Speech by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
to the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Agency
Jerusalem, February 25, 2003

Good evening,

I am very pleased to be here this evening to take part in a discussion on matters concerning the Jewish people. I am first of all a Jew, and to me, being Jewish is the most important thing. In all my diplomatic meetings around the world, previously as a Minister and currently as the Prime Minister, I begin with the words: "I am a Jew, I come from the state of the Jewish people, the city of Jerusalem – the capital of the Jewish people for over 3,000 years and the united and undivided capital of the State of Israel forever". And it is as a Jew that I am addressing you today.

I regret that I could not participate in the meetings you held here on topics to which I attach great importance. But I did have the privilege of meeting several of your representatives yesterday and enjoying a very interesting conversation on subjects heading the Jewish agenda in Israel and worldwide.

In the coming days, I will present my new government for Knesset approval. This government will have to confront a series of upcoming challenges. One need only mention the security reality in which we live, our political campaign and the economic recession – a result of the global recession, the collapse of the hi-tech markets and the security situation.

Despite these challenges, I attach the utmost significance to a series of issues that can be defined as "national Jewish challenges". These are issues that will entail the cooperation of the Government of Israel, the Jewish Agency and the entire Jewish people. Today, I wish to present to you my viewpoint of the challenges that the Jewish people is confronting at the dawn of the 21st century.

Primary among these challenges is the subject of Jewish continuity. It is a subject of great concern to me. In order to ensure Jewish continuity, we must first make a major investment in Jewish-Zionist education for future generations. Education for Jewish values, learning our glorious history and heritage, the Hebrew language – the language of the Jewish people, and the Bible, expanding our knowledge of Jewish continuity in the land of Israel over thousands of years, and strengthening the affinity of Jewish youth to the land of Israel.

Enhancing Jewish education is important not only in the Diaspora. There is still much work in this field also in Israel. We began doing so in the past two years, and it is my intention to further encourage it in the next government as well. Simultaneously with the formal educational frameworks, it is very important to encourage informal programs – youth movements, community centers and extra-mural Jewish activity.

Several months ago I had a very exciting meeting with a group of youths who came to Israel in the framework of the "Taglit" program ("Birthright"). I believe that these youths – most of whom visited Israel for the very first time – after familiarizing themselves with this county and becoming acquainted with Israeli youths – returned to their countries of origin with their hearts filled with a great sense of Jewish and Zionist pride. The Israeli youths who met with them probably had this experience as well. This is but one example of education programs that we must encourage, and I know that there are many more.

We must understand that the future of the Jewish people lies in education. This understanding must guide us every single day. This is how my government will act, and this is how I believe you will act also.

In the future, Jewish education will help guarantee another challenge facing the Jewish people – the challenge of immigration. Immigration is crucial to secure the future of the Jewish people. It is important not only to guarantee a Jewish majority in the State of Israel, but also to ensure Jewish existence throughout the world. One cannot argue with demographic statistics. Israel is the largest Jewish community and this is where Jewish growth increases continuously, more than anywhere else.

But even if we ignore the demographic reality, I, in the spirit of David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, still attach prime importance to immigration. The Jewish people belong in the land of Israel. This is where we were founded, it is where we created our values and culture. Throughout their years in exile, Jews turned here in prayer, and only here can the Jewish people realize its full potential – for its own benefit and for the benefit of the entire world.

In recent years we have been witnessing a phenomena, the magnitude of which we have never seen before. Many immigrants who are eligible for immigration under the Law of Return, but are not Jews according to Halacha, have arrived in Israel. It is important to emphasize that these people see themselves as Jews, they serve in the Israel Defense Forces and have chosen to make Israel their home. Many of these people, upon their arrival in Israel, sought to formally join the Jewish people and convert. Unfortunately, many of them encountered bureaucratic obstacles which prevented them from doing so. I am not a rabbi and it is not for me to decide how Jews should be converted, but it is obvious to me that these bureaucratic obstacles must be removed so that anyone who is willing – in good faith – to undergo a conversion process, will be allowed to do so. We are working in close cooperation with the Jewish Agency on this subject as well.

Another challenge for the Jewish people is the development of two regions, where, I believe, lies the future of the Jewish people: the Negev and the Galilee. These are the only available lands for any future national projects. We must make the Negev and the Galilee a pioneer challenge for Jewish youths and take all necessary measures to ensure a Zionist majority in these regions. My Government has assigned the responsibility for this mission to the Settlement Division of the Zionist Federation – this year in the Negev, and starting next year – in the Galilee. We commenced the process of the establishment of twelve new communities in the Negev, in Holot Halutza and in the south of mount Hebron. Simultaneously, we are acting to assist existing communities and promote their development. The Jewish Agency has a large part in this enterprise, and I am certain that you will fully mobilize.

The final challenge that I wish to discuss today lies in the heart of every Jew – Jerusalem. "Ten shares of beauty were given to world, Jerusalem took nine". I am pleased that you were fortunate enough to be with us today, when the beauty of Jerusalem – cloaked in white – is radiating for all to see. No other city in the world best summarizes the essence of "being Jewish", no other city is more identified with the Jewish people. We must enhance the centrality of Jerusalem in the life of every Jew in the world. I have a dream that every Jew in the world will at least once have the opportunity of visiting Jerusalem. In this context, I wish to note favorably the decision to hold the November General Assembly of American Jewry in Jerusalem. I hope that other Jewish communities will emulate this example, which demonstrates to the entire world the importance of Jerusalem for the Jewish people.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The political and security reality in Israel forces us to confront a series of difficult phenomena. During the past year, world Jewish communities enlisted to help Israel, and with a series of steps, expressed the existing solidarity among our people. I take this opportunity to thank all those who took part in the emergency campaign for Israel and in the campaign for Argentinean Jews, and for your expressions of solidarity and support. Next year we will also be forced to confront a complex reality. The anti-Semitic beast has arisen throughout the world, and we must fight it with all our might. Tremendous efforts are being made by the Palestinians and Arab states to besmirch Israel’s image, and we must concentrate our public relations efforts to address this issue. Israel’s security needs are significant and any future political development will require a partnership between the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.

Nevertheless, I believe that we must look to the future, beyond the political steps that must be taken. I will probably not have the privilege of being Israel’s Prime Minister in 10, 50 or 100 years from now, but I believe that our actions today will determine the future of the Jewish people then. I believe that if we concentrate the tremendous powers and talents of the Jewish people and confront the challenges that I outlined today – ensuring Jewish continuity through Jewish education, increasing immigration to Israel, developing the Negev and the Galilee and strengthening Jerusalem’s status – we will all enjoy a thriving Jewish future.

This future begins here – with each and every one of us. It goes through the Mount Scopus school in Melbourne, Yeshiva University in the United States, the "Hashomer Hatzair" or Betar branch in Buenos-Aires, the large synagogue in Paris or Moscow and the community center of the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem – a short drive away from here.

It is in the heart of every Jew, and I believe that together, we can turn this future into a reality for each and every Jew.

Thank you.