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Jewish Journal

Defending Identity

by Rob Eshman

July 16, 2008 | 11:28 pm

Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky's previous book, "The Case for Democracy," changed the world. It inspired a generation of U.S. policymakers and influenced President George W. Bush in his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

So when Sharansky's second book, "Defending Identity," came out this month, I thought I'd better read it, quick.

I did last Saturday, so that by Sunday, I could sit down with Sharansky and ask him about it.

I met Sharansky at his hotel on the Westside. The former deputy prime minister of Israel, who is now director of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, had just arrived from Israel and was napping when I knocked on his door. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. Sharansky is half my height and twice as commanding, a pierogi body with basset hound eyes.

A mutual friend offers to call down for coffee.

"Yes," Sharansky says, "a cappuccino."

That a man who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag might one day find himself in a sumptuous hotel room, specifying a foamy hot coffee drink, vindicates, if not God's eternal justice, then at least Her dark sense of humor. And Sharansky's. He takes a moment to tell how he once excused himself from wearing a tie to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

"I told him, Mr. President, in Israel we have a law. Anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn't have to wear a tie. And he said, 'That makes sense.'

"So, later, Putin says to me, 'Why no tie? Is that a protest?' And I say, 'No. First, in Israel we have a law that anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn't have to wear a tie. And besides that, the president of the United States said it was OK.'"

Sharansky is awake now, and it's time to talk identity.

In "Defending Identity," Sharansky argues against the idea, popular among some of the intelligentsia and on many college campuses, that a strong sense of identity among social groups is the source of friction and war. As Sharansky explains "post-identity" thinking: "Identity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil."

Sharansky's book is an extended argument against that premise. Although identity can be "used destructively," he writes, it is also a force for good.

Strong identities, Sharansky argues, "are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. Just as the advance of democracy is critical to securing international peace and stability, so, too, is cultivating strong identities."

Sharansky co-authored the book with Shira Wolosky Weiss. But the source of its deepest insights are drawn from Sharansky's own life.

"I have been extremely lucky -- twice lucky in fact," Sharansky writes. "I was deprived of both identity and freedom, and then I discovered them both simultaneously."

The first third of Sharansky's life was spent as a loyal Soviet citizen in a state that had outlawed and crushed expressions of cultural and religious identity. "The only thing Jewish in my life," he writes, "was anti-Semitism."

The Six-Day War awakened Sharansky, as it did so many others, to his Jewish identity. "I started realizing I was part of a unique history ... that carried a unique message of community, liberty and hope."

In 1978, five years after Sharansky applied for a visa to immigrate to Israel, the promising mathematician was arrested by the Soviets, tried for treason and spying and sent to the gulag. He spent 16 months in prison and nine years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. Throughout this ordeal, Sharansky became both leader and symbol of the Jewish immigration movement and the Soviet dissident movement.

A massive international protest on behalf of all Soviet dissidents led to Sharansky's release in 1986. Upon his release, he flew to Israel, reunited with his wife, Avital, and has lived the third part of his life as an activist, writer and politician.

It was, Sharansky writes, his deep sense of identity that enabled him to fight the Soviet empire.

"I discovered that only by embracing who I am ... could I also stand with others," he writes. "When Jews abandon identity in pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither. Yet when they embrace identity in the name of freedom, as Soviet Jews did in the 1970s, they end up securing both."

While Sharansky's biography makes his case especially compelling, others have made the same point. Consider the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which all the people spoke the same language and therefore couldn't see their own sinfulness. Judaism has long held to the now-subversive belief that difference needn't be divisive. Most recently, the chief rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, in "The Dignity of Difference," wrote that "universalism can also be deeply threatening."

Where Sharansky goes further is in alloying identity with democracy. When I point out to him that Muslim extremists don't suffer from a lack of identity, he leaps forward in his chair.

"Exactly!" he says. "Their identity is not bad; what is bad is their lack of devotion to democracy."

In that sense, this book on identity follows naturally Sharansky's now-classic one on democracy.

"Identity, if it is not connected to democracy, it becomes fundamentalist, totalitarian," he says. "But freedom and democracy without identity means freedom becomes decadent, powerless, meaningless, without any commitment. Exactly what John Lennon said. Let's have a world in which there would be nothing to fight for. And then a small group, with a strong identity and without any obligations to democracy, can destroy this wonderful world of freedom."

I am finding myself nodding as one of my heroes -- Sharansky -- trashes another -- John Lennon. But if Lennon sang -- with a bit of irony -- about utopia, Sharansky is explaining the real world.

"The free world is in a big, big danger," he says, "because we are in a conflict with fundamentalists, and what they are saying is they have something to fight for, and we don't."

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