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.

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.

Website Marks Decade of Publishing Jewish Fiction

Sept. 11, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The online Jewish literary journal Jewish Fiction.net is marking a milestone at an auspicious time: It celebrates its 10th anniversary this Rosh Hashanah.

The website is the only English-language journal in the world, either print or online, devoted exclusively to publishing Jewish fiction.

Founded and edited in Toronto by the award-winning author Nora Gold, the site has published more than 400 works of fiction, both short stories and excerpts from novels, over the past decade.

Nora Gold
Nora Gold

The current issue includes 16 contributions, among them five translations from Hebrew and one from Hungarian. There’s also an excerpt from Nessa Rapopart’s latest novel, Evening, which unfolds while the protagonist, Eve, and her family sit shivah for her sister.

Also in the current issue is “The House of Cards,” a comic story by Leonid Newhouse about a young Jewish couple sharing a room in a former palazzo in Leningrad at the end of 1940s.

A crisis created by the advent of digital publishing a decade ago gave Gold the impetus to launch Jewish Fiction.Net. At the time, she recalled, many writers told her, “look, I have a novel in my drawer and the publishers have been telling me it’s really good, but hold on to it for 10 years, until the digital crisis is over.”

Jewish fiction, Gold noted, is seen as a niche market by publishers, who, when facing difficult times, tend to avoid anything seen as niche.

Gold said she’s been lucky as a writer to find publishers for her three books. Her collection of short stories, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award, and one of her two novels, Fields of Exile, won a Canadian Jewish Literary Award.

Concerned that some amazing Jewish-themed fiction would be lost during the digital crisis, Gold got into publishing. Her professional background, in addition to being a writer, is in social work. “What happens for someone like me is, I thought in this case there’s a need, (so) I’ll fill the need,” she said.

With the help of an advisory council, she launched the Toronto-based journal, which publishes Jewish fiction from around the world and has readers in 140 countries.

Contributors have included such eminent authors as Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua, Savyon Liebrecht, and Aharon Megged, and some well-known Canadians, like George Jonas, Morley Torgov, and Chava Rosenfarb.

A rigorous editorial process ensures that the quality of the writing, whether by famous or lesser-known authors, remains high. Submissions are blind-reviewed by an editorial team of three, located in Toronto, Houston and Jerusalem. “I was able to get people with very strong backgrounds in literature, Judaism and/or Jewish literature,” Gold said.

Contributors are unpaid, and fewer than one out of 20 submissions is published, she said.

In the early days of the journal and today, Gold continues to be concerned about the divisiveness, hostility and polarization within the Jewish community. An activist and co-founder of the New Israel Fund of Canada, Canadian Friends of Givat Haviva, and JSpaceCanada, Gold created the journal with the hope that it would build bridges.

“There would be a place where writers and readers of all different perspectives and backgrounds could meet and be exposed to each other, because fiction is very powerful,” she said. “When you read fiction, your defences drop and you enter the inner world of the other person. And it changes you. It broadens the way you think about things.”

She also tries to build a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora by publishing Israeli writers in translation.

“The younger generation in the Diaspora is so estranged from Israel,” she said, adding she hopes exposure to fiction translated from Hebrew might give young people pause or some opening to experience Israel.

Gold decided to forgo a paywall for the site and make the stories accessible. While she was developing the idea for the journal, she remembers passing a group of Jewish kids at a bus stop near Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

“I just had this whole fantasy about high school kids being able to read great works of fiction on the bus on the way home instead of playing computer games,” she said.

“I didn’t want even to be charging $5 per issue because there are people for whom that’s a barrier, either economic or psychological. I just wanted anyone to be able to read this journal. And not only Jews, of course. We have lots of non-Jewish readers.”