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Natan Sharansky defied Soviet tyranny during the Cold War and thereby earned the gratitude of free people everywhere, including the United States, which in 2006 awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
After enduring years of persecution in Russia, Sharansky emigrated to Israel and became a political leader. In his new book, Defending Identity , he sets out to defend Jewish national identity by asserting that national identity as such is a good thing. We must belong to cultures and nations, Sharansky asserts, rather than to the insipid soup of global citizenship. The trouble is that some identities are hostile to other identities by their nature. Democracy should solve this problem, Sharansky argues, except that some identities are by their nature anti-democratic, and so on.
A worthwhile thought was gestating in Sharansky’s mind, but was stillborn in the present volume. Sharansky wants to say that the particularism of Jewish national identity offers universal benefits for humankind. But he does not want to say so in religious terms, and cannot find a clear way to say so in secular terms.
Jews often are loath to make theological claims for their own importance, which sound megalomaniac to secular ears. But the Jews might as well resign themselves to being hanged for a sheep as well as a lamb. Except for its religious implications, the world has little use for Jewish nationhood, and considers the presence of a few million Jews in the Middle East an inconvenience at best, and a danger at worst. That is why the only true friends of the Jewish state are American and some other evangelicals, and a few leaders of the Catholic Church.
Franz Rosenzweig, the great German-Jewish theologian, asserted that the history of Israel was the history of the world. Expansive as this claim may appear, it is well grounded in Rosenzweig’s sociology of religion. What Rosenzweig meant is that Israel’s existence forever transformed human identity. From Israel, Western Asia and Europe first heard the promise of eternal life, and afterwards looked at themselves differently. The pagans of the ancient world knew their days on Earth were numbered, and that their time would come to die out and be forgotten. But the promise of eternal life that the nations heard from the Jews undermined their ancient fatalism.
Reasonably, or not, we want to live forever. The first people to believe that God promised that it would endure forever became the standard against which all nations must measure their condition. From Ireland to Afghanistan, the identities of all tribes and nations became a response to Israel: Christianity offers a New Israel, Islam a competitor to Israel, neo-paganism a Satanic parody of Israel. The trouble is that Jewish national identity is not one national identity among many national identities. There is only Jewish identity, and a set of responses to Jewish identity. Jewish national identity has a radically different character than all other national identities, for the Jews uniquely believe that their nation was summoned into being to serve the sole creator God of the Universe.
It is somewhat uncomfortable for the Jewish to insist on the point, and it is understandable why Sharansky would wish to take refuge behind the notion of “identity” in general, but that simply doesn’t work, and the Jews really have nothing to lose.
It is tricky to discuss human identity in other than religious terms, for our identity often implies continuity. With what do we identify that makes our existence more than a random occurrence? Our ties of culture, language, faith and kinship make us heirs to the past and participants in the future, and it is the future, the vanishing-point at the horizon, that defines the composition of the other images. Societies that reject religion also appear to reject the future, for example, by declining to have children.
Sharansky takes to task utopian secular thinking, which claims that peace requires the extinction of all passionate attachments, national, religious or whatever. His antagonist is “post-identity” theory, for example, the head of the Modern Language Association who said, “Cosmopolites not only or even principally owe an allegiance to their place of birth but also to a broader, more worldly, supra and transnational world view,” as opposed to the “negative consequences of resurgent nationalism, ethnic separatism, and religious fundamentalism.”
Eliminating all passionate attachments, Sharansky might have said, is a fool’s errand. A rabbinic tale of antiquity reports what happened when God decided to eliminate the ”evil impulse,” by which the rabbis meant the competitive and sexual instinct among men. The next day not a single egg was laid in the land of Israel, and God was obliged to restore the impulse. Europe may have succeeded in eliminating nationalism, or rather, nationalism burnt itself out in two hideously destructive World Wars. As a result children no longer are born to the Europeans. The problem is self-liquidating.
On the other hand, the two countries considered most suspect for their nationalism by the supposedly enlightened Europeans, the United States and Israel, are the only ones in the entire industrial world to reproduce at above replacement level. Sharansky is beating if not a dead horse, then a sterile one. All that secular enlightenment can say to humanity is what that exemplar of the enlightenment, Frederick the Great of Prussia, barked at his fleeing soldiers during the 1757 Battle of Kolin: Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben? (Dogs, do you want to live forever?).
Countries subject to communist rule, the most atheistic and internationalist, also show by far the lowest birth rates.
Projected population in formerly communist countries
Source: United Nations
Russia itself is not far behind Belarus and Moldova in the race to national extinction.
A great deal of violence has been perpetrated in the name of religion; the most violent of all supposedly religious wars, the Thirty Years War, had very little to do with religion. It is wrong to blame religion for war. Exterminating one’s neighbors was the norm for human behavior from the dawn of man until early in the first millennium BCE, when the prophets of ancient Israel first spoke of universal peace under the reign of a single God.
The modern critique of religion emerged out of the 16th and 17th century wars of religion. Secular critics blame religion for the tempted as we may be tempted to dismiss as happenstance the way in which the idea of universal love came to humankind, but the peoples of the Earth did not dismiss it at all. The peoples of the Earth heard the message of God’s love in the particular way in which it was told to them.
The Election of Israel as Franz Rosenzweig put it:
It was more or less through Christianity that thoughts of Election have spread among the individual peoples, and with them, necessarily, a pretension to eternity … On the foundation of love for one’s own people, there lurks the presentiment that at some time in the distant future, this people no longer will exist, and this presentiment lends a sweetly poignant gravity. But in any event, the thought of the necessary eternity of the people is there, and, strong or weak, it has an effect. 
Rosenzweig makes the striking observation that precisely because the Christian peoples have come to believe in their own eternity, and cannot accept the idea that they will be exterminated, as the ancient peoples did, their concept of war changes radically. War raises the possibility of the destruction of the people, continued Rosenzweig, and for just this reason it becomes a religious event. The ancient peoples fought wars, but the center of their civic life was the official cult, with its rites and sacrifices. For modern Christian peoples convinced of their own Election, war itself becomes the supreme act of collective religion.
This was written during World War I by a serving German soldier, and uncannily describes the quasi-religious attitude that the European nations brought to the war.
Mercifully, Rosenzweig died in 1929, before the triumph of National Socialism. But his sociology of religion would have recognized in Adolf Hitler’s “Master Race” a Satanic parody of Election, and in the Aryan claim on eternity, the existential terror before the prospect of extinction.
Sharansky wants to fall back on old-fashioned national identity, yet in Europe, national identities were not a sui generis expression of ancient culture and ethnicity. On the contrary, as
Rosenzweig reports, Christianity turned European national identity into a parody of Israel’s Election. Europe was only half-Christianized. Christianity – at least in its Western, Catholic or Protestant manifestation – demands that the individual repudiate the sinful flesh of his Gentile origin, and by water and the Spirit be reborn into a new people, that is, the People of Israel. From the (Western) Christian perspective, God’s promise to Abraham remains valid: it is simply that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross makes possible the miraculous rebirth of each individual Christian into Israel.
The trouble with European nationalism is that the Europeans did not want to be saved by repudiating their Gentile flesh and joining Israel of the Spirit, namely the Church. On the contrary, they wanted to be Elected, that is, accorded eternal life, but in their own French, German, Italian or Ukrainian skins. That is the not-so-secret source of anti-Semitism. All European nationalism is hostile to Israel, for the existence of Israel stands as a reproach to the pathetic pretensions of each European nation to immortality. In its most extreme form, namely Hitler’s, the obsession takes hold of the existentially challenged nation that in order for it to be the Chosen People, the original Chosen People must be exterminated.
European national identity is dead and gone for tragic reasons, which is to say very good ones, and the thin broth of European cosmopolitanism that bubbles in its place is not a substitute so much as tasteless residue. When the dogs no longer want to live forever, they don’t trouble to have puppies, and in a few generations the problem resolves itself through depopulation and ruin.
It was the genius of John Paul II, the last great hero of Christian Europe, the pope who brought down communism, to understand that the true Europe needed Israel. Not the Europe of the peoples, but the Europe of the universal Church, required the living presence of Israel as the exemplar of a People of God, and John Paul II declared God’s Covenant with the Jewish people to be eternally valid, and instituted diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Sharansky’s sympathy towards an old-fashioned European patriotism that never existed in the way he portrays it, and died a hideous but well-deserved death during the 20th century, stems from another motive. The legitimacy of the Jewish state is under attack by enemies who claim that the world has moved beyond the national state altogether.
At the conclusion of his book, Sharansky at last quotes the critic whose attacks on Israel well may have motivated the book, Professor Tony Judt of New York University. In an often-cited 1993 New York Review of Books essay, Judt denounced the fact that Israel “is an ethnic majority defined by language, or religion, or antiquity, or all three at the expense of inconvenient local minorities,” in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges,” which do not belong in “a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.”
Judt wants the dissolution of the Jewish state into a bi-national state with the Palestinians. Long a utopian fancy among such leftists as the late Martin Buber, the bi-national state has become the core strategy of the Palestinians. Rather than conclude a two-state agreement with Israel, the Palestinians hope to drag things on until demographics and the world’s impatience with the running sore in the Middle East give them the majority in a reconstituted Palestine. That is a serious danger, not merely a utopian project, and Sharansky is right to be alarmed about it.
His practical conclusions, though, seem quite odd. He argues that democracy will solve the problem, although it is hard to understand why. Hamas came to power in Gaza through democratic elections, and Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon was enhanced by democracy. Israel’s nemesis, Iran’s missile-rattling President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, won democratic elections.
On the other hand, Sharansky denounces the “authoritarian Chinese regime that seems the smallest expression of identity as a threat to its rule” and “brutally represses Tibetans, Uyghurs and others.” The fact that China has deep concerns regarding the intentions of Muslim radicals among the Uyghurs in its far west is of enormous strategic benefit to Israel, however. China has no particular sympathy for Israel, but Israel and China have a common enemy.
On the other hand, Israel’s involvement with the Georgian cause against Russia (including the prominent role of Israeli advisors in the ill-fated Georgian army) may be one of the stupidest things the Jewish state has done since its founding. Russia appears to view Israeli missile defense as part of the overall American effort to encircle Russia with anti-missile systems in Poland, the Czech Republic, and so forth, and may retaliate by selling sophisticated anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems to Syria and Iran.
Sharansky has every right to detest Vladimir Putin, given his suffering at the hands of Soviet state security, but he is apocalyptically wrong to complain that the United States has not done enough to strengthen Georgia, Lithuania and Ukraine against Russia. Russia is in a position to do enormous harm to Israel if it chooses to ally itself with Israel’s enemies, and well may do so if it perceives that Israel has joined the United States in placing pressure on its borders. That, pardon the expression, could lead to a disaster of Biblical proportions.
Sharansky’s mistaken view of identity does nothing to temper this writer’s pessimism concerning Israel’s strategic position. Perhaps God wants to call attention to Israel’s Election by making the Jewish state depend on His miraculous intervention, rather than on its own good sense.
1. Defending Identity, by Natan Sharansky with Shira Wolosky Weiss (New York: Public Affairs 2008. ISBN-10: 158648513X. Price US$26.95, 304 pages.
2. Der Stern der Erloesung (Suhrkamp 1988), pg 366. Author’s translation