plans to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

Since 2007, Sharansky has been Chairman of the Board of Beit Hatefutsot, the Jewish diaspora museum and in June 2009 he was elected to the Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel by the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.

PUBLISHED WORKS: Sharansky is the author of three books. The first is the autobiographical Fear No Evil, which dealt with his trial and imprisonment. His second book, "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror" was co-written with Ron Dermer. George W. Bush offered praise for the book: "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy... For government, particularly – for opinion makers, I would put it on your recommended reading list. It's short and it's good. This guy is a heroic figure, as you know. It's a great book." His book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, is a defence of the value of national and religious identity in building democracy.

SHARANSKY ON PALESTINIAN RIGHTS: "Jews came here 3,000 years ago and this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews are the only people in history who kept their loyalty to their identity and their land throughout the 2,000 years of exile, and no doubt that they have the right to have their place among nations—not only historically but also geographically. As to the Palestinians, who are the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years, they have the right, if they want, to have their own state... but not at the expense of the state of Israel."


  1. 6 Choni 11 Mar
    If the head of the Jewish Agency cannot be a commissar for Aliyah, then who can?
  2. 5 Ant Katz 12 Mar
    Choni, I think you miss the point. Sharansky is responsible for Aliyah, makes no bones about the fact that he thinks everyone should make Aliyah, but does not believe in being prescriptive and forcing people to do so against their will. Sounds pretty good to me - he is a leader but not a dictator. Would we want it any other way?
  3. 4 Choni 12 Mar
    History has shown that unless Jews in exile are not 'forced', in some way or other, to make Aliyah  they will remain where they are. Unfortunately this decision to remain in exile has led to mass persecution or mass assimilation or both.
    Why should it change ?
  4. 3 Mordechai 13 Mar
    Shame on any Jew who calls himself a Proud South African.  I note that Minister Sharansky evaded directly answering the question : Can one feel “Proudly Jewish South African”? Remember when all Anti Israel actions (and they are frequent) are taken by South Africa they are taken under the name South Africa and with the new SA flag flying in the back ground.
  5. 2 mordechai 16 Mar
    Before I get yelled at re post (apologies to all ladies) :
    Shame on any Jew who calls himself or herself a Proud South African.  I note that Minister Sharansky evaded directly answering the question : Can one feel “Proudly Jewish South African”? Remember when all Anti Israel actions (and they are frequent) are taken by South Africa they are taken under the name South Africa and with the new SA flag flying in the back ground.
  6. 1 solomon 04 Jul
    why not writing about ethiopian jews population/             Do you think there is no black jew. Anyway there is no white jew in history. Real jews are black.


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