One of the Jewish world’s most prominent philanthropists has publicly regretted that there is “no legitimate forum for the exchange of opinions between Israel and the diaspora”.
Mikhail Fridman, who holds both Russian and Israeli citizenship, was speaking at JW3 this week in conversation with the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky.
Mr Sharansky, once the most famous Soviet Jewish refusenik, and Mr Fridman, co-founder of the Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG), were the guests at a sell-out event whose audience included scores of young Russian-speaking Jews living in London, rarely seen at mainstream Jewish community events.
James Harding, director of news at the BBC, chaired the conversation which began with an analysis of identity and developed into a discussion of the different needs of Israel and diaspora communities. Though there is an age difference between the two men — Sharansky has just turned 70, while Fridman, one of Russia’s richest men, is 53 — both had a remarkably similar story to tell about growing up as Jews in the Soviet Union.
For Sharansky, who was “an absolutely assimilated Jew who felt part of the Russian people”, there was “nothing Jewish except antisemitism in my life”. The turning-point for him came after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, when Russians would refer to him as part of the Israeli people.
Fridman recounted how he had grown up in Lviv in a very secular family. Like Sharansky, he said he had been told by his parents that he had to work five times as hard as his Russian classmates, precisely because he was Jewish. And, he said, “the state reminded us every day who we were. It was always clear that we had a lot of limitations and boundaries”. These related to the universities Jews could attend, or the jobs for which they could apply.
Sharansky, who had a long career in front-line Israeli politics after he was freed from the Soviet Union where he spent nine years in prison, paid tribute during his remarks to three British Jews who had played an important role in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Two were in the audience: Rita Eker of the 35s (Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry) an June Jacobs. Sharansky also recalled the contribution of the late Greville Janner, father of Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who is on the advisory board of the Genesis Prize.
At least one remark by Natan Sharansky is likely to have captivated the non-Russians in the audience: his declaration that in Russian president Vladimir Putin, “we have a Russian leader who loves Jews”, joking that “for him, Israel is a Russian-speaking Jewish country”.
Mikhael Fridman declined direct comment on Putin, but agreed that “for the time being Russia is the most tolerant society for Jews that it has ever been”.
Much of the discussion focused on the need to strengthen the Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews outside Israel. Sharansky, who made frequent reference to the need for aliyah, nevertheless declared that he “did not agree that every time there is a terrorist attack in the diaspora, [those communities] should be urged to go to Israel. They do not need to hear the voice of the Commissar of Zionism. I do not want people to feel that Israel is a shelter. I want them to feel a special pride in belonging to this people; and I want to build a corps of young Jews who are not ashamed of association with Israel”.
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.