Israel once attracted droves of Jews from troubled parts of the world but now faces the challenge of luring immigrants at a time when the overwhelming majority of Jews live in free countries, former Soviet “refusenik” Natan Sharansky said in an interview.
Millions of Jews fled Europe and the Arab world after the founding of Israel in 1948. Nearly a million Jews immigrated to Israel during the 1990s at the height of the Jewish exodus from the former Soviet Union.
That number fell by 70 percent the following decade, as the number of Jews living in threatened communities dwindled. Last year, only 17,500 immigrated to Israel, one of the lowest totals in the state’s history.
“I believe we can increase these figures, but aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel] from the free world can grow only if the number of Jews who have a strong Jewish identity grows too,” said Mr. Sharansky, who now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The 83-year-old organization promotes immigration to Israel and monitors the welfare of about 14 million Jews worldwide. Israel’s “Law of Return” entitles anybody with at least one Jewish grandparent to citizenship upon moving to Israel.
About roughly 60,000 Jews live in communities requiring “special attention,” Mr. Sharansky said, adding that he is particularly concerned about Jewish communities in Venezuela, Iran, Turkey and Arab countries.
Mr. Sharansky, through 13 years in a Siberian labor camp, became an international symbol of the Jewish struggle to leave the Soviet Union. He was one of the most famous “refuseniks,” mostly Soviet Jews denied permission to leave the country.
After he was released in 1986, Mr. Sharansky moved to Israel and became active in politics. He held four different ministerial posts and served as deputy prime minister before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped him to head the Jewish Agency in 2009.
Unlike most Israeli officials, who have taken a dim view of the Arab Spring, Mr. Sharansky said he is optimistic about its long-term prospects.
“Whoever comes to power will be much more dependent on the well-being of their people than the previous governments,” he said. “Because of this dependence, they will also be interested in cooperation with the free world.”
Mr. Sharansky said, though, that his fellow Israelis had good reason to be concerned about the upheaval in the Arab world.
“Israel has all the reasons not to think about 20 or 30 years from now, but the next three years - whether the new regimes will strengthen groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, whether they will join forces with Iran or not,” he said.
He also said he believed that the recent wave of Russian anti-government protests herald a new era in his native country.
“One thing is clear. The leaders in the Kremlin cannot rely on unconditional support of the people,” he said.