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James Banks - 05/29/09
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Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy by Natan Sharansky, PublicAffairs 2008, 267 pages.

In January 2007, Nicholas Sarkozy, at the time the Interior Minister of France, said through a translator that he “[did not] want Islam in France, [he wanted] an Islam of France.” He continued, “If you come to France and you wear a veil, if you go to one of the [public] buildings then that’s not acceptable. If you don’t want your wife to be examined by a male doctor then you’re not welcome here. France is a country that’s open, but I want people who come here to respect France and respect our rules.” These statements demonstrate a fundamental paradox of democracy in the New World Order: How will democratic institutions maximize the ability of individual citizens to do as they will without trampling on the autonomy of individuals and communities to be as they will? This paradox is central to Natan Sharansky’s latest book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, and, if Sharansky (with co-author Shira Wolosky Weiss) does not provide a complete answer to this problem, he does offer a useful and informed criterion for discerning the fate of culture and democracy in an age in which these are too often seen as “contradictory impulses” (135).

Because Sharansky is aware of this paradox, he spends more than half of the book vindicating identity and debunking its two primary antagonists, which he terms the “Marxist Assault” and the “Post-identity Assault.” He admits that it is “not easy to formulate a single definition” for identity, but he characterizes it generally as something that at once defines selfhood and at the same time connects the self to a broader community. Identity “can mean belonging to a religious, a national or an ethnic group,” but more fundamentally identity is that which “gives life meaning beyond life itself’ (5). Sharansky’s argument draws on his experiences as a former dissident of the Soviet Union (dissent which began after he was denied the right to immigrate to Israel). This may disappoint readers who on the one hand were hoping for a more impersonal, theoretical approach to the issue or, on the other hand, who would prefer a more vivid canvas of his imprisonment; but because Sharansky learned the value of identity in a prison cell, not an ivory tower, his memoir-as-case-study is a serviceable style for his argument. As he writes, “In the Soviet Union, identity and freedom each fought on the same side in a historic struggle against a regime that sought to destroy both” (17).

Sharansky concentrates primarily on his own encounters with strong-willed individuals behind the Iron Curtain and, therefore, concentrates mainly on dissident Jews, Pentecostals, Russian Orthodox and Sybarites. This experience does not offer a full picture—other groups which might bear mentioning are the largely-Catholic Polish Solidarity Movement or the nationalists of the Soviet republics. But more problematically, there were others who contributed to communism’s demise, and not all of these were men for whom “identity and freedom . . . fought on the same side.” Brave individuals like Sharansky, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel played an essential role, but they may not have been able to show that there was nothing behind the Iron Curtain had other revolutionaries not humiliated the Soviet military when it invaded Afghanistan, revolutionaries who wished for nothing more than to assert their identities but who quickly formed pan-Islamic or totalitarian groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban after Russian forces withdrew. In this case, identity marched on while freedom fell by the wayside.

Despite omissions in the narrative, Sharansky’s analysis of the Soviet Union, which is the other main character of the book’s first third, is remarkably astute. As the Soviet Union pretended to the role of “the conquering empire of light and reason,” identity apart from the state was seen as an intolerable anachronism: “The Soviet regime was predicated on controlling, largely through fear, the minds and thoughts of hundreds of millions of people. The existence of even a single person who does not succumb to fear, who publicly defies it, endangers the entire system. The regime had to crush all signs of dissent, however small and seemingly insignificant.” (18). The sterility on which the Soviet system was based made the resistance of Sharansky and others like him even more resonating and poignant. It was as though through their dissent, these few brave souls rediscovered humanity. “The KGB wanted us to be controlled by physical fear, ultimately the fear of dying,” he writes. “But we had to sublimate this fear into the larger fear of not being up to the task the Creator had assigned man, the fear of not living in the image of God” (25).

Communism is dead or, at the very least, dying. It remains as a relic or rite in nations like the People’s Republic of China, but the actual prescriptions of Karl Marx rarely serve as a model for the planning of the world’s largest economies. It is uncommon to consult Lenin’s writings to learn What Is to Be Done. But, Sharansky argues, just because communism is dead does not mean that identity, its chief enemy, has emerged victorious. From the wreckage of communism’s supposedly unifying order has arisen the unholy trinity of isms: post-nationalism, post-modernism, and multiculturalism (66). It is when he rebuts these three phenomena that the book takes on a more explicitly prescriptive and political tone. As might be guessed, the main targets of Sharansky’s criticism are Eric Hobsbawm, the United Nations, the European Union, and the human rights movement (with a few minor characters and entities in between)—in short, anyone who calls for the total transcendence of the national boundaries of identity “in the name of a global order not bound by national limitations” (73).

Sharansky is remarkably perceptive of the innate hypocrisy which results from post-identity’s moral relativism. The emphasis which the post-identity movement places on human rights, Sharansky argues, undermines its very purpose when it does not confront the ideological causes that lead to such abuses:

. . . Western liberals concentrated their efforts on dialogue and trade cooperation with the USSR. They thought if they stopped their own cruel capitalist exploitation and their oppression of the poor and the weak, this would bring them into harmony with the Communists. But this type of p; approach gave the communist regimes the opportunity . . . to repress and destroy populations, confiscate property, and spread their ideology further and further across the world” (96).

Implicit in Sharansky’s case for identity is the premise that, without national or ethnic identity, liberty becomes a meaningless abstraction devoid of any content. Sharansky says as much when he writes that “[individual] rights are fundamental to a democratic society, but community life is fundamental to individuals” (138). This argument is not new. Almost two centuries ago, Hegel cautioned that freedom—or pure rationality—divorced from the organic institutions and customs on which community is built would exchange limited content for limitless void and would promptly devour itself (Taylor 103). But even though Sharansky’s argument is not a new one, important ideas are best repackaged and rehabilitated every few generations, especially when those ideas should not be forgotten.

I would have been perfectly satisfied if the book had ended after articulating this point. However, in the book’s second half, beginning with the chapter entitled “Altneuland,” Sharansky uses these principles to defend the existence and policies of his nation, Israel. It is not that his defense is weak or overly-biased; he admits that he is not “an objective historian, if such as thing is even possible” (189), and, while Israel’s cause is his own cause, he does attempt to represent Palestine’s point of view fairly (189). But his theory that identity and democracy are indispensable partners becomes more problematic when it takes the form of concrete national policy. Sharansky never prescribes a specific policy that appears conducive to creating greater peace in the Holy Land, even though he does note that he disapproves of the French ban on the kisui rosh (or headscarf) for Muslim women (112). Similarly, he rejects the recommendations of Tony Judt and other post-Zionists to remake Israel as a binational state (183) as well as the efforts of Ben Gurion and the Zionist Socialists to create a Jewish homeland without ties to its cultural heritage (153).

This principled realism of his account demonstrates how far the Zionist movement has diverged from the idealism that animated it in the mid-twentieth century. In the 1940s a Revisionist Zionist like Vladimir Jabotinsky hoped for a binational Israel in which Jews and Arabs enjoyed equal rights and fought side by side under the same banner (Karsh), but today Yisrael Beytenu, a political party whose name translates to “Israel Is Our Home” and whose stated claim is to follow in Jabotinsky’s footsteps, promotes itself as “the home for a secure and Jewish Israel” (emphasis added). Peace in Israel does not seem a likely prospect any time soon, even as support for a two-state solution has swelled in the United States, Israel’s chief ally. (A 2002 report indicated that, over the past decade, support for an independent Palestinian state had grown by over thirty percent among the American populace, and this even in a time of extreme patriotism [Curtiss].)

Nonetheless, Sharansky’s political nuance—anchored in his priority to advance freedom through strong character and identity—is a strength for the book overall, though it does not benefit his last section. In over sixty years of existence, Israel has never been at peace and one scholar should not be expected to conceive of policies which will satisfy both Israel and Palestine. While Israel will still find herself wanting for policy recommendations at the end of the book, Sharansky’s argument that moral relativism is incompatible with democracy, his political creed that democracy is nonnegotiable and his determination not to forge temporary peace by capitulating to extremists and terrorists, will hopefully serve as fundamentals for formulating new initiatives.

In the end, the most enduring feature of Defending Identity is not its specific recommendations but rather its broader theory. Through his biographically-oriented account, Sharansky is able to demonstrate that the international conflicts which we now face need not be classed as Jihad vs. McWorld; there is a third way. Even so, with the current economic crisis, an alliance between freedom and identity will become even more tenuous. International regulators from the industrial nations may use the crisis as an opportunity to further erase national differences, and developing nations may retreat into protectionist economic policy and experience a resurgent, militaristic nationalism within their borders. The challenge that lies ahead is not so much one of defending identity as of learning to live with it, and by it, again.

James Banks is a 08–09 ISI Honors Fellow.

To learn more, visit the ISI short course on American Security.

Works Cited:

  1. Curtiss, Richard and Delinda Hanley. “U. S. Opinion Poll Shows Growing Support for the Palestinians.” Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs. Sept.-Oct. 2002, 11 <http://www.wrmea.com/archives/sept-oct02/0209011.html>
  2. Karsh, Ephraim. “Benny Morris’s Reign of Terror, Revisited: The Post-Zionist Critique.” Middle Eastern Quarterly. Spring 2005 (12) 2 <http://www.meforum.org/711/benny-morriss-reign-of-error-revisited>
  3. Lieberman, Avigdor. “Yisrael Beytenu—Israel Is Our Home.” English language Party Website. <http://www.yisraelbeytenu.com/#bringing>
  4. Sarkozy, Nicholas. Interview with Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose. PBS. 26 January 2007.
  5. Sharansky, Natan and Shira Wolosky Weiss. Defending Identity: Its Indespensible Role in Protecting Democracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.
  6. Taylor, Charles. Hegel and Modern Society. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.
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