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EXCLUSIVE: Jewish Agency ex-chief worried Israel out of touch with diaspora Jews

'I am very against BDS,' he tells i24NEWS. 'I have spent a lot of time preparing our young people to fight it'

As former head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky believes the current Israeli government is not listening to concerns of diaspora Jews regarding the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, the detention of left-wing activists at Israel’s airport, or the plurality of ways Judaism is practiced.

The prominent Israeli political figure and human rights activist tells i24NEWS' Ami Kaufman that despite his “reservations” about Israel's expanding relations with right-wing nationalist governments, he ultimately trusts official Israeli efforts to protect the “peace and security” of the Jewish state.

However, Sharansky, who was imprisoned for nine years after a Soviet newspaper accused him of working with the CIA, warned Israel against widening relations with Moscow.

"I think we should be careful about building relations with him and not weaken our connection with allies in the West," he says.

On the other hand, the former head of the Jewish Agency says he has spoken with previous US leaders on their country's ties to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf country with a contentious human rights record.

Sharansky says Israel's warming relations with Hungary, the Philippines and Brazil are not cause for concern, at least comparatively.

When asked if Israel is turning a blind-eye to the questionable human rights records of its allies, he said: "By no means. If America, France, and England are turning a blind-eye to Saudi Arabia..."

Sharansky says he was disappointed in many of his liberal friends in the US following Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and freeze funding to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency.

Recognizing Trump’s contributions to the Jewish state and people, Sharansky notes: “Many of my liberal friends couldn’t thank the president when he did something that we were fighting for for many years - moving to embassy to Jerusalem and stopping the financing of terror.”

In the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Sharansky does not necessarily believe Trump’s rhetoric has fueled increased anti-Semitism in the US.

The attack has been identified as the worst anti-Semitic attack to ever occur in the US.

“For many years - at least for the last 15 - the overwhelming majority of racial attacks are against Jews, so it is not a new phenomenon. What is more prominent in the last few years is more people talking about it,” he says.

“So let's take everything in proportion, there is antisemitism, there is deeply inbuilt anti-Semitism which is growing in Europe, which is growing in America, which is growing all over the world, there is anti-Semitism on the left...there is anti-Semitism on the right.”

Sharansky cautions the current Israeli government against calling Trump "the best friend we ever had" as not to "insult" other good friends of the Jewish state.

He also voiced his disappointment in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for pandering to Israel’s most orthodox citizens while neglecting the other constituencies of Judaism.

“I was extremely disappointed when Netanyahu retreated on the compromise for the prayer wall at the western wall, which he himself asked me to negotiate,” Sharansky says.

“We spent 5 years on negotiations and he personally spent a lot of energy and time that it would be successful and then when he was blackmailed by Haredi parties he failed,” he adds.


Sharansky expressed that while he is “strongly against” the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement targeting Israel (BDS), he does not approve of Israel’s legal handling of the issue.

“How can you pass such a law without asking diaspora Jews, who are busy fighting BDS?” he asks.

“I am very against BDS,” he tells i24NEWS. “I have spent a lot of time preparing our young people to fight BDS.”

Despite his many years fighting the BDS movement, Sharansky says that “simply because a person expresses views that infuriate us or irritate us” is not sufficient reason to prohibit them from entering Israel.

“I am strongly against it,” he says, referring to Israel’s law barring entry to visitors linked to the BDS movement.

The BDS campaign is a coalition of organizations inspired by the anti-apartheid movement who say they are using nonviolent means to promote the Palestinian struggle for independence and encourage international economic and political pressure against Israel.

Last year over two hundred American rabbis signed a letter demanding Israel give up its policy of barring entry to visitors linked to BDS.

"Even though many of us have substantive differences with Rabbi Wise and other rabbinic colleagues who support the BDS movement in some or all of its forms," read the letter, first reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "we believe that the decision to bar Rabbi Wise from visiting Israel is anti-democratic and desecrates our vision of a diverse Jewish community that holds multiple perspectives."

"Boycotts are a legitimate nonviolent tactic that have been used both in our own country and around the world in order to create justice for marginalized and oppressed communities," the letter continues.

"Out of deep loyalty to members of our communities, congregations, and rabbinical associations who may also be barred from entering Israel in the future, we cannot remain silent."

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

In March the Israeli Knesset passed the new law giving Interior Ministry representatives at border crossings the authority to deny visas to non-Israeli citizens who are believed to have been involved in BDS activities.

Since then, many groups and individuals have been denied entry, including some before they even board their flights.


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