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entries tagged with: Natan Sharansky

 

Kennedy seen as giant on domestic issues, Soviet Jewry

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is being remembered in the Jewish community for his huge impact on domestic issues such as education and health care, but also as a giant in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Kennedy “was one of the earliest, strongest champions on behalf of Soviet Jewry,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia. “He was always proactive and didn’t wait for NCSJ and other organizations to come to him — he was always looking to see where he could make a difference.”

In his 2006 book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” Natan Sharansky mentions Kennedy as the first Western politician to meet with refuseniks “in a midnight meeting that was kept secret from the KGB until the very last moment.”

And Levin noted that whenever Kennedy met with Soviet officials, in Washington or in the Soviet Union, he would bring lists of those he wanted to see released.

“He never forgot we were talking about individuals and families,” Levin said.

Kennedy also will be remembered as a strong champion of Israel. Jewish organizational officials noted that he was a stalwart supporter of foreign aid, opposed arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, and was a strong backer of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He also publicly rebuked President George H.W. Bush when he linked settlements to U.S. loan guarantees for the emigration of Soviet Jews, and was a leading voice in speaking out against the Arab boycott of Israel.

Israeli officials rushed to praise Kennedy, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the senator “an American patriot” and “a great friend of Israel,” according to media reports.

And Israeli President Shimon Peres said Kennedy’s death was “a very big loss to every sensitive and thinking person the world over.

“Kennedy was a clear friend of Israel the whole way, and in every place that he could help us he did help.”

The late senator drew praise from a broad range of Jewish organizations, including both the Orthodox Union and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They noted that he had worked on a vast array of domestic issues over his 47 years on Capitol Hill, from religious liberty bills such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to his efforts on children’s health insurance.

In a statement, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Nancy Ratzan, said, “We were honored to work by his side on so many critical issues: Family and Medical Leave, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, the Americans with Disability Act, hate crimes prevention, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, health care, the increase in the minimum wage, and numerous judicial nominations — to name a few.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement that the “greatest tribute” to Kennedy would be for Congress to enact comprehensive health insurance reform.

“On the little stuff and the big stuff, he was always there for us,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Boston JCRC. “There wasn’t an issue he wasn’t on top of.”

 
 

Israel-diaspora relations: A new equation

 

Opponents alarmed as Israeli conversion bill moves ahead

Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the Orthodox rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Israeli Knesset after its surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.

For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.

The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem, gained steam Monday with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.

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David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, pushed a controversial conversion bill through the committee by a 5-4 vote on July 12. Flash90/JTA

Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.

“They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we have to make sure that it will not happen,” the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, told JTA.

Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.

Rotem’s bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet extraction to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.

Despite its intent, opponents warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the diaspora could be discounted in Israel. In addition, they said the bill would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or has at least one Jewish grandparent.

The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal. They believed they had a deal in place with Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion after Rotem came to the United States in April to discuss the bill with them and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several top Israeli officials, including the justice minister and minister for diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.

But Rotem caught Sharansky and the diaspora leaders by surprise by bringing the bill to a committee vote this week; Sharansky was given only a day’s warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the diaspora.

The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, called Rotem’s action a “betrayal.”

In a letter of protest from the president of the Union for Reform Judaism that was signed by 14 other organizations, including various arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, “Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months.”

In an interview with JTA, Rotem was unapologetic about moving ahead and said, “This bill will pass, no doubt.”

“I never promised anything,” Rotem said. “I told them all the time in the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a vote. No one can say I promised anything.”

In their discussions with Rotem, diaspora leaders expressed concern about an item in the bill that would have taken away the right to automatic citizenship for anyone who comes to Israel as a refugee but then converts to Judaism. Rotem removed that item before pushing the bill through the law committee.

Now, he says, the bill has no effect on American or diaspora Jews and that this is solely an Israeli matter over which non-Israeli Jews should have no say.

“I don’t know why they wanted to have discussions,” he said. “I came to the U.S. I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to with Jews in the diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter.”

Since Monday, Sharansky has engaged in a number of discussions with Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency chief said he believes the bill will not come before the Knesset this week, and hopes it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a chance to alter or scuttle the bill.

Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to publicly oppose it.

“If it is clear Likud will not support it, it will not pass,” Sharansky said.

The Jewish Federations say that Silverman and federation lay leaders met with Israel’s president Shimon Peres Monday. Peres, according to a JFNA press release, pressed for more dialogue on the proposed bill that would give American voices greater credence.

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life,” Peres told the group.

“A discussion that bears consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices — from within Israel and from without. The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.”

“It is important for us, for the unanimity of the moment, that we have to keep the pressure on,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.

“I think it would be an error to think that in the political society as dynamic and hyper-dynamic as Israel is that we are done with this,” he said. “The people who care about these issues have to constantly keep them on the agenda and explain why they are important to decision-makers.”

JTA

 
 

Local delegates laud this year’s GA

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UJA-NNJ GA delegation members, from left, Stuart Himmelfarb, Richard and Allyn Michaelson, Paula Shaiman, David and Gale S. Bindelglass, David Goodman, Rochelle Shoretz, Alan and Karen Scharfstein, Carol and Alan Silberstein, David Gad-Harf, Joan Krieger, two Hillel students, and Leonard Cole, at a reception Sunday night. Courtesy Stuart Himmelfarb

Thousands of Jewish communal leaders from around the world gathered earlier this week in New Orleans for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the biggest pow-wow of Jewish leaders in the world.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey sent a 17-member delegation, led by co-chairs Gale S. and David Bindelglass of Franklin Lakes. The event was headlined by speeches from Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who both spoke of the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, but the conference centered on cultivating the next generation of Jewish leaders, and the local participants felt the push to get the younger leaders involved.

“The real focus of this year’s GA was on youth, the next generation,” said Alan Scharfstein, president of UJA-NNJ, who noted that more than 700 college students attended the conference through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. “It was the youngest GA that I can certainly remember.”

“It just gave a new amount of added energy to the GA,” said David Gad-Harf, UJA-NNJ’s associate executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Leonard Cole, a Ridgewood resident who is a past chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a local proponent of Birthright Israel, praised the GA’s efforts to reach out to the younger leaders.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a strong push toward engagement of this younger generation,” he said.

The new push can also be seen through the lens of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which recently completed a strategic plan to shift its focus from promoting aliyah to enhancing Jewish identity in the diaspora.

“Certainly aliyah is an important part of the Jewish Agency’s mission,” Cole said, “though they understand that the greater danger to the Jewish people is assimilation and easier opportunities for Jews to leave the fold. Now it’s going to be a focus of the Jewish Agency to strengthen and enhance the Jewish identity of Jews everywhere.”

Natan Sharansky, chair of JAFI and a former Soviet dissident who spent years in Soviet prison, addressed the UJA-NNJ contingent during a private meeting, for the second year in a row.

“All of us recognized the honor and sense of privilege to be sitting in a room with this transcendent figure,” Cole said.

“It was moving,” Gad-Harf said, “how Sharansky articulated a vision of the future of the Jewish Agency and the role it will be playing to create a deeper sense of Jewish identity for young Jews and how that is essential to the future of the Jewish people.”

During his plenary speech, Netanyahu spoke strongly about the need for a “credible military threat” against Iran in order for any negotiations about its nuclear ambitions to bear fruit.

“He was very focused and very outspoken on the dangers of Iran and trying to make sure that the world takes Iran as seriously as Israel does in terms of the threat it creates, not only for Israel but for stability in the region and beyond,” Scharfstein said.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, had three goals, which Netanyahu touched upon, said Stuart Himmelfarb, chief marketing officer and director of its Berrie Fellows Leadership Program: To understand perils, to take advantage of all opportunities, and to forge unity within the Jewish people and the Jewish community.

“Netanyahu really addressed all three of those,” Himmelfarb said. “He spoke about the perils posed by Iran and the need for a coordinated response.”

When Netanyahu turned to the topic of the peace process with the Palestinians, he said that Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to a Palestinian state and the Palestinians need to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a Jewish state, Himmelfarb reported.

Several Israeli policies concerning conversions, the loyalty oath, and religious equality have ruffled feathers in the diaspora lately.

“He made it clear that every Jew is welcome in Israel,” Himmelfarb said, adding that he thought Netanyahu was alluding to the Rotem bill in the Knesset that would redefine how Israel accepts conversions to Judaism. “He was just signaling his continued support for avoiding these kinds of divisive issues.”

Netanyahu has been a polarizing figure in Israel and the diaspora, but even those who disagree with his political stance praised his speech.

“Whether you agree or disagree with his views, I don’t think there’s a head of state on the planet today who can command the podium the way he does,” Gale Bindelglass said.

Netanyahu’s speech was not without controversy, as five protesters stood up at different points during the speech, shouting that Israel’s own actions contribute to the country’s potential delegitimization.

“It’s unfortunate people put the emphasis on five hecklers in a room with thousands of people,” said Scharfstein. “He was truly eloquent in making Israel’s case, both for Iran and the other subject that was very heavily discussed at the GA: the attempt to delegitimize Israel.”

The protesters did not accomplish anything, Himmelfarb said.

“It was really just a disruption that had no purpose,” he said. “I don’t think it helped in any way get any new items on the agenda.”

Biden, who addressed the GA separately from Netanyahu, spoke about the strong bond between the United States and Israel and his own relationship with the Jewish state dating back to the 1970s.

“I really thought Biden went out of his way to say the right things with energy and emotion and reassure the audience that the Obama administration got it,” Himmelfarb said.

What Biden said was not as important as the message he sent just with his presence at the GA, Gad-Harf said.
“His presence and the word of support that he presented to us were very meaningful.”

What separated this year’s GA from others, according to Gad-Harf, were the 1,500 attendees doing community service around the city on Monday.

“It was one of the main reasons they brought the GA to New Orleans,” he said, “to both remember and celebrate the role that the Jewish community played in helping to restore New Orleans after Katrina, and to underscore the importance of community service as part of Jewish communal life.”

Josh Lipowsky can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

 
 

Tunisian Jews safe but watchful

The violence roiling Tunisia hasn’t put the country’s 1,500 or so Jews in serious jeopardy, but Jewish organizations are increasingly concerned about their fate as massive anti-government protests continue.

No Jews have been targeted by the protesters, according to Roger Bismuth, a Jewish businessman and member of Tunisia’s Chamber of Deputies.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend following violent protests by mostly unemployed young men venting their anger at Ben Ali and his wealthy cronies.

On Tuesday, the North African country’s interim prime minister and president, Mohamed Ghannouchi and Fouad Mebazaa, both resigned from what had been the country’s ruling party.

“The community is fine,” Bismuth told JTA by phone from Tunis. “Up until now we’ve had no problems. This is not really a matter of religion; it’s a popular revolution. The Jewish community is very well taken care of.”

Asked about Ben Ali, often described by the local Jewish community as a protector of Tunisia’s Jews, Bismuth sounded a new tone.

“He was behaving like a crook,” Bismuth said. “He and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on.”

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, described the Tunisian government of Ben Ali as a “corrupt and kleptocratic dictatorship.”

About 1,000 Jews, the majority of Tunisia’s Jewish community, live on the island of Djerba, where Jews have maintained a historical presence for more than 2,000 years. Another 400 Jews live in Tunis, the capital, with much smaller communities in Zarzis, Sfax, and Sousse.

The country’s population of 9.5 million is nearly all Muslims. Islam is the state religion of Tunisia, which sits on the Mediterranean coast between Algeria and Libya just south of Italy.

In 2002, a terrorist attack on the El-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba involving a truck bomb killed 21 tourists, mostly Germans. Al-Qaida took responsibility for the bombing.

Judy Amit, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s regional director for Africa and Asia, said her organization has been in daily contact with Tunisian Jewish leaders throughout the crisis.

“Ever since the rioting erupted there, we’ve been in close contact with members of the community,” said Amit, speaking in an interview from Israel. “It’s an economic protest with local grievances related to high unemployment and high food prices. There’s been no violence against the Jewish community, and no Jews or Jewish institutions have been targeted.”

Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, noted that “Jews have been part of the fabric of Tunisian life for more than 2,000 years, since well before the Arab conquest.”

Yet Isaacson, who visited Tunisia last month, warned that things could quickly change for the worse.

“My concern is that if the situation is not stabilized, there could be further instability and create a breeding ground for extremism,” he said. “That’s not been a part of the equation, but it could happen if the enormous damage done first by Ben Ali and second by the riots is not compensated by a very serious international infusion of outside assistance.”

As of Tuesday, some 78 people have been killed, with economic losses estimated at $2.2 billion — equivalent to about 4 percent of Tunisia’s GDP. Schools and universities have been shut down as a precaution against violence and vandalism by protesters, including the Chabad school in downtown Tunis.

Yechiel Bar-Chaim, JDC’s country director for Tunisia, said his main concern is for the 100 Jews of Zarzis, who live in a two-square-block area just off the town center. Four non-Jewish civilians were killed during protests there late last week, and a Jewish-owned shop was among the many looted.

Bar-Chaim said that until a few days ago, this self-imposed “ghetto without walls” was carefully guarded by police. But the police have “simply disappeared from the streets of Zarzis and the army presence there is basically a passive one,” he reported.

“The police have reportedly disappeared in many places throughout Tunisia,” though a heavy police presence continues to guard the Grand Synagogue of Tunis and the central building of the Jewish community, he said.

Isaacson, who has been speaking by phone daily to Bismuth and other Tunisian Jewish leaders since the crisis began, said that “It’s generally a secular uprising directed at the regime’s corruption and economic stagnation and a general desire for freedom, especially in the last few days as unrest has continued.”

Sharansky warned of an “ever-present possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment leading to violence” in the cities where Jews live and work.

“Before the revolt, Ben Ali had a tolerant attitude towards the Jewish community,” he wrote. “Until the revolt there was no blatant anti-Semitism. However, an uncomfortable relationship between the Jewish community and the Arab population exists.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Celebrating 25 years of freedom for Natan Sharansky

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 11 February 2011
 
 
 
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