Sharansky and Weiser in conversation

March 28, 2014 by Henry Benjamin
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Natan Sharansky held a public conversation with Dr Ron Weiser at Sydney’s Central Synagogue…creating a unique insight into one of the most celebrated members of the world-wide Jewish community.

Natan Sharansky   Photo: Henry Benjamin

Natan Sharansky                Photo: Henry Benjamin

66-yr-old Natan Sharansky was sentenced to in 1977 to 13 years in a Siberian prison following his arrest on charges of espionage.  A child chess prodigy, he told his audience that he maintained his sanity by devising and playing chess games in his head. He was released in 1986 following an appeal by US president Ronald Reagan to Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Later on in life was to play and win against Garry Kasparov. He mentioned that he played regularly against Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but the best the Israeli leader has done to date is draw one match. Sharansky said he had spent nine years in prison including five years in solitary confinement and 405 days in a punishment cell…and chess was how he survived. He said he had to survive the cold, the loneliness, the darkness…”so I played thousand and thousands of games of chess…and I won all of them.”

Dr Ron Weiser, sits on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem of which Sharansky is the Chairman.

Weiser asked Sharansky about the situation today in the Ukraine and for the Jewish community living there. Sharansky said that last year he had taken the entire board of the Jewish Agency to the Ukraine to show how they were “supporting and strengthening the Jewish community”. He said that 500,000 Jews had left the Ukraine and now were living in Israel and throughout the Western world, leaving a current population of around 200,000. “They are now beaching proud Jews connected to their people”. Sharansky said that there was no State anti-Semitism in the Ukraine but a “a lot of personal anti-Semitism” and a lot of the known prejudices are alive.

Natan Sharansky, Richard Balkin, Liav Weiser and Sally Weiser    photo: Henry Benjamin

Natan Sharansky, Richard Balkin, Liav Weiser and Sally Weiser                                photo: Henry Benjamin

The view that anti-Semitism is good for Zionism inasmuch as it would encourage Aliyah to Israel is not one that he agrees with. “I think it is the wrong approach” he said.

“Anti-Semitism is the biggest enemy of the Jewish people and we have to fight it everywhere. Anti-Semitism is today against Israel.” He said that for every one person who because of anti-Semitism decided go to Israel, there are ten who decided to distance themselves from anything to to with Israel or anything Jewish…so they disappear.”

He said that the Jewish Agency was still saving Jewish lives and bringing Ukraine’s Jews to Israel through Moscow.

Ron Weiser indicated that Israel is the only democracy in its region. He asked Sharansky how he reconciles that in as much as a call for other nations to embrace democracy.

He said: “Israel has a huge advantage is that it is the only democracy in that part of the world. Israel’s huge problem is that it is the only democracy in that part of the world.”

Natan Sharansky and Dr Ron Weiser

Natan Sharansky and Dr Ron Weiser

He said that many people believe that once you have elections you have democracy. “Democracy is not about elections”, he said. “Democracy is a free society.” The Egyptian and Iranian dissidents can reach the world through the internet according to Sharansky. He said that there was no point in going from “one dictator to another dictator”. Democracy had to be consistent.

Weiser said we had seen the growth of the Russian diaspora and asked Sharansky what the Agency was doing to save them from assimilation.

Sharansky said: “We see as our aim to reach every Jew in the world and to sustain his connection with the Israel and we try to strengthen the identity of Australian Jews and American Jews…and even Israeli Jews so they are connected to our history and our rich Jewish traditions. The two biggest challenges we face today are assimilation on one hand and the delegitimisation of Israel on the other.” He said that in America the main groups embracing assimilation are Russians and Israelis. He explained that most of the American Jewish organisations had been created to meet the needs of American-born Jewry and not Russians and Israelis. The communities revolved around their centres and their synagogues. “Never in their life had most of the Russian Jews visited a synagogue” Sharansky told Weiser. They came assimilated from the Soviet Ynion Their identification to their Jewishness was based on their resistance to anti-Semitism in Russia and the deep solidarity with the fight in Israel.” Sharansky said that the Jewish communities could not build serious bridges between themselves and the Russian Jews.”

However, when it came to demonstrating in the USA in support of Israel the Russians had no problem in “expressing their solidarity with the Jewish State”. He added: “We Jews…we are one family. We have very different ways of connecting ourselves to our Jewish identity. For some it’s religion. For some it’s national pride. For some it’s anti-Semitism. For some it’s deep solidarity with Israel.”

Weiser addressed the establishment of a committee under Sharansky of religious leaders from every major branch of Judaism. The JA Chairman said that it was important that though there were religious differences, we had to remain one people.

Ron Weiser’s next port of call was the subject of army service for the orthodox in the IDF.

Sharansky said that this was “a very hot issue in Israel”. He said: “When our security, our existence depends so very much on our army. On the most peaceful of days, there are soldiers who are falling protecting us. Each time  when someone’s son or daughter falls it always raises the question why is not everybody sending their children to take their responsibility. Some say the army does not need them. It’s not about the needs of the army. It’s about the feeling that we must all have to share the responsibility in building and protecting this country. So if someone does not go into the army but goes into the civil service or goes to work in a hospital, it’s also OK. The approach of shared responsibility is absolutely right.”

He added: “If they are not willing to accept their share of responsibility they will not be able to share the benefits.”

 

ZFA president Philip Chester on the left of Sharansky as they hold a meeting with young community leaders

ZFA president Philip Chester on the left of Sharansky as they hold a meeting with young community leaders

Sharansky finished the evening with a discussion group with young communal. leaders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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