Commentary Magazine

Defending Identity by Natan Sharansky

To Be Oneself

Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy
by Natan Sharansky
with Shira Wolosky Weiss
PublicAffairs. 304 pp. $26.95

A few rare individuals bring alive the drama of the times in which they live, and one such is Natan Sharansky. Born in the Soviet Union, he was programmed to be another cog in a system designed to eliminate every identity, whether political or religious or nationalist, that could challenge Communism. He might well have settled to be a Homo Sovieticus if he had not rebelled early on, becoming active in the movement of human-rights activists and dissidents whose best-known representative was the physicist Andrei Sakharov.

But it was the Six-Day war of 1967 that truly transformed the young Sharansky by bringing into relief his Jewish identity, and with it Zionism. Refusing to allow him to emigrate to Israel, the Soviet authorities treated him as a traitor and in 1978 sentenced him to the Gulag, where he was imprisoned for nine long years. In the attempt to extract a confession that would have justified its persecution of him, the KGB threatened to put him before an execution squad. His spirit of resistance grew steadily stronger. To the watching world, the international struggle between freedom and tyranny was perfectly embodied in the fate of this dissident par excellence. Indeed, in retrospect he has made the case—only a little overstated—that he and others asserting their right to be themselves were the major cause of the collapse of Soviet Communism in the late 1980’s and early 90’s.

Once he was at last safe and free in democratic Israel, Sharansky conducted himself in a similarly stubborn and often dissenting style. Celebrity gave him an entrance ticket to the roughhouse of Israeli politics, and his talents brought him into the cabinets successively of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. Both these prime ministers, he came to believe, were making concessions to the Arabs that endangered the state of Israel, and he duly resigned high office twice.



A war of ideas is currently in progress in the world. The war has several fronts: the proper relationship of the citizen to the modern state; the proper relationship among states of differing ideologies; and, in particular, the confrontation between the liberal democratic West and radical Islam. Israel happens to be a laboratory for experimenting with these questions, and where the balance of power ultimately reached with the Islamic world is a matter of life and death.

In this war of ideas, Sharansky stands in the front line. His first book, Fear No Evil (1988), a memoir of his imprisonment in the Gulag, is in effect a celebration of a victory now receding into history but pertinent nonetheless. The Case for Democracy (2004) argued that authoritarian systems by their nature lead only to oppression and war; it follows that the prerequisite for stability and peace in the world, and particularly in the Arab and Islamic world, is democracy. This was a conclusion that President Bush, in his initial approach to al Qaeda and Iraq, had reached for himself, and Sharansky became a welcome and supportive visitor in the White House.

For Sharansky, democracy is synonymous with freedom. The idea may sound commonsensical, but it is rejected by whole ranks of foreign-policy specialists, the so-called realists, who are convinced that Muslim and other societies have a history, a culture, and a social system that make them impervious to democracy and freedom, dooming them to long-term if not eternal absolutism. Further ranks—of multiculturalists—actually encourage absolutism on the grounds that this is how Muslims and Arabs have always handled social and political issues and how they have remained immune to problematic Western values. Such multiculturalists see nothing condescending or pessimistic in thus consigning other people so helplessly to a frequently violent fate.

Defending Identity, Sharansky’s latest book and a kind of sequel to The Case for Democracy, is a forceful challenge to the fashionable throng of realists, multiculturalists, post-modernists, and the like. Democracy and freedom, according to Sharansky, are evidently too weak on their own to protect the citizen. In the modern state, another ingredient, identity, is indispensable to their success.

Classically, identity in Sharansky’s sense has depended upon a shared nationality, culture, and language, and has been embodied in the nation-state. Marxists were the first to play fast and loose with the concept. To them, as Sharansky explains, the nation-state was only a way station on the road to the revolutionary triumph of the proletariat, whose true identity lay not in their homeland but in their class. According to Marxist reasoning, nations that advanced the anticipated proletarian victory were considered to have a “good” identity, while those that impeded it were “bad.” A nation might be switched from one side of the ledger to the other as the progressive politics of the moment dictated.

The horrors of the 20th century seemed to confirm that identity and nationalism were indeed bad, and in fact the causes of war. Bertrand Russell uttered a popular opinion, even a truism, when he observed that “Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed.” In a telling syllogism, Sharansky captures the now generally accepted case: “Identity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity causes evil.” The solution to this evil is therefore to transcend identity, if not nationhood itself, and build a global society that will put an end to war, conflict, and exploitation.



The United Nations and the European Union are only two among other supra-national bodies that aspire to suppress national identities altogether. In each case, however, the sacrifice of identity has done nothing to enhance democracy. Quite the contrary. In identity-weak Europe, millions of Muslim immigrants have been encouraged by the tenets of the regnant multiculturalism to cultivate exclusively their faith, customs, and culture. As a consequence, they do not enter the public space along with other communities.

Sharansky draws the contrast with the United States, where particular identities coexist in a system that protects the rights of all while valuing the common life. In the European conception, it would seem, one can embrace democracy or identity but not both; in the American, democracy and identity support and strengthen one another. “Democracy without identity invites war,” Sharansky writes; “identity without democracy guarantees it.”

Deep in that lapidary formulation are the springs of the growing differences, verging on hostility, between the United States and Europe. In a chapter that is perhaps unexpected though consistent with his views, Sharansky criticizes those European countries that ban the veil for Muslim women. Culturally but not politically significant, the veil is the sort of assertion of identity that he approves of, and one that can be accommodated without disturbance by a democratic society that has its own strong sense of identity.



Experience of the Gulag solidified Sharansky’s sense of identity, as well as the steadfastness that derives from it. While the KGB was trying to instill in him the fear of death, he had to learn to survive without compromising himself morally. Although he had been brought up knowing very little about Jews or Judaism, identity for him became intimately connected with a new and illuminating awareness of being a Jew. It meant becoming a link in a chain stretching back to the past and forward to the future; it meant living a life “more meaningful than our mere physical existence.” The more he was persecuted, the more important it became that he should live up to his place in Jewish history.

There was still more to it. His supporters and kindred spirits in the Gulag were often people with whom he had nothing in common except the fact that they had identities as strong as his. For that reason, he could trust them, too, to stand up to the KGB without breaking. He mentions a Latvian nationalist, Pentecostals, and one devout Orthodox Christian who happened to harbor anti-Jewish prejudices until he and Sharansky came to share a cell. It was obvious to all of his Gulag comrades, Sharansky writes, that they could be true to themselves only in a society in which nobody was punished for expressing his views. The passion for identity and the passion for democracy were interwoven tightly enough to be indistinguishable.

Turning to Israel, Sharansky recommends that the country take this same conclusion to heart as the only way out of its existential plight. During its early years, Israel was widely regarded as a “good” nation because it fit the approved progressive image of the moment, having put right the sins of Europe and incidentally ended a passage of British imperial exploitation. But the same 1967 war that gave him his Jewish identity and fired his Zionism was also the war that left Israel responsible for the Palestinian Arabs and their territories.

By the time Sharansky reached Israel, a number of influential critics within the country and elsewhere around the world were already exhorting it to resolve its moral and political dilemma by abandoning its Zionist identity. Here and there, he points a finger at some of these critics, including Edward Said, Eric Hobsbawm, Ilan Pappe, and Tony Judt. For these soldiers on the opposing side in the war of ideas, postmodern equals post-Zionist: Israel need not and should not be an explicitly Jewish state but a “state of all its citizens,” or perhaps not even a state at all. By continuing to insist on its self-definition as a Jewish state, Israel has slipped definitively onto the ledger of “bad” nations—just another colonial exploiter and on the wrong side of history. By the same token, Palestinian nationalism is by definition “good,” though nobody troubles to explain quite why.

Sharansky might have coined a slightly different syllogism: identity causes war; Israel has a strong identity; therefore, Israel causes war. This expresses an irrational animus that is at floodtide in progressive circles. There is a word for the animus, as Sharansky does not hesitate to add, and that word is anti-Semitism.



Sharansky’s opponents in the war of ideas would no doubt reply that it is too late in the day, too anachronistic, to be waving a Zionist flag. His final riposte is to remind us that “the enemy’s will is strong because his identity is strong.” Al Qaeda and Hizballah and other Islamists are perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions about the power of identity, and in the name of it are more than happy to foster hate against other nations and creeds.

In a revealing little anecdote toward the end of this book, a Palestinian terrorist in an Israeli prison confides to a visiting journalist that he has observed one of the guards eating bread on Passover. When asked why he was flouting Jewish tradition, the guard explained that he felt no obligation to events that took place over 3,000 years ago. On the basis of this exchange, the terrorist is convinced that the Palestinians have only to go on pressing their fight in order to achieve all their goals, because the nation opposing them has lost its connection to its roots.
That is exactly what Sharansky is fighting to prevent, and not just for the sake of Israel, while the war of ideas hangs in the balance.


About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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