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  • Mistaken Identity
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracyby Natan Sharansky with Shira Wolosky Weiss. Public Affairs, 2008. 234pp.

Natan Sharansky is one of the most remarkable democratic figures of the past half-century. A leader of both the human rights movement in the USSR and the campaign for Jewish emigration, he later went on to carve out a successful career in democratic politics. But unlike some of his fellow Soviet-bloc dissidents who followed a similar path, Sharansky made the transition from dissident to politician not in his native Russia but in Israel, where he emigrated following his release from the Gulag in 1986 and became a longtime member of parliament and a cabinet minister in four governments.

As with his previous books, Fear No Evil, a memoir of the Gulag, and The Case for Democracy(reviewed in these pages by Vitali Silitski in July 2005), this new volume draws heavily on his own personal experience, both in prison and in national and international politics. While Sharansky remains an ardent champion of democracy, he is worried about its prospects. This is not because he doubts the power of freedom—" the democratic world has at its disposal the system that is best able to use the talents and energies of its citizens and as a result has vastly superior material resources"—but because he questions the determination of democracy's supporters in the face of powerful challengers: "The enemy's will is strong because his identity is strong. And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own." (It is worth noting the switch from the singular "identity" to the plural "identities" [End Page 169]in this quote; it points to problems with Sharansky's analysis to which we shall return.)

Sharansky realizes, of course, that many in the democratic world do not share his positive view of identity. Powerful intellectual currents present national, ethnic, and religious identities as a threat to global peace and stability, and brutal civil conflicts around the world seem to give credence to this view. While acknowledging the destructive potential of identity, Sharansky sets out to rehabilitate it. If properly combined with democracy, he argues, it can be a "crucial force for good." The path to a peaceful world leads not through the attenuation of identities but through strengthening them within a democratic political framework.

The case that Sharansky makes for the compatibility of identity and democracy is, at least in part, an intensely personal one. During his days as a Soviet dissident, he simultaneously campaigned on behalf of both universal human rights and the rights of Soviet Jews. Others saw a contradiction or at least a strong tension between these two movements, telling Sharansky that he would have to "choose between the forces of freedom and the forces of identity, between being a man of the world and a man of my people." But he argues that these two struggles were fully in harmony, citing as evidence the fact that both were regarded as equally threatening by the KGB. Moreover, he stresses that his experience in the Gulag convinced him that the most reliable allies in the struggle against totalitarianism were those with the strongest identities—whether Pentecostals, Latvian nationalists, or Orthodox Christians—whose commitment to their cause enabled them to overcome concern with their own personal survival.

Sharansky contends that democracy can best accommodate identity by adopting the American pluralist model, which combines a strong national identity with vigorous assertions of cultural difference. (He contends that Zionist founder Theodore Herzl had a similarly pluralist vision for Israel, to which Sharansky himself contributed by championing Russian culture within Israel and leading a political party representing Russian émigrés.) Sharansky is highly critical of the assimilationist approach of French republicanism, vigorously opposing the ban on Muslim headscarves in schools. But his deepest scorn is reserved for the supranationalist outlook embodied by the European Union, of which "post-identity has always been at the heart." For by leading to a weakening of national identity, he argues, it also saps the will to defend democracy. In those passages where Sharansky does recognize a tension between democracy...


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pp. 169-172
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