Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Sharansky: Why Identity Matters

On July 16th, former refusenik and living hero, Natan Sharansky spoke before about a hundred people at Seattle Town Hall, making the case that strong identities are the best bulwark against tyranny and fundamentalism. His new book, "Defending Identity" points the way towards reinvigorating the West in its struggle to maintain its freedoms and democracies in an increasingly intolerant world.

Sharanksy begins with John Lennon's idealistic song "Imagine," where the future utopia will consist of a borderless world "and the world will live as one."

Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
And no religion too.
Imagine all the people,
Living life in peace.

He contrasts this with the declaration by the spiritual leader of Al Qaeda that "we will win because the West loves life and we love death." Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said the same in an interview in 2004, after a prisoner swap (yes, another earlier one) between Israel and his group: "We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death."

It would be a mistake though to assume that these Islamic fundamentalists are crazed martyrs who wish death upon themselves for its own sake. Rather, their identity is a powerful force that gives meaning and purpose to life beyond the physical and material. The jihadists hold beliefs--however horrifying and foreign to us--for which they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. And they see the West as divorced from any distinct sense of identity, unwilling to make sacrifices for any cause larger than the self. In short, they see us as having lost the will to fight, defend or die for our beliefs. And indeed, for many in the West, John Lennon's song has become an anthem of post-modern, post-nationalist universalism.

For Natan Sharanky, the struggle for freedom and human rights, and the struggle to reclaim his Jewish identity evolved almost simultaneously and coalesced into a single expression. Because of a reinvigorated Jewish identity, he gained the courage to publicly speak out against Soviet tyranny and demand his freedom to emigrate to Israel and reconnect with his people and his history. His willingness to risk everything for that right earned him 9 years in the Soviet gulag system. Those years of incarceration taught him the value of strong identities. He discovered that cultural, religious, ethnic and nationalist identities were not in opposition to democracy and freedom, but rather, strengthened them. The prisoners with the strongest identities, whether Siberian Pentecostals, Latvian nationalists, Orthodox Christians or Crimean Tatars were those with whom he could most identify, and more importantly, trust.

Sharansky sees American pluralism fostering strong, discrete identities in the service of a cohesive collective. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one. It is America's great strength that in allowing for the full expression of hyphenated identities, whether they be Greek Orthodox-American, Italian-American or Muslim-American, an ultimately stronger national identity is forged. The European experiment, exemplified by French efforts to make every citizen a Frenchman first, has proven to be an abysmal failure. Banning head scarves has not helped integrate Muslims into French society; instead, the edict has further alienated them from French society.

Sharansky tells the story of how one of his heroes in the Refusenik movement, Senator Henry 'Scoop' Jackson, greeted one of his young staffers on the morning of a Jewish holiday, surprised to see him show up for work. Jackson asked, "Why are you here? Isn't this your holiday?" The young staffer, for many years now a close friend of Sharansky, replied to Jackson, "The work for you is more important." Jackson responded, "Look, my boy, if you really want to be a good American you should be a good Jew."

We live in a world today that claims to celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, yet makes value judgments about which are the 'good' and 'bad' cultures, ethnicities and peoples. Just like in Orwell's "Animal Farm," all ethnicities and national independence movements are equal, but some are more "equal" than others. Europe appears willing to sever itself from much of its past identity in the service of a new post-nationalist, universalist model of co-existence, perhaps in part due to its post-colonial guilt.
Ironically, harsh limits are placed on relatively innocuous expressions of identity in the public sphere (like the head-scarf ban), yet European governments give Muslim minorities a pass when it comes to the abrogation of basic democratic norms. Thus, a blind eye is turned towards underage marriages, wife beatings, genital mutilations and honor killings, to name but a few of the gross transgressions of western civilization's most fundamental democratic precepts of equality, freedom, and human rights.

Sharansky ends his book reminding us that societies with attenuated identities are imperiled. That the free world's shield against tyranny, oppression and intolerance is "its own identity, vigorously asserted and framed by a commitment to democratic life." Only through an alliance of freedom and identity can a real peace be forged and a true multi-cultured world thrive.

david brumer

An afterthought: Ariel Sharon, Israel's fallen leader, knew a thing or two about the power of identity. And the fiercely secular, sabra-soldier, defined himself first as a Jew. In an interview with Ari Shavit (The General), published in the January 23rd, 2006 issue of The New Yorker, Sharon noted that Israel's raison d'etre "is to be the place where Jews will finally be cured of their mortal illness, their eternal wandering." But he also expressed his doubts about our ability to maintain our sovereignty, to secure a Jewish future in the land and preserve it when young Israelis didn't know their bible (remember, this from a secularist, but one who was steeped in his Jewish identity and the history of his people) and weren't familiar with their history. He lamented their unwillingness to defend the Jewish right to the land. “One generation after another is drifting away from anything Jewish,” he said.
This deteriorating connection with Jewish identity worried Sharon greatly. On the other hand, he spoke of the Arabs with great envy when it came to their powerful identities and convictions. "If there's something that I respect about the Arabs, it's the fact that they never change their position. They know much better how to keep their honor and their land. The Palestinian leadership did not give up any of its demands, not one inch."

Interesting to also remember Jabotinsky's words before the British Parliament in 1937 about the need for Jews to reclaim their ancient homeland. He said, referring to the Arabs in Palestine, “I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority. It is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be Arab state No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6-that I quite understand. But when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.”
While we are no longer starving, it may be time to renourish our souls and proudly renew our identities; identities that are eternally connected to Zion.

See other reviews below

Praise for DEFENDING IDENTITY:Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy

By Natan Sharansky with Shira Wolosky Weiss
Public Affairs, 2008

Defending Identity
by Rob Eshman
The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, July 16, 2008

Sharansky on Tour Promoting Identity, Freedom
by Andy-Levy Ajzenkopf
Canadian Jewish News, July 1, 2008

Center Field: Group Pride Guarantees Individual Freedom
by Gil Troy
Jerusalem Post, June 30, 2008

Natan Sharansky to Speak in Teaneck Former Refusenik to Explore Relationship Between Identity and Democracy
New Jersey Jewish Standard, June 20, 2008

Democracies Can't Compromise on Core Values
by Natan Sharansky
The Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2008

The West Must Embrace Democratic Values in Order to Defeat Terrorism
by Natan Sharansky and Shira Wolosky Weiss
New York Daily News, June 15, 2008

Identity, Freedom, or Both?
by Natan Sharansky
US News and World Report, June 13, 2008

Sharansky's New Tune: Give Identity a Chance
by Bryan Schwartzman
Jewish Exponent, June 12, 2008

Bush Talks With Israeli Author Before Meeting With Olmert
by Michael Abramowitz
The Washington Post, June 5, 2008

The Thorny Question of Who You Are
Review by Michael Skapinker
June 15 2008

McCain and Sharansky
The New York Sun, June 5, 2008

The Foundation of Democracy: Sharansky's 'Defending Identity'
review by Ira Stoll
The New York Sun, May 28, 2008

View from America: Rediscovering the will to win
by Jonathan Tobin
The Jerusalem Post, May 31, 2008

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