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In Defending Jewish Identity, Sharansky Falls Short


Natan Sharansky is a modern-day Jewish hero, no doubt about that. Every Jew should know of his imprisonment by the Soviet Union for his human rights and Zionist activism. Years ago my father gave me a copy of Sharansky’s autobiography, Fear No Evil, to use for a sixth-grade book report.

Not without its faults, Sharansky’s newest book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensible Role in Protecting Democracy is a welcome addition to his previous one, The Case for Democracy, which attracted the attention of President Bush. As in The Case for Democracy, Sharansky again draws political lessons from his struggle with the Soviet Union as well as his experiences as a politician in Israel.

In The Case for Democracy, Sharansky argued that Western nations should idealistically strengthen democracies and weaken dictatorial regimes. He severely criticized the realpolitik school exemplified by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy of “détente” toward the Soviet Union. With Defending Identity, Sharansky adds a Part II to a general philosophy for Western democracy, once again breaking down the importance of a basic idea that should be understood and accepted by all but unfortunately is not.

Now Sharansky takes on the idea of identity, as in the identification of an individual with a group, be it ethnic, religious, or national.

Sharansky recognizes that democracy has some explicit weaknesses, such as a growth of pacifistic ideologies resulting from the combination of wealth and comfort that have come to define Western nations. Identity, he argues, is the solution for this weakness. Identification with an idea of something greater than oneself gives a person a reason to abandon a life of comfort and make sacrifices. Without identity, however, democracy can be weak and therefore ripe for defeat by Western democracy’s current arch-nemesis, Islamic fundamentalism, which is molded from pure untempered identity.

As an example, Sharansky relates the story of an imprisoned Palestinian terrorist who witnessed his Israeli guard eating bread on Passover. The guard explained that he felt no connection to events that took place thousands of years ago, such as the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It was then that the terrorist concluded the Palestinians would ultimately triumph over the Jews because “opposing us is a nation that has no connection to its roots, which are no longer of interest to it.”

Sharansky explains that it was his Jewish identity that gave him the strength to resist the KGB and relates that only prisoners who had strong identities of their own could be relied upon.

Describing the leftist post-modern, post-nationalist, post-Zionist assault on identity – Israel’s Jewish identity in particular, Sharansky shows these “post-identity” theories to be closely related to Communism, which preaches a detachment from identity in the name of creating a classless, identity-less, unified society.

Sharansky attacks proponents of post-identity theories for their contradictions and hypocrisies. For example, they criticize Western nationalism yet support the anti-Western nationalism of regimes that violate the human rights of their own citizens. During the Cold War as well as in our own day this double standard has functioned as a political shield for regimes that abuse human rights.

The Soviets, Sharansky recalls, used Western peace activists for their benefit, referring to them as “useful idiots.”

Armed with the argument that democracies must embrace their identities and defend themselves instead of rejecting their own identities in the name of a post-national world without barriers, Sharansky takes on the case of Israel, using his experiences in Israeli politics.

He tells how the municipality of Nazareth sought to renovate the Church of the Annunciation by adding a tourist center. A couple hundred Islamic fundamentalists staged a protest, occupying the church square. They demanded that the church not be allowed to expand; that a mosque be built in its place; and that this new mosque eventually be taller than any other in the Middle East.

The protest was only stopped when moderate Palestinian leaders secretly approached Sharansky and asked that the Israeli government confront the fundamentalists. The government eventually did this on Sharansky’s advice and succeeded.

Sharansky lambastes several famous Israeli political figures. He criticizes David Ben-Gurion for attempting to replace Jewish identity with a new “Sabra” culture. He attacks Israel’s current president, Shimon Peres, a protégé of Ben-Gurion, for his embrace of the anti-Zionistic post-identity viewpoint. In his book The New Middle East, Peres claimed the world had moved past nationalism and was concerned more with commerce than with national security – and that Israel should therefore enter into a regional arrangement for security with other Arab nations.

Sharansky criticizes the current Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, for his generous offer to Arafat in 2000, as well as former prime minister Ariel Sharon for his Gaza Disengagement. Sharansky relates how Sharon and Barak tried to convince him to support their initiatives. Both argued that if the Arabs reacted negatively to their gestures, the world would support Israel. Both arguments proved disastrously wrong.

Defending Identity is an easy to read introduction to a hawkish Middle Eastern foreign policy. But Sharansky’s views suffer from some of the very faults for which he criticizes his opponents.

Sharanky’s first fault is his endorsement of a Palestinian state. Though he always includes the caveat that a Palestinian state must be democratic, this is just as naïve as the Gaza Disengagement and the Oslo process he criticizes.

Sharansky refuses to recognize that a democratic Palestinian state may simply not be possible or compatible with Israel’s survival. Palestinians have abused every democratic right they have been granted, using free speech to incite Jew-hatred and murder.

A Palestinian state would also discount Jewish identity and rights by barring Jews from portions of the Land of Israel. Sharansky opposes the expulsion of Jewish settlers to make way for a Palestinian state. But all proponents of a Palestinian state advocate such an expulsion. Given this consensus, how exactly does Sharansky think a Palestinian state is to be built, if not on the ruins of Jewish communities?

While Sharansky would probably admit that there are identities that cannot be allowed to thrive, like Nazism or Islamic extremism, he cannot bring himself to admit that Palestinian national identity threatens Israel’s survival. The core of Palestinian nationalism and its only unique characteristic is its extreme hatred for Jews and a desire to destroy Israel; the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded before Israel captured the disputed territories in 1967, and anti-Jewish pogroms began before the state was even established.

Even if Israel could mold Palestinian society and identity to its liking and Palestinians accepted Israel’s existence, there is no guarantee this would last forever or even for a short time. It would be impossible for Israel to implement a permanent “iron wall” against anti-Jewish elements in Palestinian society.

Even the civilized and cultured Weimar Republic, surrounded by other Western democracies, voted itself and its democratic ideals out of existence. All signs point to even a purportedly democratic Palestinian state doing the same.

Aside from the direct danger posed by a Palestinian state, it would also likely be another terrorist satellite or launching pad for Israel’s enemies in future wars.

A Palestinian state would only provide a mechanism, even if democratic, for the murder of Jews and destruction of Israel. Despite his various caveats on what it should look like, in endorsing a Palestinian state Sharansky only legitimizes the very leftist agenda he protests.

Sharanky’s second fault is his failure to discuss what role Jewish identity – i.e., Judaism – should play in Israeli society.

He praises the role of identity in American society, but America’s diverse ethnicities are not interested in destroying each other, while Israel’s primary minority group seeks to eradicate the Jewish presence. While an American founding ideal is to create an inclusive immigrant society, Israel’s is to be a refuge for one specific people, whose identity has been endangered by 2,000 years of persecution and assimilation.

If Israel adopted the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state, as many Israeli secularists advocate, it would be impossible for Israel to remain a Jewish state. There would be no barrier to non-Jews becoming citizens and eventually overrunning the state. There would also no longer be any basis for its purported mission to serve as a haven for Jews.

Sharansky positively cites Theodore Herzl’s Altneuland, which described a Jewish state where people speak German and celebrate European culture. But this society was stingingly and rightly criticized as not being Jewish enough.

Moreover, as Yoram Hazony explains in The Jewish State: the Struggle for Israel’s Soul, Altneuland was a utopian novel composed for propagandistic purposes and not intended to serve as a model for Zionist policy or the Jewish State. As Hazony demonstrates, all of Herzl’s other writings and actions emphasize his belief that Judaism was to play a strong role in the new Jewish state.

For instance, in The Jewish State, Herzl said synagogues “will be visible from long distances, for it is only our ancient faith that has kept us together.” He wrote that every group of immigrants to Israel would have its own rabbi as “we feel our historic affinity only through the faith of our fathers . . . .”

Additionally, while Sharansky criticizes Ben-Gurion for attempting to replace Jewish culture with a new Israeli one, Sharansky himself, at least in a passing comment, invites Arabs to “become integrated into the culture and history of the developing Israeli state.” This implies that Israel will have a new culture and history apart from Jewish culture and significantly influenced by non-Jews.

Sharansky says he need not choose between his Jewish identity and Zionist activism on the one hand and his identity as a citizen of the world and his human rights activism on the other. But his desire to simultaneously be an advocate for the rights of all and the specific rights of the Jewish people causes him to falter.

When it comes to the two most important contemporary issues for the Jewish people – the role of Judaism in Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state – Sharansky never goes beyond platitudes to which everyone can agree. But in the Hobbesian war for survival in which Israel is engaged, not everyone or every identity can come out a winner.

About the Author: Daniel Tauber is a frequent contributor to various prominent publications, including the Jewish Press, Arutz Sheva, Americanthinker.com, the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. Daniel is also an attorney admitted to practice law in Israel and New York and received his J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. You can follow him on facebook and twitter.


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