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Israel and Identity

August 03, 2008

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Israel and Identity

Under Consideration: Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, Natan Sharansky (with Shira Wolosky Weiss), PublicAffairs (2008), 259 pages.

After Jesus Christ, Natan Sharansky is George Bush’s favorite philosopher. In early 2005, around the time of his second inaugural, the president praised Sharansky”€”ex-prisoner of the Soviet Gulag, former Israeli cabinet minister, and crusader for human rights”€”in effusive terms.  Sharansky’s book The Case For Democracy was, in Bush’s words, part of his “€œpresidential DNA,”€ a work which the leader of the free world recommended as required reading for anyone who desired to make sense of his foreign policy. While Bush did not mention Sharansky by name in his second inaugural address, his rhetorical commitment to ending tyranny and spreading democratic ideals all over the world echoed the main thesis of Sharansky’s tome.

Since those heady days, Sharansky has not changed his mind on the need for the most powerful nation in the world to put tyrannies on the historic defensive. He is still convinced that the way to peace is through the encouragement of democracies, since these regimes, as the story goes, do not go to war against each other”€”free and open societies are not fearful or belligerent. Nor has he abandoned the most ambitious thesis in the pages of The Case For Democracy: that most human beings thirst for a democratic regime.

It is well-nigh impossible to take this rhetoric seriously anymore, particularly in light of the failure to build democracy in nations like Iraq or Afghanistan, where undemocratic traditions so far seem to have won the battle against liberal universalism. Yet Sharansky is undaunted by these failures. In his new book, Defending Identity, he does not abandon his position, in light of these fiascos. Rather, he believes that democracies fail because they do not take account the necessity of identity

In Sharansky’s view, western democracies have given up trying to preserve their identities (whether historic, religious, or cultural), while fledging democracies in the Third World (including Iraq) have not allowed sufficient freedom to their peoples to express identity. Democracies have become too hostile to identity altogether. Without a strong sense of place and tradition, no democracy can survive. This lesson, Sharansky believes, is best understood in Israel, whose state preserves the Jewish heritage and democracy, without forcing painful and needless trade-offs on its citizenry. As he puts it, “€œIdentity without democracy can become fundamentalist and totalitarian. Democracy without identity can become superficial and meaningless.”€ 

Defending Identity is hard to put down, for two reasons. Sharansky brings to the discussion poignant accounts of his painful experience as a prisoner of the Gulag, and his attempts to raise awareness of human rights violations in the USSR. It is also refreshing to read a favorite author of neoconservatives who takes identity seriously. For the neocons, Sharansky included, have traditionally dismissed concerns that identities (particularly those based on traditional xenophobia or religious fundamentalism) must be insurmountable barriers to universalistic principles of liberty and equality. In The Case For Democracy, Sharansky holds up the democratization of postwar Japan and India as clear examples that identity did not stand in the way of democracy. No culture, western or eastern, is intrinsically anti-democratic. (Of course, these examples ignore the degree to which Indian and Japanese democracies were subject to western influences.) In Defending Identity, however, Sharansky insists that identity matters. Why now?

Sharansky is genuinely worried that western liberal democracies are abandoning their identities in order to embrace a pseudo-universalism which can only benefit its enemies.  In terms that any paleoconservative would immediately welcome, Sharansky diagnoses the cause of the suicide of the West: a leftist-inspired double-standard which, in the name of transcending identity altogether, repudiates “€œbad”€ European identities while it embraces “€œgood”€ Third World identities. The elites of Europe, in his view, are rejecting the decency of their own traditions while they appease the tyrannical impulses of anti-European immigrants on the spurious grounds that the Europeans must feel shame for their “€œoppressive”€ past to make way for the allegedly liberating passions of immigrants from their former colonies:

“€œAlong with other post-identity ideologies, multiculturalism calls on European societies to weaken their own national uniqueness and recognize that European cultural tradition should not be defining and determinative. In effect, these ideologies deny the right of a national culture to sustain itself and, by refusing to make value judgments about cultural forms, call into question the supremacy of the very democratic culture that has enabled different groups to coexist in mutual respect or tolerance.  As these post-identity ideologies have systematically hollowed out Europe’s unique national identities and cultural forms in the name of peace, equality, and justice, groups without democratic experience or traditions have flooded into Europe. And these groups do not have the slightest qualms about the supremacy of their identities.”€

In faulting the leaders of the EU for surrendering to guilt about their oppressive histories, Sharansky is not echoing Enoch Powell. Rather, he is advising that Europe could learn from its enemy across the Atlantic. The American melting pot, in his view, finds the right balance between identity and democracy. Unlike Europe, Americans have both identity and democracy. Instead of feeling guilt over past expressions of imperialism, America expects its immigrants to embrace her republican ideals first, their parochial identities second. In short, identity will flourish in America as long as it does not enter the public square. This is a fine description of America before the 1960s; perhaps Sharansky is stuck in a time-warp?

Book Cover

In a book devoted to identity, the crowning irony is that it is never clear which identity Sharansky believes is most compatible with the preconditions of successful democracy-building. Although he praises the American example of “€œidentity-rich diversity,”€ Sharansky fails to recognize the paradox that America’s status as a propositional nation still rests on a historically specific foundation. It is hard to imagine Jefferson defending “€œself-evident truths”€ of liberty and equality unless these words were able to resonate with a Protestant culture already wedded to bourgeois individualism and the rule of law in the 18th century Enlightenment.

It is equally hard to imagine notions of human rights and universal liberty emerging outside of a western framework.  Sharansky, however, refuses to acknowledge troubling issues of historical dependence, since these would cut into his argument for the universal love of democracy.

Questions of historic specificity also smack of “€œrelativism,”€ which is the ideological scourge of modernity in the eyes of neoconservatives, and Sharansky is no exception.  Relativists are nasty people who deny that there any true universal credos in morality or politics, and who end up seeing no distinction between democracy and tyranny as a result. 

Sharansky, who admires the anti-relativism of Allan Bloom and other neoconservatives, has no time for explaining what is relative or unique to the West.  Presumably, the values of the West are universalistic, and thus suitable for all peoples.  Not only can all peoples be taught the universalism of liberal democratic values; it is the mission, the identity, of the West to do so. In short, the real threat to the West is a denial of universalism, not cultures outside of the West. The West’s enemies are within its borders, or more specifically, the halls of leftist academia. Leftist relativists who dismiss individualism and the rule of law as simply western constructs are to blame for the suicide of the West. 

Few conservatives could disagree with Sharansky’s view that the anti-western Left has wreaked untold damage on the identity of western cultures. Yet Sharansky poses a stark alternative to political correctness:  that democratic values are absolute and reproducible across all cultures. Due to his naïve embrace of democratic universalism, Sharansky cannot explain why some cultures are simply more inclined towards democracy than others.  While he praises John Locke for teaching in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) the wrongheadedness of imposing one “€œreligion”€ over all others, he conveniently ignores that Locke (along with all other social contract theorists) assumed that their respective regimes were intended for a Christian majority (with differing beliefs on revelation). Never did the social contractarians opt for religious or ideological pluralism, if that meant the disappearance of a majority Christian tradition. Because of the primacy of Christian charity, Locke was confident that a Christian democracy would be more tolerant than others. “€œTolerance,”€ however, did not mean the disappearance of Christianity’s primary influence over the polity in question.

The reader will look vainly for a defense of Christian identity as indispensable to the survival of the West in Sharansky’s book. While he occasionally acknowledges that the Christian tradition in America might have fostered more tolerance for minorities than is the case in Europe (as the gay activist Bruce Brawer discovered when he left evangelical America for Holland some years ago, only to face hateful enclaves of Islamic extremism ), the persistence of this essential religious identity seems unnecessary to Sharansky.  Echoing the themes of his first book, Sharansky reiterates his faith in Defending Identity in an ideological program of teaching democratic ideals to Moslem immigrants who may otherwise be suspicious of the West. As long as these immigrants are allowed to preserve their own identity at the same time”€”for example, Moslem women can still be allowed to wear the niqab“€”they will be more receptive of democracy. Once again, identity poses no threat to democracy if identity is allowed free expression. 

Although Sharansky has no time or patience for academic leftists who decry the persistence of European or western identity as imperialistic and colonialist, and has no illusions about the tolerance of immigrants to the Western world, the disturbing naiveté of Democracy persists in Indentity. In opposing leftists (including many of his fellow Jews) for trying to displace western traditions with newly constructed identities based on communism or political correctness, Sharansky leaves the reader with a haunting question: is he creating a new “€œwestern”€ identity of his own which is not suitable for any society? 

While Sharansky praises both the West and Israel for maintaining liberal democratic traditions, it is not clear that he would advocate for Israel what he advocates for the West.  Although he teaches that the West could learn from Israel on the need to embrace both identity and democracy, it is unlikely that he would want western nations to adopt restrictive immigration policies akin to those in Israel. For if the West is to be an open society, Sharansky believes it must fight against the post-identity leftists who romanticize Third World revolutionaries, while it teaches immigrant populations about the verities of democracy. Indeed, there is nothing to fear from “€œa formerly repressed identity”€ coming to the surface as long as democracy “€œis taking root at the same time.”€ In short, there is nothing wrong with generous immigration policies, even if this means allowing hostile identitarians into one’s nation, for eventually they will embrace democracy.  It is hard to imagine any politician in Israel today teaching its citizenry not to worry about “€œformerly repressed”€ identities.

And if there is no cause for such worry, why not allow the Palestinians the right of return?

What will likely worry his readers on the traditional Right is his optimistic view that western democracy will win over people of all nations and cultures in time.  The fact that Sharansky recognizes the strength of some identities over others makes it all the more surprising that he believes that democracy is compatible with any identity. 

Once we clear western democracies of the suicidal leftists, Sharansky thinks all will be well. What is missing in this narrative is the recognition that there will always be cultures hostile to the West, even if they receive no encouragement from the heirs of the Frankfurt School. While radical Islamists have often joined forces with leftists (Lenin’s “€œuseful idiots“€ comes to mind), defenders of Shari”€™a law probably don”€™t need inspiration from Herbert Marcuse to justify their hatred of their old “€œcrusader”€ enemy.

The fact that many immigrants to Europe “€œhave values and self-definitions that seem alien to”€”or perhaps even incompatible with”€”European democratic traditions”€ ultimately does not bother Sharansky, as long as Europeans maintain their own identities.  Like most neoconservatives, however, Sharansky believes that the identity of the West is democratic universalism. Anything that denies the universality of western democracy for all human beings is relativistic and supportive of tyranny. For this reason, Sharansky praises the melting pot for imposing universalism on traditional identity of its 19th century immigrants. 

This misreading of the American melting pot parallels his misreading of the West itself.  Despite his admirable respect for the superiority of western democracy over its rivals, it is simply not the case that all cultures have a burning desire for Jeffersonian individualism or even the Magna Carta. No amount of exposure to the ideology of democratic universalism is likely to change this fact.

Dr. Grant Havers teaches philosophy and politics at Trinity Western University (Canada).

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