Antony Lerman
The Guardian (Opinion)
July 15, 2009 - 12:00am

Israel's current disastrous policy direction and the responsibility for it shared by American Jewish leaders are exemplified in the recent appointment of Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and western human rights icon, as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (Jafi), the quasi-governmental, $640m-a-year body that promotes Zionism and encourages Jewish migration to Israel. The pairing of Sharansky and Jafi, engineered at the behest of Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and, after a fight, supported by the American Jewish organisations that provide a very big proportion of Jafi's funds, shows a fatal degree of obliviousness to what's needed to bring peace to Israel-Palestine and secure recognition of the autonomy of diaspora Jewish life. The largest Jewish institution in the world, Jafi is an important vehicle through which the Israeli government partially manages relations with Jews worldwide.

It's becoming hard to remember that today's Sharansky – an avowedly rightwing, neocon ideologue – is the same man as yesterday's Anatoly Shcharansky, "prisoner of conscience" and "prisoner of Zion", spokesman for the Helsinki human rights group in the USSR in the 1970s, who served nine years in the gulag. Once the world's most famous incarcerated Soviet dissident, he became a symbol of the struggle of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel and an inspirational human rights figure for millions in the west. After an international campaign headed by his wife, Avital, Shcharansky finally walked across the Glienicke bridge to West Berlin in 1986, a free man. He changed his name to Natan Sharansky and emigrated to Israel, where he eventually entered politics and rose to become deputy prime minister. In 2006 he resigned from the Knesset to become chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Centre. Two weeks ago he was appointed chairman of Jafi.

There are two deeply troubling problems signified by this appointment. First, when even chief rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the spiritual voice of Britain's mainstream Orthodox Jews, admits that Jews wrongly believe that it's the Jewish fate to be "a people that dwells alone", can it make any sense to appoint this man to a powerful position through which he is likely to increase Jews' isolationism? Second, Jafi is an institution past its sell-by date. Its very existence reflects an outmoded image of the Jewish world. It needs to be disbanded and not shored up to benefit a prime minister leading his country nowhere.

Since entering Israeli politics, Sharansky's career has been marked by "moral ambiguity and inconsistency in his advocacy of democracy and human rights, particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict", argued Professor Michael C Desch in a comprehensive 2005 exposé. Sharansky fails to show any concern for Palestinian rights and says democratic political reform of Palestinian institutions must come before peace is possible. Yet he's happy to endorse peace with autocratic Arab regimes. Even in Israel he has not been a consistent advocate of democracy and the rule of law.

Sharansky undermined the then prime minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000. He rejected the "road map" devised by the Quartet for ending the conflict and creating an independent Palestinian state. He opposed Sharon's proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, not out of concern for the Palestinians but because he said it rewarded suicide bombing. In June 2004 he and another minister secretly declared large tracts of Arab land in Jerusalem abandoned and therefore subject to confiscation, a move ultimately declared illegal by Israel's attorney general and described as "theft".

When he was minister for diaspora affairs, he consistently exaggerated the problem of antisemitism worldwide and demonised leftwing Israelis as "collaborators" with the "new antisemitism" when they criticised Israeli policies. He has adopted extreme nationalist positions and together with Avigdor Lieberman, now Israel's far-right foreign minister, formed the National Union bloc in 2003. His Zionism is uncompromising. He is dismissive of Palestinian claims to the country and would rather continue fighting with the Arabs than share sovereignty with the Palestinians over Jerusalem.

This is the man being placed in charge of what many regard as "a corrupt, bureaucratic dinosaur", but one with such financial clout that it can have a very significant impact when it throws its weight around. While it's true that pressure over the last 20 years has produced some significant change in Jafi, there are two fundamental reasons why it should cease to exist. First, while every state is entitled to control immigration policy, to do this through an organisation operating on the basis of an exclusivist Zionism and bolstered by the law of return, which allows only Jews and their immediate family members to become citizens by right, is unacceptable in the 21st century. The fact is that Jafi is anyway no longer any good at the task of encouraging Jewish immigration. It's been eclipsed by private organisations that do this far more efficiently, though immigration remains at very low levels and is well below the numbers leaving the country.

Second, because it exists to further the ideological objectives of the Jewish state, Jafi finds it almost impossible to draw the right conclusions from the growing diversity of the world Jewish population. It fears the loss of common ground between Jews worldwide, yet it is not unaware that classical Zionist rhetoric can no longer play a unifying role. Nevertheless, since it still clings to the fundamentals of Zionist ideology, it searches desperately for an Israel-centric reformulation of the character of the Jewish people that it can foist on the Jewish world in order to maintain Zionist hegemony. But if Jews do have something in common, they need to work out what this is themselves, not be shoehorned into restrictive collective categories that mirror the Zionist narrative of the unity of the Jewish people.

Earlier this year Sharansky said that if appointed head of Jafi, he would close down 90% of the organisation. But this was when it still rankled that he lost out the last time the appointment was made. Now in post, it seems unlikely that he will relinquish control over so much cash when he can use it to promote his extreme Zionism. Jews worldwide will suffer by being even more tightly yoked to notions of Jewish victimhood and "the world is against us". Israel will suffer because a Sharansky-led Jafi will provide cover for Netanyahu's policies. American Jewish leaders could have pulled the plug on both Sharansky and Jafi. That they didn't shows just how complicit the diaspora Jewish leadership is in condoning Israel's mistaken policies and in aggravating the tensions that Jews elsewhere experience.


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