July 16, 2008
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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