by Gary Rosenblatt
Editor And Publisher
When Natan Sharansky was told during his visit to New York last week that John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” was the unofficial anthem of the recent Birthright Mega-Event in Israel — with thousands of young Jews from around the world linking arms as they sang it reverentially — he was upset, but not surprised.
“It’s a great song, but dangerous,” the former Soviet refusenik and ex-Israeli cabinet member said in an interview en route to a speaking engagement in Teaneck, N.J. “My book is the opposite of that song.”
Sharansky’s new book, “Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Defending Democracy” (www.publicaffairs.com), is a compelling case for the notion of identity as an ally of freedom in the war on terror and tyranny.
/>He takes issue with Lennon’s song of peace on earth as a vision of complete equality, and whose lyrics read, in part: “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too…”
“If people have nothing to die for, they won’t be able to defend a life of freedom,” Sharansky asserted, adding that he realizes his views are considered politically incorrect by many young people. But he insists that not all cultures and values are the same, and his book makes the case that identity is an ally of peace and freedom, not a threat or source of conflict.
“The enemy’s will is strong because his identity is strong,” he writes of Islamic fundamentalists. “And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own.”
Sharansky, who now heads the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem, acknowledges that his new book won’t be as easy to sell as his last one, “The Case For Democracy,” which was not only endorsed publicly by President Bush but was described by him as a key to his thinking on bringing democracy to the Mideast.
That strategy appears to have backfired, most notably with the terror group Hamas having been elected in a democratic election among the Palestinians — a move Sharansky says he opposed, arguing that elections should come at the end, not the beginning, of the process.
Sharansky says he has been criticized by some who felt that his role as spokesman for human rights in the Soviet Union and his defense of the Zionist state were at odds. That was more than three decades ago, before his arrest and nine-year imprisonment as an agent for the West. “Many felt I had to choose between universal values and particularistic values,” he said, “but for me [the combination was as] natural as fresh air. And I was deprived of both.” He added that what allowed him to maintain his resolve in the Soviet gulag was his own “strong identity” as a Jew seeking human rights.
He laments that “the forces of identity and freedom” have become “the bitterest of enemies in the free world” and hopes his book will explain why they are and should be viewed as connected, though he acknowledges that “the concepts I deal with here are more complicated” than his advocacy of freedom in his last book.
During his address in Teaneck that was sponsored by Congregation Rinat Yisrael and drew more than 500 people on short notice, Sharansky asserted that his message has special meaning and importance for young Jews who question the need to retain a sense of identity with a people and nation in today’s global society.
“Good liberal Jews on campus ask, ‘Why can’t we just be citizens of the world?’” he noted, but pointed out that America has always embraced and been strengthened by “a unity of faith and freedom.” He said that in Europe, “religion and identity are seen as enemies of peace,” and that such thinking is prevalent on U.S. campuses and among intellectuals.
He worries that Israeli society, too, has fallen victim to this dismissal of religious and ethnic identity, which he views as dangerous aspects of post-Zionism.
“I said in my last speech in the Knesset,” before resigning over Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage from Gaza, “that when people who believe that Israel is committing suicide [by pulling out] but still vote for it because they care that much to stay in office another six months,” then the country has reached a political and ethical low point.
He decried the fact that there is virtually no Jewish education offered in public schools in Israel. “We have to ask ourselves what it means to be an Israeli Jew today,” he said, but feels there is little interest in the topic. He believes that Israel’s survival depends on its ability to remain both a Jewish and democratic state and that “weakening our Jewish identity will only weaken us,” not win acceptance from Israel’s enemies.
With it all, Sharansky says he remains an optimist, believing his views will prevail. And he maintains his sense of humor, sometimes telling audiences who bemoan the level of conduct of Israeli politicians that he was unique in the Knesset because unlike many others, “I went to jail before I became a politician.”