Some 3 1/2 years ago, former Prisoner of Zion and Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky was George W. Bush’s favorite author.
Sharansky earned an unexpected boost when the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. invited him and co-author Ron Dermer to the White House and told the world that everyone should read their book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror”.
While this was not the equivalent of an invitation to Oprah Winfrey’s guest couch, Sharansky’s tome did make it onto The New York Times bestseller list. After the easy overthrow of Saddam Hussein by U.S. troops a year earlier and the post-Sept. 11 spirit of rolling back the tide of Islamist tyranny, optimism seemed on the upswing.
But that was a long time ago.
The war in Iraq, now in its sixth year, is, whether fairly or not, now seen as a quagmire in which America is stuck because of the misguided beliefs of those who foolishly thought they could plant democratic values abroad.
The insurgency in Iraq, as well as the election victory of the Palestinian terrorist Hamas movement in 2006 (despite Bush’s praise, Sharansky had criticized Bush’s reliance on elections as an indicator of democracy), has thoroughly discredited the notion that we could spread democracy to the rest of the world in the minds of most Americans.
Undaunted by the drastic shift in the public mood, Sharansky, who has given up politics and now writes from a perch at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is back with yet another book that aims to persuade the West to keep fighting for its ideals.
Having seen the progress democracy’s enemies have made, Sharansky believes that one element has given strength to the Islamists, while at the same time undermining the West’s determination: identity.
In “Defending Identity”, which was co-written by Shira Wolosky Weiss and edited by Dermer, Sharansky points out that while a universalist appeal to individualism rings true to us, Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah have spent the last several years illustrating that a group identity that transcends economics or the value of life itself is a lethal foe of democracy.
At the same time as this rise of deadly Islamic extremism, Western intellectuals have increasingly come to see religion and nationalism as antithetical to freedom. The problem is that, if we make the mistake of seeing them as being a primitive poison that is itself the cause of violence, the West will be robbing itself of the tools with which we can defend our values.
Identity can be, Sharansky argues, a “force for good,” not merely an ideology of evil. “Strong identities are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to… well-functioning individuals.”
More to the point, “without identity, a democracy becomes incapable of defending the values it holds most dear.”
The current situation in Europe, where democracies seem at times to be unwilling or unable to stand up against Islamist cultural and political forces, illustrates this all too well.
The collapse of ideas like colonialism, that were once associated with European empires, has allowed “post-identity” thinking to trash national feelings, as well as faith. But rather than this rejection of Europe’s cultural norms helping its democratic culture to prosper, it has rendered it defenseless in the face of aggressive and self-confident Muslim immigrants.
This trend has led to a virtual collapse of the cause of human rights around the world. Not only are many Western intellectuals and academics now largely uninterested in bringing the benefits of liberty to places where Islamo-fascists and local authoritarians rule, many have actively allied themselves with the cause of those who want to destroy existing democracies.
That is the only way to understand the willingness of so many in the West to support Palestinians, whose worldview is the complete opposite of what these liberal thinkers themselves supposedly espouse.
It is, after all, the State of Israel, where the right of Jews to their own “identity” is under siege both from those who oppose any non-Muslim sovereignty in the region and Western critics, including a growing cadre of leftist Jews, who see Zionism as regressive nationalism.
This is a body of thought that has gained ground in war-weary Israel, as the so-called “post-Zionists” have sought to wean the country away from its roots. Rather than seeing it as the place where one small group has found the freedom to let their ancient civilization blossom anew on their historic homeland, the post-Zionists urge Israelis to eschew such parochialism.
But it is here that Sharansky, an immigrant whose background made the idea of him ever becoming prime minister an impossibility, understands the threat better than any sabra.
As a dissident in the former Soviet Union, Sharansky himself bridged the gap between the movements to promote human rights for all Russians and the push for the right of Jews to emigrate. But his goals of promoting freedom for all Soviet citizens and the particular rights of Jews were not contradictory. To the Communists, the bid to extinguish individual freedom was indistinguishable from their attempt to eradicate Jewish identity. Sharansky’s two causes complimented each other as the eventual victory of both proved.
Similarly, today Sharansky is derided by activists in groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch because while still backing human rights causes elsewhere, he actively supports Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorists, whose goal is to deny Jews freedom.
Just as the West can’t defend itself against Islamism by giving up a belief in the superiority of their own ideals of democracy, Israel won’t survive by “giving up on Jewish identity.”
“There is another way,” argues Sharansky. “The path to peace lies in strengthening Israel’s Jewish identity, maintaining a robust Israeli democracy and encouraging our non-democratic neighbors to build free societies.”
The Best Defense
Equally as important, “Defending Identity” cuts to the heart of the malaise that causes many in Europe and America to refuse to understand the threat to their freedoms that post-identity thinking represents.
“A world without differences is a world that denies people their deepest attachments to history and to the future, to memory and to inheritance,” writes Sharansky.
Islamists claim they will win because Westerners and Jews “love life,” while they “love death” because their belief in their cause is so great. The author’s answer is to to assert that “the free world’s shield against its enemies is its own identity, vigorously asserted… Not all cultures are the same. Not all values are equivalent. The right to live a unique way of life is a right worth fighting for and if necessary worth dying for.”
The altered political climate may mean that another trip to the bestseller list for Sharansky is highly unlikely. But this is a message that all those who espouse the values of the democratic West need to take to heart.