December 23, 2010
By YOSEF TASTASSA, Special to The CJN
Natan Sharansky [Yosef Tastassa photo]
TORONTO — “The Jewish community in the GTA is one of the most important Jewish communities in the Diaspora, ” Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told The CJN last week in an exclusive interview.
Sharansky was in Toronto on Dec. 13 to address a special meeting of the Canada Israel Chamber of Commerce (CICC).
He spoke to The CJN about the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, and about his special connection to Toronto’s Jewish community.
“Aliyah is one of our goals but not the only one,” Sharansky said, adding that the State of Israel needs strong and flourishing Jewish communities around the world.
“We understand that in today’s world the borders are open and people are free to shift their living places for many reasons. The Jewish Agency has strong interests among Jews who live outside Israel. We want to keep in touch with those people, strengthen their Jewish identity, and make them see Israel as their home,” Sharansky said.
“It is important that these people will keep their tradition and stick to their roots for the long-term existence of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world.”
By the same token, however, he said there is a reciprocal aspect to the relationship. “I also believe that the Jewish communities around the world need Israel. Israel is important for identity and heritage. It is the home of every Jew around the world.”
Sharansky said the Jewish community in Toronto is unique because of its three distinct populations: English-speaking, Hebrew-speaking and Russian-speaking.
He praised the work of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the shlichim (representatives of the Jewish Agency) who “have a crucial and important role in keeping in touch with these three populations that have unique patterns.”
Sharansky was and still is a hero for many Jews around the world.
Born in Ukraine in 1948, he completed a degree in applied mathematics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. He became a worldwide symbol of the Refuseniks’ struggle in the 1970s.
Sharansky was arrested in 1977 after the authorities refused to grant him an exit visa. He was accused of treason and espionage, and he was convicted of the charges in 1978. He spent nine years of his life in the Soviet gulag.
“Feb. 18, 1986, was the day I moved from hell to paradise,” Sharansky said, referring to the day of his release from the gulag.
“After the international struggle for my release came to an end, I was transferred from the Soviet Union to the divided city of Berlin, and in the same night I was in Jerusalem with my wife and fulfilled a dream.
“The Jewish community of [Toronto] was a great activist in the struggle for my release from prison,” he added.
Later, in Israel, he became a politician and established the Yisrael b’Aliyah party.
The party won seven seats in the Knesset in the 1996 elections, and he was appointed minister of Industry, Trade and Labor in the first Netanyahu government. He held the position from 1996 to 1999.
Sharansky said “there is a lot of symbolism in being a guest of the CICC, as I signed the first Israeli-Canadian agreement 13 years ago.”
The CICC event was organized by Meir Klein, CICC executive vice-president and federation’s director of research. Also in attendance were Amir Gissin, consul general of Israel for Toronto and Western Canada; CICC chairman Leslie Dan; CICC vice-chairman David Rubin; CICC president Oded Orgil and CICC national executive vice-president J.M. Shore.