New face to the Diaspora

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Supporters of Yisrael B’Aliya are undoubtedly bitterly disappointed at their unexpected poll debacle. But many more will applaud the appointment of Natan Sharansky as incoming minister for Diaspora Affairs.

Indeed one political party’s loss may be the Jewish people’s gain.

Two existential challenges face the Jewish people at this time. One is the more than 50-year struggle of the State of Israel to fully consummate its legitimacy in the family of nations and defend its physical security.

The other is the spiritual and cultural survival of Jews in the Diaspora.

Veteran Jewish organizations like the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, as well as other international bodies such as the World Jewish Congress, have failed in their efforts to deal with this central issue of Israel-Diaspora relations.

But perhaps the greatest culprits of all have been successive Israeli governments, whose appalling neglect in this area has proven almost catastrophic. Israel has, in fact, helped create a situation where unlike in the past, when we could rely on support from the Diaspora in bad times as well as in good today nothing can be taken for granted.

No single person can turn this situation around. But if anyone can have a major impact, it is Sharansky. He has the combined qualities of history, charisma, knowledge, integrity and Jewish values to qualify him as the ideal leader to forge what we hope can be a new chapter in the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

The task is momentous, and the first challenge must be to focus the Israeli government on reinforcing every trend that strengthens the identity of the Jewish people abroad.

Sharansky must take into account the negative impact of generational changes over the past decade. Today for many younger Jews, the Holocaust and the struggle to create a Jewish state are dim memories. And, despite the reemergence of anti-Semitism, assimilation and intermarriage continue to make alarming demographic inroads.

In fact, with the breakdown of the racial, ethnic and religious barriers, opposition to intermarriage in most liberal societies now smacks of racism.

In such an environment, in the absence of religious commitment, even a strong Jewish education no longer represents a guarantee against intermarriage.

Diaspora Jews are simply being absorbed into their host communities like water to a sponge.

It is a cruel irony that this assimilationist process has been strengthened by Israel itself through the export of post-Zionism, particularly in the wake of the Oslo Accords.

In effect, a tiny, self-hating fringe of academia, representing a minuscule proportion of Israeli society, has succeeded in having an inordinate influence on the attitudes of Diaspora Jewish liberals.

Using vehicles like the English Internet edition of the daily newspaper Ha’aretz, they have bombarded Diaspora Jews with articles challenging the very foundations of Zionism, even suggesting that the Jewish state was born in sin.

THERE IS nobody better equipped, morally or ideologically, than Sharansky to confront these issues head-on and propagate the justice of our cause to a new generation of Jews.

He will need the strong cooperation of the Foreign Ministry to help undo the damage incurred by the promoters of Oslo.

Ten years ago they used the organs of the Foreign Ministry to inform Diaspora Jewry that their services for promoting Israel were no longer required, insisting that for a country on the verge of peace, public relations and activism were superfluous, even counterproductive.

Sharansky will also need the support of the foreign minister to ensure that the low caliber of many current Israeli diplomats be upgraded.

In contrast to the past, when the high standing of Israeli representatives was renowned, in recent years diplomats have been selected on the basis of jobs for the boys or mechanical seniority, rather than capability.

Many ambassadors have also tended to downplay their traditional liaison roles with Jewish communities, paving the way for the “free for all” in which some activists discovered it was now respectable for them to publicly criticize Israel even in relation to policy issues relating to security matters of life and death to Israelis.

With this backdrop it is hardly surprising that the Diaspora is currently in disarray, with many Jewish communities leaderless and in a state of crisis. This has been clearly reflected in the Diaspora’s response to the intifada.

Jewish critics are sometimes even leading the pack against Israel, and many Jewish university students facing violent onslaughts have become highly apologetic in relation to Israel, especially in Europe. And, needless to say, fewer Jews are visiting Israel.

Another item high on Sharansky’s agenda will be the impact of anti-Semitism, which is more intense today that at any other period since the Holocaust and has exacerbated the negative trends in the Diaspora.

The vicious media portrayals of Israelis as child murderers and bloodthirsty, “Nazi-like” tyrants have even led to Jews distancing themselves from Israel, some even finding it socially advantageous to identify with the anti-Zionist chic.

A number of European Jewish activists have gone so far as to insist that distinctions should be made between the battle against anti-Semitism and support for Israel. The suggestion that “we don’t want to import the problems of the Middle East into our communities” is being heard frequently.

These trends will undoubtedly accelerate as a consequence of the deepening rift between the US and the dominant European powers over disarming Saddam Hussein. The Europeans already downplay Palestinian terror and consider Israel entirely culpable for the conflict.

They blame Israel and American Jewry for encouraging and even inflaming the Bush Administration against the Iraqis, the United Nations and now Europe itself.

In such a scenario it is virtually assured that anti-Semitism in Europe will intensify, and perhaps even snowball.

SHARANSKY will enter this battle with unique weapons at his command. He will surely see it as his mission to persuade Diaspora Jews that the efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state are simply an updated version of the denigration of Jews and anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, in which Israel merely assumes the role of surrogate for Jews.

Sharansky is able to speak with authority as one of the world’s greatest champions of human rights. He has an intimate relationship with Jewish leaders the world over. He understands their mentality and enjoys a standing unequaled to any other participant in the field.

And he has a profound appreciation for Jewish tradition and religion, which, in contrast to many other Israelis engaged in the Diaspora arena, will enable him to communicate unabashedly with fellow Jews on the spiritual and cultural level.

Sharansky’s challenge will be to reverse the negative tide and reestablish the concept of Israel as the centrality of the Jewish people.

He must rekindle the vision of Zionism, revitalize aliya, and forge what will, we hope, be a new chapter in the Israel-Diaspora relationship, of such vital importance for the future of our people.

The late Ya’acov Herzog diplomat, adviser to prime ministers and the older brother of Israel’s sixth president Chaim Herzog once said: “Heaven forbid that the historian of the future will have to write that Israel in our time built a state and lost a people.”

Natan Sharansky’s mission will be to ensure that never happens.

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