Natan Sharansky discusses identity, Israel and democracy
No one can have a middling opinion about former Israeli politican Natan Sharansky. The Soviet dissident and Zionist defends democracy, supports President Bush’s occupation of Iraq, decries cultural relativism and stands by Israel’s right to exist. In an age when relativism is in vogue, he sees few shades of moral gray.
Sharansky’s first book, Fear No Evil (1998), recounts the discovery of his Jewish identity as a refusenik resisting the KGB. The Soviet Union released Sharansky to Israel in 1986, where he founded the small Yisrael BaAliyah party. Having a hawkish reputation on security matters, Sharansky resigned from Ariel Sharon's cabinet in 2005 to protest the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. Sharansky's second book, The Case for Democracy (2006), earned Sharansky the Presidential Medal of Freedom and meetings with President Bush.
In his most recent work, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable role in Protecting Democracy (Public Affairs, March 2008), Sharansky presents a simple thesis: The citizens of a democracy need identities they hold dear so they are motivated defend their country.
Those identities, Sharansky says, could be religious, national or cultural, and they can be diverse long as they are pro-democracy. As they lose their sense of identity, he says, democracies are becoming passive and have gone from being tolerant to adopting cultural relativism. Europe now decries the crimes of Western colonialism while turning a blind eye to honor killings and terrorism in countries such as Iran, and now even within their own borders.
Sharansky proves his basic thesis beyond doubt by analyzing the role identity played in events ranging from the founding of the United States to the fall of the Soviet Union. He also is correct that democracies must stand against radicalism in the Middle East and within their own borders, while accepting the large population of peaceful Muslims.
However, his willingness for America and Europe to take a military stand abroad and to impose democratic principles in the Middle East is hasty and potentially disastrous. The West did successfully impose democracy upon Imperial Japan and Germany, countries with ancient un-democratic cultures. However, the French attempt to impose republicanism on the Middle East from 1798 to 1801 was a debacle, and in recent years, the majority of Russians have willingly abandoned democracy for state-controlled media and secret police. Some cultures have to be brought to democracy through diplomatic pressure and by example.
Nevertheless, Defending Identity deserves a reading by those seeking a way for democracies to flourish, and by those who want to preserve both order and diversity in a globalizing world.
On July 14, 2008, the 30th anniversary of declaring his innocence before the Soviet Court, Natan Sharansky interviewed by phone with The Inkwell Review. He also answered audience questions on July 16, 2008 at Town Hall Seattle after his speech. He spoke with a thick Russian accent and an earnest tone as he discussed issues regarding identity and especially Israel's present struggles.
The Inkwell Review: Your identity as a Jew has been very important to you in promoting democracy. Do you believe that a people’s identity has to have a religious component to defend democracy?
Natan Sharansky: No, but the religious component is one of the most strong because it’s very difficult to neutralize with rational argument, because what, after all, is the totalitarian regime trying to do? It’s trying to discover rational arguments to prove your physical survival [depends on obedience]. That’s why, for the sake of physical peace, you will give away everything ... Your irrational desire to resist and to keep your inner freedom is very important, and here, based of course with an extremely strong component in the identity. It’s not accident that our Pentecostals, and other Christians and Jews were people who were so difficult for KGB to destroy. But what I am saying is that it’s not necessary that those who don’t have this religious component of identity … but the feeling which I discovered for myself, of belonging to this great history, feeling that your struggle is a continuation of exodus from Egypt, is an almost mystical feeling … the feeling of continued struggle for freedom which goes back 2,000 years.
IR: Considering things that happen in the past century, with the world wars, how do you prevent one’s identity from conflicting with protecting and respecting the rights of others?
NS: You are right that if identity is not restricted, or is not supported, is not defined by the desire to be free, the feeling the feeling of democracy, then it can become totalitarian and chauvinistic. But, on the other hand, you can say that if the feeling of freedom is not anchored with identity, then this freedom is decadent, is powerless, is weakened. What I’m saying is that the real [inaudible] of meaning and stability, means democracy and identity should not be enemies. To the contrary, they are the real allies … People may have very different views than you have, very different faces than you have, but if they are true to an ideal, free society on the one hand, and on the other hand there are things more important than physical survival, then they are your real allies in the struggle for freedom, and that’s true about individuals, and that’s true about societies, and that’s true about states.
IR: You’ve said that the universities in Europe and America especially are hotbeds of cultural relativism and post-identity. What do you think professors and students should do try to counter this?
NS: I visited dozens and dozens of campuses in America and Europe … [I tell them] okay Europe, you care about human freedom, I also care about freedom. So let’s see these people to whose identities you are so sympathetic, whether these identities are connected to freedom. We will see that all these big heroes, whether it is Che Guevara or Yasser Arafat, in fact they are some of the most awful violators of human rights.
Audience Member: Thank you very much. It was an honor to hear you tonight. I would appreciate it very much if you would comment and give your opinion of the appropriateness of the Israeli government’s negotiations with both Hezbollah and Hamas over what was hoped to be the release of the two soldiers kidnapped in 2006, and particularly whether it was appropriate for the Israeli government to release alive a convicted child murderer for the bodies of two killed soldiers. Thank you very much.
NS: Israel is built on the idea of solidarity and responsibility for every citizen, for every Jew in the world who is not a citizen, and that is true for every soldier … having said all of this, not every price should be paid even for the life [of a soldier] … The previous decisions about exchange of terrorists for the bodies of our soldiers, which was taken when I was in the government, and I was absolutely against it.
The night before voting, Ariel Sharon called me, and I have great relationship with Ariel Sharon, and he always respected my opinions … he called me at home and said, “Natan, you are the one who was in prison. So you have to know better than anybody else how it is important that the state makes efforts, and I ask you to support my proposal tomorrow.” And the idea of the proposal was that we will release 400 terrorists and we will get the bodies of our three soldiers, and the release of one drug dealer who went to make a drug deal … I told Ariel Sharon, “Yes, I was the one in prison .... When I was proposed by [Soviet] soldiers to be released on the condition I thought was damaging … I refused and spent another three years in prison before I was released without those conditions, and I think that the release which you are proposing will serve as a great motivation for Hezbollah to continue kidnapping soldiers” … Unfortunately that deal took place ... We cannot afford to look weak in the eyes of our enemies, and I am afraid that that decision of the weak government and the government, and should be replaced by strong government [Audience claps].
Audience Member: President Bush was a big fan of your last book. I think it was The Case for Democracy. My questions may be somewhat rhetorical, but do you think that he, and particularly Condoleezza Rice, made a colossal blunder in not understanding how what you were talking about building the infrastructure of democracy, to have independent judiciary, free ... rather than jumping right to that?
NS: You have to understand that President Bush was not simply vocal sympathizer with the point of my book. He invited me after reading The Case for Democracy and we had a number of conversations. He really, deeply believes in this power of freedom. He said to me on the first meeting, “All my life, I tell them that freedom is not American invention. It’s something that God gave to mankind …”
Having said all of this, no doubt there are number of points on which we disagree, and maybe the most important is that, in that book I explain it, and it was before Hamas came to power, that elections by themselves are not freedom, are not democracy. Free elections and free society, that is freedom … When the time came for the elections America pressed on Israel to accept Hamas as a partner in the elections … Clearly only those who recognize the right of Israel to exist, have the right to expect to be in the process. The day of elections I was at the White House and saying, “In some hours we will know the results of elections. All the world will say, ‘That is the Bush Doctrine.’ You see Hamas coming to power. That’s your last opportunity to explain they have nothing to do with this.’” Unfortunately, American leadership did not have the courage to do it, or really didn’t feel, as president Bush was telling me, believes it’s a positive thing that Hamas was given an opportunity for elections, and that Hamas came to power. The world now sees the real face of Hamas.
Audience Question: You spoke, I think, about the Arab hatred of Israel, and the desire to strike, and of course the underlying basis for this hatred comes from the Islamic concept of Jihad, of Dar al-Islam versus Dar al-Harb, the World of Islam versus the World of War. How deeply rooted is this in Arab society, and if democratic elections were held, in your view, what percent of the population … would be willing to abandon this religious-driven desire to take back what the world of Islam lost?
NS: I think in your question you mean that all the Arabs want state of Jihad against all non-Muslims, and I disagree with this. I am not a big specialist on Arabic World, but I live and work with many Israeli Arabs. And for the majority of them, the idea of jihad against Israel is the most far, hostile idea, because they want to enjoy life as loyal citizens of Israel, to enjoy all of the advantages of the life and freedom of democratic Israel, and at the same time, keeping their identity. Some of them are secular, some of them are religious. I was Minister of Interior and I had to deal with many attempts of bribery of Israeli authorities by Palestinians who wanted to become Israeli citizens. I didn’t see even one case that one Arab citizen of Israel wanted to give away his Israeli citizenship and to get any citizenship of Muslim country.
Audience Member: A question pertaining to the conversion-identity problems in Israel right now … Who in your opinion should decide these questions of Jewish identity, and how do you think this can be resolved in the easiest and best way?
NS: When I was speaking about identity, I didn’t mean any specific, official definition … Identity is a very individual feeling and I know there are Jews who are at very different levels absorbance, including secular Jews who have this feeling of belonging to Jewish nation. From my point of view, if they are right, they are all Jews. … The state, when it decides to whom we are giving this [status of being a Jew], it must have some definition, because if definition is individual, everyone decides about himself or herself, you suddenly have hundreds of millions of people coming from Africa, and insisting that they get citizenship. So here there is a big question, because we are in the process of rebuilding up as a nation after people came from 115 different diasporas … Secular Jews and Orthodox Jews, from my point have to blend equally … The moment that one group tries to impose by law their rules on the other group, everybody is a loser.
Audience Member: The Jews who stayed in Russia, do they have the desire to assimilate as previous generations did, and will they lose their identity if they do assimilate in Russia?
NS: The state of Jews in Russia is different now in two ways. First of all, they can leave if they want, and as you know, the majority left. Second is that if they want to live as Jews, to build their community, to have synagogues, to have Jewish schools, they can do it. Many thing in the last years changed for the worse in Russia, but this thing didn’t change. [Russian President] Putin told me in year 2000 that he believed it was a big mistake for the previous regime when they thought that Jews who want to be with Jews are enemies of the state. Now he thinks Jews can be great bridge between Russia and the West. So, unfortunately many things that Putin will say happen to be wrong, and he changed many things for the worse, but on this, the official policy of Russia continues to be that if you want to live as part of Jewish community, you can. That’s why I don’t think all those who stayed will assimilate.