Jewish students are being silenced by their fear of growing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment on American campuses, Natan Sharansky told an audience in Scotch Plains.
Speaking at a Dec. 14 breakfast meeting at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus, the former refusenik said, “There are no KGB agents on campuses here, but people are afraid to express their minds.”
Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said one of JAFI’s most pressing projects is to place Israeli emissaries on every college campus with 1,000 or more Jewish students to help counteract anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment.
The goal, which applies to the Diaspora in general as well as to Israel, is to give Jews a sense of belonging to “something bigger — that gives life meaning.”
Sharansky visited the area at the invitation of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, which supports JAFI projects through its annual campaign.
The meeting was attended by around 20 people, including past presidents of the federation, local rabbis, and members of the King David Society (donors of $25,000 and up to federation’s annual campaign) and their families.
Sharansky said his own identity was formed by those who intended to stamp it out. Born in 1948 in Donetzk, Ukraine, he said he grew up with virtually no Jewish awareness. In the wake of Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union escalated, along with Jewish pride in a country to which many had given little thought.
Smuggled copies of Leon Uris’s novel Exodus — about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel — were circulated from one family to another and helped spark a Jewish revival. “We discovered that we had this history and that we were part of this Jewish family,” Sharansky said, “that we had roots, and a future. It empowered us.”
For Sharanksy, that empowerment led to activism — as a fighter for human rights and Zionism, and the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel. His appreciation of global Jewish solidarity grew when he realized that a 10-minute protest by perhaps eight Jews in Red Square in Moscow — just enough to elude the KGB — could trigger support from tens of thousands of supporters in the West. The Soviet Jewry movement also gave Jews elsewhere an inspiring sense of purpose and belonging.
His activities finally did get him tried for treason, and he was jailed for eight years. He was released in a prisoner exchange in 1986, and arrived in Israel to international acclaim. He went on to become a leader of the Soviet immigrants, a member of the Knesset and the Israeli Cabinet in various roles, and the author of three best-selling books. He and his wife, Avital, live in Jerusalem — as they so often promised they would. They have two daughters, and two grandchildren.
Federation executive vice president Stanley Stone backed Sharansky’s call for campus emissaries. He said he had recently returned from a meeting at Rutgers University, where in the past month there had been four events — the smallest attended by at least 250 students — all focused on Palestinian rights and what Stone called the “delegitimization” of Israel.
“This is urgent,” he said. “It is critically important that we place an emissary at Rutgers as soon as possible.”
Sharansky praised Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to Israel for young Jews. He said it he thought it a “crazy, childish idea,” but one that proved extraordinarily successful, in 12 years managing to give 250,000 people a sense of connection to Israel they might otherwise never have had. (Birthright is a partnership among Jewish federations, JAFI, Keren Hayesod, and leading Jewish philanthropists.)
Building on that concept, he said, the Jewish Agency is also supporting MASA, a program involving a wide network of Israeli academic institutions offering one-year study opportunities, and another program offering working internships of two or three months.