December 10, 2008

In Defending Jewish Identity, Sharansky Falls Short

Originally published in the Jewish Press, Dec. 10, 2008.
NATAN SHARANSKY is a modern-day Jewish hero. There is no doubt about that. Every Jew should know of his imprisonment by the Soviet Union for his human rights and Zionist activism. My father, for instance, gave me a copy of Sharansky’s autobiography, Fear No Evil, to use for my sixth grade book report.

Not without its faults, Sharansky’s newest essay, Defending Identity: Its Indispensible Role in Protecting Democracy (written with Shira Wolosky Weiss), is a welcome addition to Sharansky's last one, The Case for Democracy, which attracted the attention of U.S. President George W. 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 real politik school, exemplified in Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy of “détente” towards the Soviet Union.

With Defending Identity, Sharansky adds a “Part II” to a general philosophy for Western democracy. Sharansky once again breaks down the importance of a basic idea, which should be understood and accepted by all, but unfortunately is not.

Now Sharansky takes on the idea of identity, as in the identification of one person 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 which Western nations have acquired.

Identity, Sharansky 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 could thus be beaten by Western democracy’s current arch-nemeses, 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 (Jewish) guard eat bread on Passover. The guard explained that he felt no connection to events which took place thousands of years ago, like the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. It was then the terrorist concluded that 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.”

As for his own personal struggle, Sharansky explains that it was his Jewish identity which gave him the strength to resist the KGB and how only prisoners who had strong identities of their own could be relied upon.

Sharansky describes the leftist post-modern, post-nationalist and post-Zionistic assault on identity and Israel’s Jewish identity in particular. He shows these “post-identity” theories to be closely related to Communism, which preaches for 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 criticism of Western nationalism, yet support anti-Western nationalisms of regimes that violate the human rights of their own citizens. During the Cold War and through today, this double standard functions 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 the State of Israel, using his experiences in Israeli politics.

Sharansky tells how the municipality of Nazareth sought to renovate the Church of Annunciation by adding a tourist center to the Church. 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 eventually that this new mosque be taller than any other in the Middle East. The movement was only stopped when moderate Palestinian-Arab 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 lambasts several famous Israeli political figures. He criticizes David Ben-Gurion, for attempting to replace Jewish identity with a new Hebrew-“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 Peres’s The New Middle East Peres claimed that the world had moved past nationalism, is concerned with commerce not national security and that Israel should therefore enter into a regional arrangement for security with other Arab nations.

Sharansky also criticizes current Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for his generous offer to Arafat in 2000, as well as Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement. Sharansky relates how both Sharon and Barak tried to convince him to support their initiatives. Both argued that if the Arabs react negatively to their gestures then world support will turn towards Israel. Both arguments proved disastrously, if not obviously, 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, which he makes clear in his book and his public statements. Though he always includes the caveat that a Palestinian state be democratic, this is just as naïve as the Disengagement and the Oslo Process which 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. They use free speech rights to incite Jew hatred and murder in official newspapers, television, rallies; voting to elect terrorists; the right to bear arms to kill Jews and each other.

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 Palestinians. But all proponents of a Palestinian state advocate such an expulsion. Given this consensus, how exactly does Sharansky think this 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 does not admit that the 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 Palestinian Liberation Organization was founded before Israel reclaimed the territories, anti-Jewish pogroms began before the State was established, and Palestinian children are taught that all of the Land of Israel is Palestine – all evincing that Palestinian identity aims to destroy Israel.

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 an “iron wall” against anti-Jewish elements in Palestinian society forever.

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

Aside from the danger posed by a Palestinian state directly, it will 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 the state 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.

Sharansky 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 is endangered by 2000 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 nothing barring non-Jews from becoming citizens and eventually overrunning the state. There would also be no 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 spoke German and celebrated 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 was 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 says that the synagogues “will be visible from long distances, for it is only our ancient faith that has kept us together.” Herzl 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 the Israel will have a new culture and history apart from Jewish culture and it will be significantly influenced by non-Jews.

Sharansky says that 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 human rights activism on the other. But Sharansky’s desire to simultaneously be an advocate for 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.