Natan Sharansky, the famous Soviet dissident and Israeli political leader, spoke yesterday evening at the University of California, Berkeley. Freshly appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to head the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sharansky is touring college campuses in an attempt to foster a more positive image of Israel among American youth. The audience in the large lecture hall, however—considering the stature of the guest and the amount of publicity for the event—was surprisingly sparse and composed largely (in this author’s estimation, at least) of non-students who were old enough to remember Sharansky when he was a hero for Americans and Jews during the Cold War. But then, this is Berkeley—a “haven” for “anti-Israel forces,” as the student organizers put it—the speaker was Sharansky—famous now more as George W. Bush's favorite author than anything else—and the event was part of the dubiously titled “Caravan for Democracy” series, which is funded by such local favorites as Media Watch International (a group aligned with Likud) and the Jewish National Fund (among other things, since 1901 a major land-owner in Palestine/Israel which still refuses to lease its land to Arabs). It is a shame, though, that more students were not in attendance, because they would have been challenged by a trenchant thinker with a compelling personal story to think through some of the basic justifications for the existence of a Jewish state.
The talk was brilliantly composed and delivered, though problematic upon close scrutiny. Sharansky structured his argument around “two ideas” which he claims share a “deep connection”: “the desire to be free” and “the desire to belong,” or between “democracy” and “identity.” (The connection between the two forms the basis of a course Sharansky is leading at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.) Those familiar with his books The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (2004) and Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy (2008) will recognize the argument. It is directed mainly against those “intellectuals,” as he called them, who believe in “post-identity,” “post-nationalism,” “post-modernism,” and “multiculturalism” - in other words, the relativists who believe that “nothing is different, that everything is equal.” (Berkeley professors?) In order to illustrate this caricatured line of thought, Sharansky quoted (God help us) none other than the hippie-icon John Lennon, who asked us in 1971 to “imagine” a world in which there are “no countries,” “no religion,” and “nothing to kill or die for.” (Actually, Sharansky only quoted “nothing to die for.”). The logic of Sharansky’s unnamed intellectuals, represented here by the post-Beatle, holds that “strong identities” like nationalism and religion are “the enemies of peace.” Strong identities in Europe supposedly led to two world wars; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil. For them, being a human rights activist and a nationalist is an internal contradiction. And by this logic, the nation-state of Israel, which claims to be a leader of the free world yet retains its identity as the homeland of only one people, is an anachronism in a post-identity Western world. Sharanksy has set out to prove these critics wrong.
Born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky in Donetsk, Ukraine (then the Soviet Union) in 1948, Sharansky never saw any contradiction between the desire to be free and the desire to belong because under the Soviet regime both were stifled if you were a Jew. He was neither allowed to voice a dissenting political opinion, nor to learn anything about his religious and cultural heritage. When he attempted to immigrate to Israel in 1973 and was refused passage—thus acquiring the title of refusenik—he became an outspoken dissident and spent years in Soviet prisons. He realized that he had found something—his Jewishness—which he was “willing to die for,” and it gave him the strength to withstand the KGB. In this brief biographical narrative, Sharansky did not take time to discuss why the struggle to express one’s political views and the struggle to express one’s cultural identity publicly—which in his case did coincide—should resonate with people growing up in a free world. A tighter case would have to be made; perhaps those who have read his latest book could chime in here. In any case, the argument offers some insight into the psychology of this Soviet dissident turned militant democrat.
In fact, most of the talk was about Sharansky’s own story, and the move from the personal to the contemporary political came only at the very end, in a rhetorical flourish when he accused European intellectuals of “having nothing to die for.” As a result, he claimed, when faced with a very small minority of possible fundamentalist terrorists whose identity is strong and who are willing to die for their cause, they feel bewildered and defenseless. In the wake of World War II, just as Europeans vowed never to fight again, Zionists vowed never to not fight again. Israel has paid the price in its international image for the post-war move toward pacifism and post-identity among "intellectuals," Sharansky claimed, because it became a nation-state precisely at the moment when the idea of the nation-state became unpopular. The Western nations said accusingly, “We have given up our nationalism, our colonialism - why not you?” Sharansky’s answer is that Israelis need to have a strong identity to fight and die (and kill) for if they are to defend against “all these totalitarian regimes” in its region. One senses that Sharansky’s experience in the Soviet prisons has left its indelible mark upon this man’s political philosophy.