Jewish Journal

Defending Identity

by Rob Eshman

Posted on Jul. 16, 2008 at 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."Again he leaps forward, almost off his seat.

"Maybe the book had to be called not simply 'Defending Identity' but 'Defending the Union Between Freedom and Identity!'"

I assure him the title he has is better, at least in English.

In the book and in person, Sharansky applies his ideas practically.

I bring up the Iraq War. Critics have charged that Sharansky's call for confrontation with nondemocratic regimes influenced the Bush administration to invade Iraq the way it did. Nothing he wrote, Sharansky says, calls for military action to impose democracy on, say, Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

"I never even hinted at it," Sharansky exclaims. "The power of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union is that we did not use violence, but we said stop supporting this regime. Connect all your relations with them to this.... The fact that Saudi Arabian dictators are so strong is not only because of the price of oil. It's simply because the United States of America, for all its presidents, the most left and the most right, were always supporting the dictators of Saudi Arabia and were never supporting dissidents. There is no shortcut."

In fact, it was America's lack of understanding of the strength of the various factional identities in Iraq that undermined our war there.

"I don't remember any serious discussion among my friends in America who were discussing day and night the preparation for war, how then to take into account the fact that the people they were liberating are Sunni, Shia and Kurds. Somehow it was believed that in the conditions of freedom, with a good democratic message from Baghdad, that will work. But that's a failure. Most of the effort had to be to identify the moderate religious leaders, and in fact, there was a lot of time for this. But of course, the Iranians understood how to use this weapon. They know it; they live it. Identity cannot be ignored," he says.

Then we turn to Israel.

"The coming together of identity and democracy -- with the many challenges and strains it involves -- puts Israel in the center of the confrontation between these two forces in the wider world," Sharansky writes.

He spends one-third of the book dissecting how Israel's identity as a Jewish state can help it survive and maintain a bulwark of democracy in the midst of totalitarianism. Of immediate concern is strengthening the ties of Israel to Judaism, to deepen the Israelis' connection to their Jewish identity. Part of that, Sharansky says, is embracing the Diaspora as an extension of Jewish identity.

But, he points out, a strong Jewish identity in Israel must be infused with democracy -- an active respect for the identities of non-Jewish citizens.

"The overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs want to be legal citizens of Israel," he tells me. "We need to be very tough with those who reject us, and very generous with the rest."

It is a difficult balance, and one Israel's many critics refuse to understand. Sharansky tells me of his first visit defending Israel in front of a college audience.

"I prepared myself for very tough battles in defending Israel against Palestinians, against liberals demonizing Israel," he says. "The first university I was speaking [at], the first question was from a Jewish student. He said, 'Why do I need Israel? Why do I need any special connection to this small tribe?'"

For Sharansky, that connection is a life's battle and a life's work. As we wind up the interview -- Sharansky has to run to Venice to have brunch with the in-laws of his newly-married daughter, Rachel -- he puts the lesson succinctly: "There is a deep connection between your desire to be free and your desire to belong."

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