Natan Sharansky at  the 2009 JFNA/GA
Natan Sharansky at the 2009 JFNA/GAIsrael news photo: David Karp/Jewish Agency for Israel

The world's Jews are being asked to make a choice between universalism and personal identity, and increasingly are turning away from Israel in the process, says Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. But Sharansky told the plenary at the 2009 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington on Monday that the struggle is an unnecessary one, because the two are really the same.

Email readers, please click here to view the video of Natan Sharansky's speech!

Sharansky, who described himself as the "unofficial spokesman of two movements -- a human rights movement pressing for democratic reforms in the Soviet bloc and a Soviet Jewry movement seeking the right of Jews to become free," said that the battle for freedom and the battle for identity was the same battle for him. "I personally never felt that I needed to choose... I felt that they are deeply connected."

In his speech, he drew a parallel between the Soviet Jews' fight for spiritual survival and that of assimilated Jews in the Diaspora today. "We had no strength to fight," he recalled. "After all, the only value left for us was our physical survival and there was no reason to risk it." But then, in 1967, the Six Day War in Israel "reconnected us with our people, with our country and history, and gave us pride in being Jewish. We discovered our identity and this empowered us to fight for our freedom." Even that, however, would not have been enough, he noted, without all the extra support Soviet Jews received from their Jewish brethren around the world. The battle, he said, eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the anniversary of which fell on the day of his speech.

Today, Sharansky said, "we are living in a global, post-national, post-modern, post-identity, world where people are again asked to make a choice between universalism and nationalism, between freedom and identity."  The choice is particularly difficult for young Jews, he said, who often choose universalism, which then translates into assimilation, "which erodes our communities. And then it becomes more and more difficult for the people of Israel to defend their Jewish State. And our detractors sense our hesitation and our weakness and multiply their efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.

Then the most awful thing happens," said the former Soviet refusenik. "A young Jew after months and sometimes years of standing in the face of extreme and false slanderous attacks on Israel, finally says enough -- I want to live in a world without Israel."

Just as 20 years ago, when the choice between freedom and identity was false, Sharansky said, it is important to remember that the Berlin Wall was felled, the Iron Curtain was brought down, millions found their freedom and the State of Israel was born due to the Jews' return to their identity, "empowered by thousands of years of dreams and prayers of 'Next year in Jerusalem'."

Strengthening Jewish identity is the best way to wage the struggle for Israel, he said. "Strengthening our Jewish identity is the best guarantee to continue kibbutz galuyot, gathering of the exiles.... rebuilding our Jewish identity can empower us to fight for tikun olam (perfection of the world at large - ed.), with more justice and more freedom for everyone."