When Rome laid siege to Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago, the inhabitants of the city were starving. Every contemporary account of the suffering, tells a story grisly enough to both sicken and sadden us. The ravages of hunger reduced once proud men and women to cannibalism. Our people eventually capitulated, and the Romans sacked the city, burned the Temple and exiled the inhabitants.
From these ignominious beginnings, Jewish life in the Diaspora was born. But it didn't have to be that way. There was another, alternative, end to that story. Maybe we didn't have a choice as to whether the Romans would come; but we did have a choice as to whether we would fight them, or choose to fight our own selves instead.
Contemporaneous accounts of the siege suggest that the Jewish people were their own worst enemy. While the Romans tightened their vise-grip on the city, competing groups within Jerusalem bickered among themselves and vied for political advantage. Jewish leaders intentionally burned stockpiled grain in a foolhardy attempt to force an armed conflict, and to eliminate the option of waiting out the siege. We all know where that decision led us. Lest we forget, the pictures on the Arch of Titus - engravings that depict Jewish slaves in chains - will remind us.
It has taken two millennia for an independent Jewish state to rise again in the Land of Israel - but miraculously, in our lifetimes, it has. For the first time in perhaps all of Jewish history, Diaspora Jewish communities have the opportunity to work, hand in hand, with a sovereign Jewish state to solve the grave problems that confront our people. It is a momentous opportunity, and one we dare not miss. But miss it, we can - all too easily. Like our forebears long ago, we, too, can focus on the little cat-fights between us. We, too, can lose ourselves in political bickering, warming our hands by the glow of a burning stockpile of communal grain.
IN JUST a day or two, the Jewish Agency will hold elections to determine its new chairman. It has the opportunity to elect an eminent statesman of the Jewish people, Natan Sharansky, who has been nominated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In more ways than we can count, he is the perfect man for the job. Sharansky would bring a level of integrity, expertise and gravitas to this position that has been all but unseen in the annals of the Jewish Agency.
Sharansky cut his Jewish organizational teeth in the stone dungeons of the Gulag. He later made aliya, and eventually became deputy prime minister of the State of Israel. He is a man of bold vision and extraordinary leadership ability. He, perhaps more than any other man alive, symbolizes the link between Israel and the Diaspora, which the Jewish Agency itself aspires to represent at the institutional level. It is a link that, I fear, is in danger of fading over time.
Unfortunately, the Jewish Agency seems to be on the verge of squandering the historic opportunity represented by Sharansky's chairmanship. In a short-sighted attempt to demonstrate independence from the State of Israel, large donors to the agency are seeking to thumb their nose at the prime minister and reject the candidate he has nominated. It seems that petty squabbles and turf wars are getting in the way of selecting the right man for the job. It is a bonfire of the vanities - and the odor of burning grain, stretching over the centuries, is unmistakable.
THE JEWISH AGENCY is an organization with a unique purpose, and yes, a unique destiny - but somehow, it has of late struggled to live up to that destiny. It can be, and should be, a proud and resilient bridge linking Diaspora communities to the State of Israel. To be that bridge in the next century, it must concentrate relentlessly on a difficult task: It must help educate a new generation of our people as to why being Jewish should be important to them, about why they should be proud to be Jewish. It must do this before these Jews become sucked into blind apathy, or the lurid, but fashionable anti-Semitism of "Israel Apartheid" week at their local universities. Sharansky understands this mission, and I believe he will pursue it vigorously.
I often complain that the Jewish people have a dearth of modern heroes. Who is there, alive today, that we can point our kids to and say with confidence: "There's a real Jewish hero; strive to be like that." Natan Sharansky is one of those heroes. His very presence at the helm of any organization will burnish its image; his leadership at the Jewish Agency can make that organization great again, in a way it hasn't been for decades. If Sharansky should assume the mantle of chairman of the agency, I, for one, pledge to stand behind him - and I would urge my compatriots in the American Jewish world to do the same. Here is a great man who wants to help a grand Jewish organization fulfill its promise on the stage of history. I say: Let's put petty infighting aside, and let him try.
The writer is chairman of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, cofounder of Taglit-Birthright Israel and founding cochair of Areivim: Fund for the Jewish Future.
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