Unelected, Unaccountable, Untroubled: CIJA Says What it Wants, Then Says it Speaks For Us

Dec. 16, 2020

By ANDREW COHEN

Since its induced birth a decade ago, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has offered full-throated support for the government of Israel. As official advocate of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, it suggests it speaks for Canadian Jewry.

That CIJA “represents hundreds of thousands of Jewish Canadians affiliated with the federation,” is as empty as its claim that it is non-partisan. It isn’t really, at least not when it comes to Israel.

CIJA can scarcely utter a discouraging word about the harshest policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, from expanding settlements on the West Bank, to undermining the multi-party Iranian nuclear treaty.

Three years ago, for example, when the United States announced it would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, CIJA quickly assembled an on-line forum of three panelists. All heralded the decision, a breathless exercise in propaganda from an organization which celebrates “educating Canadians about the important role Israel plays in Canadian life.”

Because Likud has been in power longer than CIJA has been in business, we don’t know how CIJA would react to a moderate government in Israel. But we do know how it reacts to a more moderate government in Canada on Israel: CIJA complains and complains.

In 2015, CIJA was quick to jump on Justin Trudeau, then in opposition, for “trivializing” the Holocaust. Yet it was unfazed when Steven Blaney, a Conservative minister, did much the same two days later.

More recently, when CIJA joined two other Jewish organizations in criticizing Canada’s vote at the United Nations in favour of Palestinian self-determination, it showed, once again, how CIJA is out of step with opinion at home and abroad.

CIJA issued a joint statement of protest with B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Each representative was quoted independently, as if none would take responsibility for the other – or, out of vanity, each insisted on his own megaphone.

Jon Allen, Canada’s former Ambassador to Israel, rejected their woolly-minded argument in the CJR. More than most Jews, he knows Canada is an unflinching friend of Israel. He explained persuasively why we voted with the rest of the world, including every one of Israel’s long-standing allies (other than the United States).

But that wasn’t enough for CIJA. Nothing is but the orthodoxy. This happens when your board of directors includes the perfervid John Baird, Stephen Harper’s foreign minister, beloved by CIJA; when he resigned unceremoniously in early 2015, CIJA saluted “his clear and conscientious foreign policy vision of which all Canadians can be proud.” Actually, many Jews were appalled, and helped defeat the Conservatives that October.

The Liberals can appoint Bob Rae as Canada’s Ambassador to the UN; they can avow moral and material support for Israel until the coming of the Messiah; they can appoint Irwin Cotler envoy on anti-Semitism (which CIJA uncharacteristically praised). CIJA is rarely satisfied.

Then again, why should anyone care what CIJA thinks? Its officers are unelected, unaccountable and untroubled by criticism, which it reliably ignores or dismisses. Sustained by the Federation, which is sustained by tax-deductible donations, CIJA says what it wants – and then says it speaks for us.

CIJA has lacked credibility since it was mysteriously established in 2011. Some say it was the product of a hostile takeover of the Canadian Jewish Congress, engineered by wealthy conservative Jews with the blessing of the governing Conservatives. That may explain its defensiveness.

For an organization which sees itself as a communicator, CIJA has clownish media relations. Despite its self-described legion of “analysts, public affairs specialists, web and social-media practitioners, relationship builders and media relations experts,” it is among the least responsive advocacy organizations I’ve seen in 43 years in journalism.

CIJA boasts of its work on Jewish issues in Canada (curiously, it does not have “Canada” in its name), which are detailed on its website. For fighting antisemitism, encouraging Jewish education, protecting kosher food, and other campaigns – wonderful. I applaud that, although it’s hard to judge its effectiveness or its value for money. Its budget is said to be $8 to $11 million, of which 40 percent, goes to advocacy on Israel. (CIJA refuses to say). To push this and other causes, it has 10 or so lobbyists.

For all its resources, though, how is CIJA the voice of “hundreds of thousands” of Jews in a country of 390,000 Jews? By what arithmetic, and with what authority?

The Canadian Jewish Congress, a venerable Jewish parliament, did not worry about its legitimacy. It had the confidence of Jews because it tried to represent all of them. It was a forum of conciliation between faiths, a voice of immigrants, and a champion of social justice. It had authenticity and loyalty. This we can say with confidence: The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is not the Canadian Jewish Congress.

The Federation can address the problem with CIJA. It can tell CIJA to stop advocating for Israel in Canada, and focus exclusively on education and other domestic issues. It can allow donors skeptical of CIJA to designate their support to other worthy charities within the Federation. Or choose others outside it.

As the pandemic strains many charities heroically serving our community, CIJA is one progressive Jews no longer want to hear – and need no longer subsidize.


Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen is an award-winning columnist with the Ottawa Citizen, a professor of journalism at Carleton University, and the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History

Charles Bronfman Launches Israeli-Diaspora Project to Counter ‘Growing Rift’

Dec. 14, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL— Over the past few years, Charles Bronfman has warned of a growing rift between the Diaspora and Israel that threatens to undermine the interdependence on which the Jewish state was founded and that enabled Jews around the world to hold their heads high.

In a videoconference hosted by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim on Dec. 8, the billionaire philanthropist spoke about his newest project, “Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance,” which aims to forge a new relationship based on mutual respect between Israelis and Jews around the world.

The emphasis is on educating the young, starting with Israeli teenagers, in the hope of bringing about attitudinal change that will find practical expression in the next generation of the country’s leaders.

Bronfman was in conversation with American journalist and Middle East scholar David Makovsky, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Based in Israel and supported by private foundations, the Alliance launches its first program in Israeli high schools in January when up to 500 students will be paired virtually with their Jewish peers in the United States, Canada and England. Ostensibly, the purpose is to practise their English, a compulsory subject in Israel.

The more subtle goal is to give the youths an opportunity to get to know each other on a personal level and realize that they have much in common, not the least, Jewish “peoplehood.”

The Alliance’s chief executive is Alon Friedman, previously director of Hillel Israel. The co-chairs of its advisory committee are Dan Shapiro, a U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration and now a distinguished visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, and Dan Meridor, a former senior Likud cabinet minister.

Bronfman, 89, is the co-founder of Birthright Israel, which has given over 750,000 young Jewish adults a free 10-day trip to Israel since the program began in 1999.

He feels Birthright’s most effective aspect has been the mifgashim (encounters) between the participants from abroad and their Israeli counterparts, who join them on the tour.

“The myths are dispelled. They find the Israelis don’t have horns and those from the Diaspora aren’t (made of) gold,” Bronfman said. “They come from different political and social systems, but they have the same values; they are all Jews and they love each other.”

The Alliance is diverging from the traditional role of Israel as “host” of these experiences and putting exchanges on a more equal footing. Diaspora Jews’ awareness of Israel has evolved, but Israelis remain largely stuck in the past in how they see their brethren abroad, Bronfman thinks.

“Israelis and Diaspora Jews do not know each other as human beings. The relationship was built on myths and falsehoods from the beginning. They were the poor cousins and we the rich cousins. They said, ‘Give us the money and bugger off, we’ll do our own thing…’

“Then Israel became this unbelievable start-up nation and now has a GDP almost equal to Canada. We need a new relationship as equals; we have to get together empathetically and try to find out what we can do together…We must be interdependent, or the dreams of our forebears will be shattered.”

Part of the Alliance’s mission statement is to “ensure the Jewish people remain a dynamic, diverse global community that is united, secure and inclusive.”

Whatever their religious, ideological or national identities, Bronfman believes all Jews share a bond. The Alliance is working with the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv to develop cultural programs that foster ties across the spectrum.

“I’m more of a secular Jew, but I love being Jewish, I love the traditions and values,” said Bronfman. “Most of my friends are Jewish. I can kibbitz with Jews in a way I can’t with Gentiles. It’s just so nice.”

Bronfman said he remains a Canadian nationalist, even though he has made his principal residence New York for a quarter-century. But that does not diminish his sense of Jewish belonging.

Defining who is Jewish is difficult, he said, hinting that the community could benefit from a big tent. “Intermarriage in the U.S. is over 50 percent, but I think 70 percent [of those] are bringing up their families Jewish. It’s not so terrible.”

Bronfman, long associated with the Labour Party leadership, has been critical of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, especially policies affecting the non-Orthodox. He alluded to the claim that this is making it increasingly tougher to find rapprochement between Israel and the Diaspora.

“I hope, out of the chaos that is the Israeli government, that one of these days there will be a government we can all be proud of,” he said.

A Reply to Michael Mostyn, and Canada’s UN Vote

Dec. 9, 2020

By DAVID KATTENBURG

Michael Mostyn’s commentary in the Dec. 3 edition of the CJR is both factually incorrect and disingenuous.

In response to 17 “anti-Israel” resolutions routinely presented at the United Nations this time of year, the B’nai Brith Canada CEO laments that Canada only voted against 16 of them.

Pretty solidly pro-Israel, were it not for that one “yes” vote affirming the Palestinian right to self-determination. That vote was “all the more galling,” writes Mostyn, given Canada’s traditional commitment to the “cause of peace.”

But Mostyn quickly dismisses the idea. Israel has long recognized the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, he said, and has pitched numerous “generous” offers.

Really? Nothing has been more central to Benjamin Netanyahu’s interminable political career than thwarting the creation of a Palestinian state. Among Netanyahu’s most recent pronouncements, at a Likud conclave last summer: “[In] no constellation will the government or the Knesset recognize the principle of establishing a Palestinian state.” Netanyahu has said this repeatedly over the years.

Mostyn twists it around: “Tragically,” he wrote, “the Palestinian leadership consistently rejected [Israel’s offers] because – bottom line – they refuse to accept the idea of a Jewish state.” 

This is false. The PLO accepted Israeli sovereignty on 78 percent of Palestinian lands back in 1988, in Algiers. It even acknowledged the Jewish people’s ancient narrative – a huge concession, reconfirmed in the Oslo Accords, that Israel has never matched.

Instead, under the guise of occupation, Israel has effectively annexed 60 percent of the remaining 22 percent slice, and colonized it, in breach of the UN Charter and Fourth Geneva Convention.

Of course, Mostyn and his lobby group’s lawyers fiercely deny that Israel occupies “Judea” and “Samaria.” Their theories have been debunked, and Israel’s settlements have been declared unlawful in a dozen UN Security Council resolutions.

Mostyn claims, falsely, that UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) call for “negotiations between the parties to determine the status of the territories.” 

In fact, UNSC 338 called for “negotiations” between the parties “aimed at establishing a just and durable peace.” UNSC 242 affirmed the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” [what Israel had just done in the 1967 Six-Day War], and the duty of UN member states to abide by Charter Articles 1 and 2, namely, the principles of “justice and international law” and “equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”

Neither resolution made reference to the “status of the territories,” now a matter of virtually universal consensus. Resolution 242 did call for Israel’s withdrawal from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” an inconvenient legal fact Mostyn ignores.

Canada’s policy on Palestine is clear: A) Israel is an occupying power in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Gaza; B) Israel’s settlements are illegal: and C) settlements impede the creation of a viable Palestinian state that Canada says is essential.

But forget about Canadian policy. The UN Charter and its binding covenants oblige Canada to “respect and ensure respect” for the law in “all circumstance.” The fact that it doesn’t – that it actually invests in Israel’s unlawful enterprise – is something Mostyn knows well but which doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

It is Israel’s annexationist ambitions, not “peace” policy, that Mostyn cherishes the most. According to Mostyn, Canada’s vote in support of Palestinian self-determination constituted a shameful denial of the same right to the Jewish people. Here he gets to the point. “Absurdly,” he writes, the lands within which Palestinians supposedly enjoy self-determination include “the holiest sites in Judaism: the Western Wall and Temple Mount, plus the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; and everything else, east to the Jordan River.”

In other words, Mostyn thinks all these lands belong to Israel, “the world’s only Jewish state.” He doesn’t say, though clearly believes, that Jews are indigenous to these lands, and that Palestinians are not. This is what Israel thinks, and B’nai Brith is Israel’s “staunch defender.”

Not a very righteous stance for someone claiming to represent Canada’s Jewish community, of which I am a part. He should declare himself more honestly.


David Kattenburg
David Kattenburg (photo credit: Clive Baugh)

David Kattenburg, who lives in Winnipeg, is Jewish but doesn’t consider himself indigenous to the Land of Israel. He belongs to a group called Scientists for Palestine. He is the plaintiff in a case, now under appeal by the Federal government, involving the labeling of wine products from West Bank Jewish settlements.

Editorial: Effi Eitam Must Not Head Yad Vashem

Nov. 25, 2020

The inestimable Avner Shalev has headed Yad Vashem, the world’s foremost Holocaust museum and memorial, since 1993. Shalev oversaw great changes at the renowned institution in Jerusalem, including growth, strong fundraising, and great advances in digital research. He took an already well-reputed venue and buffed it to an even higher gloss. Now 81, Shalev is retiring.

Nominated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to replace him is a notorious former Israel Defense Forces general, Effi Eitam. Usually, such a high-level appointment is carefully considered. After all, Yad Vashem is the collective memory to the world of the Six Million Jewish victims of the Shoah. It stands as a clarion call against evil and represents the epitome of human rights and dignity. Surely, the chairperson of such a vitally important institution would adhere to and represent the values of Yad Vashem.

But dozens of Holocaust survivors, Jewish ethicists, academics and others have called on Netanyahu to drop Eitam. To date, the prime minister has remained unmoved.

Who is Effi Eitam? Why is he the most unjustifiable person to lead Yad Vashem? You don’t have to look far.

In 1988, then Commander Eitam was in charge of the Givati Brigade, which had captured an alleged Palestinian terrorist. On Eitam’s orders, brigade members murdered the handcuffed, unarmed prisoner, Ayyad Aqel. The soldiers were court martialed and Eitam received a severe reprimand recommending he never be promoted.

But he did move up the ranks and ended his career as a brigadier general.

It was then on to politics. He served in the right-wing National Religious Party, where he held various portfolios. During this time, and even before entering the political arena, he advocated for the ethnic cleansing of the entire Arab population of what he termed Judea and Samaria. In fact, Eitam has called Arab Israelis, who are citizens of Israel, an “elusive threat” that “by their nature resemble cancer,” an illness “in which most of the people…die because they were diagnosed too late.”

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Minister of Social and Diaspora Affairs, tells this story of Eitam in a Times of Israel piece unsubtly headlined, “Effi Eitam is a deplorable choice to head Yad Vashem”:

“I heard Effi Eitam give a drasha at Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan shortly after 9/11. He explained to the audience that what happened that day was God’s way to return to the world arena and stir the world to a religious war. I was at that service along with the late Elie Wiesel, who was in utter shock that a Jew was able to utter such assertions.”

Today, we live in a world where Holocaust denial, antisemitism and hate have made giant leaps forward. Appointing Eitam to head the most auspicious example of Jewish dignity, a museum which speaks to the evil of racism, genocide and hate, is reprehensible.

All Jews of good conscience must speak out boldly and clearly in rejecting Eitam, who has blood on his hands and bigotry in his heart, to head Yad Vashem.

Great Nixon’s Ghost! Donald Trump and the Jews

Oct. 26, 2020 

By ANDREW COHEN

In the last days of his embattled presidency, facing impeachment and removal from office, Richard Milhous Nixon was alone. He had been undone by Watergate, a byword for a regime of skullduggery, deception and criminality.

As he prepared to resign on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon could rely on one unflagging loyalist. His name was Rabbi Baruch Korff, an émigré from Ukraine who had seen his mother murdered in a pogrom and had a history of incendiary behaviour.

Korff defended Nixon fiercely that summer. Claiming Nixon was a victim of a “carefully staged circus of hate,” Korff founded the National Citizens Committee for Fairness to the Presidency. Nixon called Korff “my rabbi.”

Oh, the cynicism. Audio recordings from the Oval Office released in 1999 and 2013 reveal the depth of Nixon’s antisemitism. His conversations illustrate a vulgar disdain for Jews, soaked in resentment and a sense of betrayal.

I recall the rabbi’s veneration of Nixon when I hear American Jews, a generation later, rush to the defence of Donald Trump. Like Korff, they rationalize the re-election of another corrupt Republican guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors” – and a country club bigot, too.

One of Trump’s fervent apologists is Lauri B. Regan, who served on the Board of the National Women’s Committee of the Republican Jewish Coalition. In Hadassah Magazine, she calls Trump “the most pro-Israel president America has ever had.” She cheers the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal – all dear to conservative Jewry.

For American Jews who put Israel first, her argument is predictable. If you’re a one-issue voter, Trump is your man, particularly if you think he’s more Zionist than David Ben-Gurion.

Trump’s policies won’t advance Israel’s peace or security, but that’s not the point. For blinkered Jews who also lionize Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump is the man on horseback, much as Stephen Harper was for Canadian Jews.

Had Regan declared herself a one-issue voter and left the rest of her valentine undrawn, she would be more credible. Or, if she’d admitted that she’s really voting for Trump, as many Jews are, because he’s made them richer.

But Regan goes further: She hails Trump as “one of the most patriotic presidents in recent memory.” It isn’t enough that Trump is the savior of Israel – let’s all chant Dayenu – now, he’s the saviour of the United States, too!

Regan fears rising anti-Jewish sentiment on campuses, in the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the Democratic Party. This threat should make Jews “prioritize protecting themselves, not the social issues that traditionally sway their votes,” she warns.

Doesn’t Trump stand up for the military and the police to protect us “in their synagogues” from the mob? Isn’t keeping America great keeping Jews “safe”?

Curiously, Regan sees antisemitism everywhere but in the presidency. She finds a bipartisan soul mate in Andrew Stein, former president of the New York City Council and founder of Democrats for Trump. Donald Trump an anti-Semite? No, says Stein. Didn’t Trump “welcome Judaism into his family” when Ivanka married Jared Kushner? Didn’t he combat hate crimes against Jews with an executive order?

Forget the torch-bearing brownshirts of Charlottesville; Trump’s indifference to those white supremacists was a “media distortion,” claims Regan. On Trump’s embrace of the Proud Boys and QAnon while he attacks the judiciary, the military, the media and other institutions, Regan and Stein are silent. While Republicans of conscience abandon Trump – see The Lincoln Project – and Americans prepare to repudiate Trump, this pair peddles a fantasy.

They would find their reflection in Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Smarter than everyone else, the wooly-minded Bengelsdorf fell so heavily for Charles Lindbergh that he missed the danger of Lindbergh’s antipathy toward Jews until it was too late. My late father called Bengelsdorf’s ilk “educated fools.”

Regan and Stein think nothing else matters to Jews but themselves, as if they are distinct or detached from society. To them, Jews ought not care – need not care – about the existential threat Trump poses to democracy, social justice, civil rights, and the rule of law.

Ironically, when he loses, Trump won’t appreciate the affections of Stein and Regan any more than he does the Vichy Republicans in Congress. Having privately ridiculed the evangelical Christians, he’ll reserve a scorn for Jews harsher than Nixon’s Jewish “bastards.” Eventually, we’ll know what he thought.

In the meantime, the charade unfolds. Rabbi Korff, meet Rabbi Regan and Rabbi Stein. They are your spiritual descendants and happy collaborators – as naive and embarrassing to their co-religionists today as you were then.


Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen is a columnist for Postmedia News, professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism, and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

Q&A: Prof. Gil Troy on Being Natan Sharansky’s Co-Author

Oct. 13, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

The newly published Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy (PublicAffairs, 480 pages) offers an intimate portrait of the man who spent nine years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union for his activism on behalf of Jewish emigration and who, after his release in 1986, became an outspoken politician in Israel. More recently, he was head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Troy, who made aliyah 10 years ago, continues to serve as a Distinguished Scholar in North American history at McGill University, where he’s taught from 1990. A specialist in the U.S. presidency, the New York-born Troy is a prolific author on the subject, as well as on Zionism. His most recent previous book was The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland.

The CJR interviewed Troy about Never Alone and his impressions of Sharansky.

How long have you personally known Natan Sharansky? How long did you work on the book together, and how much are his words/ideas vs. yours?

I had the privilege of first meeting him in the early 2000s when he was Diaspora Affairs Minister, among other positions. He was very concerned about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus, and I shared that concern as a McGill professor. It was mostly, however, a “hello, how are you?” type relationship, with occasional brainstorming meetings in his Jewish Agency office.

When I finished my last book, The Zionist Ideas, I asked him to write the preface, thinking of him as the most prominent and legendary Zionist in the world today. He kindly agreed – then turned it around and asked me to be his co-author.

Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy
Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy

We were true co-authors. We worked extremely closely together for three years, arguing lovingly about every word, every phrase, every logical sequence. And yet, in all that time, despite coming from such different worlds, we never had an ideological disagreement. So the book truly is our words, our voice – we call this a “memoir-festo,” a manifesto and memoir, because we are using his life story to tell a broader story about Jewish peoplehood and freedom.

Why the title Never Alone?

I was brainstorming with a good friend, David Suissa, [a former Montrealer now living in Los Angeles]. I told him that the KGB kept telling Natan, “you’re forgotten, you’re abandoned, you’re alone,” but Natan says, “I knew I was never alone.”

“That’s it!” David shouts. “For 75 years we’ve emphasized ‘Never Again’ – and of course we will always revere our Holocaust martyrs – but our message now is that if you are a part of this amazing people called the Jewish people, you can know you are never alone.”

What surprised you the most in getting to know Sharansky so personally? Were there any revelations?

The newsiest part for me – and the most surprising – is that this guy is the real deal. This is a story of a man [and his wife Avital] who should have been crushed by the Soviet Union. Instead, they stood up, resisted, became symbols of freedom, and are now doing everything they can to continue the struggle, while living the simple, humble life they fought so hard to enjoy.

What does Sharansky have to say concerning Canada, about Irwin Cotler, who acted as his legal counsel while he was in prison, and the Soviet Jewry movement here? Of more recent note, the book discloses that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to dissuade emigration of French Jews to Canada to ensure their aliyah. True?

There is some fascinating Canadian content: heroes like Irwin Cotler, one of his attorneys, along with Andrea Bronfman and the Group of 35, [who] were part of that army of “students and housewives” that literally saved his life. “Students and housewives” was the dismissive phrase of one of his KGB interrogators that Sharansky, in typical fashion, flipped into a flag of honour.

When Natan arrived in Israel, Andrea and Charles [Bronfman] were among the donors who helped him ease the way for other Soviet Jews arriving by bankrolling innovative programs. Irwin Cotler remains a close friend of both authors, and a mentor to me.

And yes, Natan does report that Bibi thought that [then Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s sympathetic, enthusiastically pro-Israel Conservative government might discourage French Jews from moving to Canada and encourage them to move to Israel. Natan [and I] approach Zionism differently. We don’t want to be commissars of Zionism; we encourage an Aliyah of Choice based on Identity Zionism, a decision to join the Jewish people and live in the Jewish homeland to seek ideological fulfillment and a certain kind of communal experience, not because you are forced to or fear antisemitism.

What opinion does he express about Netanyahu? Donald Trump?

Natan and Bibi have been friends for 30 years. Natan is grateful for all that Bibi did to save Soviet Jews, and to defend Israel’s security as effectively as he has. But Natan is also repeatedly disappointed by Bibi’s demagoguery against Arabs and against critics, and felt personally betrayed when Netanyahu sabotaged the Western Wall compromise to welcome egalitarian prayer at the Kotel – especially because Bibi himself knew how important it was.

Natan [and I] were stunned that American Jews couldn’t thank Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or now, can’t appreciate the breakthrough of the Abraham Accords. But we are both dismayed and often appalled by Trump’s boorishness, his bullying, and his uncharacteristic caution when it comes to clearly denouncing the antisemitic extremists who have felt encouraged by his rise to power and his rhetoric.

What does Sharansky say about the state of Israel today or its future?

In the book, we propose what we call the Driving Test: in what direction is Israel or any country going? We are happy to report that, despite some worries here and there, the directional signals all point positively. Take a simple test: would you rather be in the Israel of 1950 or 2000 or 2020? There’s a lot of false nostalgia about early Israel, but Arabs have more equal rights today, Mizrachim [non-Ashkenazi Jews] enjoy more respect, we are closer to peace and we have more freedom, democratic quality of life, and prosperity – quite the miracle, we both like to say.

On Israel-Diaspora relations, particularly with American Jews, what is his outlook?

We do see warning signs of divergence, of two different communities with two different agendas, but we also see encouraging signs of convergence and a new mutual respect. Programs like Birthright illustrate the new Identity Zionism approach of partnership, wherein Israelis and Diaspora Jews learn from one another, look out for one another, save one another, rather than assuming that it’s a one-way relationship.

Sharansky has been in our consciousness for close to half a century, yet he remains an enigma to all except those who are closest to him. He’s not a man of faith in the conventional sense and his ideology is hard to categorize. So what sustains him? Is he someone who had “greatness thrust upon him” and perhaps would have preferred the life of an obscure mathematics professor?

With him, what you see is what you get. He’s really modest, a mensch, a funny, ironic, thoughtful idealist who doesn’t wallow in the pain of the past but delights in the miracles of the present while working for even more miracles in the future. I am an historian. Usually, when I scrutinize popular gods up close, I discover their clay feet really quickly. Natan and his wife are genuine – they live their values and getting to know them is getting to appreciate them on deeper levels, far beyond the hero worship, which makes them both uncomfortable.

While he is not a formal philosopher and was not only never a king but thought he was a terrible politician, he is more philosopher-king than man of faith or humble academic. He is driven by ideas, but wants to live by them and inspire others to live by them – so he is less interested in refining them theoretically than championing them practically.

Secondly, he understands that dictatorships are fear societies and really appreciates the freedom we all too often take for granted in modern Western democracies. And third, he really loves the Jewish people, loves being Jewish, is thrilled to live in Israel, and wants to share that with others, not in a heavy-handed way, but in an educational manner.

Sharansky insists Never Alone is not a memoir because he is not done yet. What are his plans?

He starts his work days at 5:30 a.m. and, until the pandemic, travelled around the world. He chairs the Shlichim institute of the Jewish Agency, training emissaries from Israel to work all over the world, and chairs the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, headed by Montreal native Charles Small.

He also chairs the initiative to have a proper, thoughtful memorial and museum in Babi Yar [site of a Second World War massacre in Ukraine] and he just won this year’s Genesis Prize.

Informally, he is writing, teaching, and fighting for the big ideas in our book, about identity and freedom, about the joys of being Jewish and the dangers of veering to one extreme – or the other.

– This interview was edited for length and clarity.