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Robert P. Barnidge, Jr. on Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy by Natan Sharansky

Filed under: Europe and Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

Few people are able to bring the experience of Natan Sharansky to the ongoing debates about how democracies can best respond to totalitarian ideologies that threaten their existence. Currently chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sharansky spent years in the Soviet Gulag for the strength of his convictions, and his stubborn refusal to conform to the dialectical straightjacket of Marxism-Leninism. He has tirelessly upheld the legitimate rights of the Jewish people to self-determination in Israel since his immigration there over two decades ago. His activism, furthermore, has rooted itself in a rare moral clarity. As he put it in his book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (2004), “[m]oral clarity provides us with a place to stand, a reference point from where to leverage our talents, ideas, and energies to create a better world. Without moral clarity, without a reference point, those same talents, ideas, and energies are just as likely to do harm as good.”[1]

Sharansky’s newest book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy (2008), builds upon the themes that he raised in The Case for Democracy.[2] In Defending Identity, he argues that democracy and identity mutually reinforce one another and that Western democracies risk ruin if they fail to treasure and justifiably take pride in their unique identities. Identity, for Sharansky, provides the sense of purpose that allows one to overcome odds and live a life rich in meaning. It can be rooted in religious, cultural, or ethnic affiliation and acts as the “magnetic force field in which the energies of the world today are moving. It is a force field little understood in the West, but one that influences and even directs events, from the broadest global and international politics to the most local and immediate situations” (1). Indeed, recognizing the role that identity plays as a lodestar, compelling and repelling action and omission, allows for a richer and more nuanced understanding of international affairs.

Defending Identity begins in the Gulag, with stories of suffering by Sharansky and his fellow dissidents. These prisoners of conscience shared a yearning for democracy, “a free life in a free society” (5), but their convictions were as disparate as they were unapologetic. Their identities, in other words, differed, but rather than this being a source of tension, Sharansky recounts how this actually resulted in a valuable solidarity. As he puts it, it presented a common spiritual challenge, “to ensure that the fear of death be sublimated to the fear of not being worthy of the divine image, to the fear of not being true to your innermost self” (32).

Chapter three sets out the two main forces that strike out at identity and seek to bury it.  The first of these, Marxism-Leninism, sought to usher in a worker’s paradise that would supersede identity politics and destroy all semblance of religious, cultural, or ethnic affiliation. Of necessity, of course, this had to be all-encompassing, totalitarian. Sharansky calls the second of these forces “post-identity – post-nationalism, post-modernism, multiculturalism” (46). This is perhaps more gradual in its effect on the fabric of democratic societies, but it is certainly no less harmful. A guilt-ridden elite, drunk on simplistic notions of “peace” and “human rights,” advances this post-identity vision, and it does so by advocating a global governance project that fears any and all popular expressions of identity democratically expressed. Simply put, the thinking behind these post-identity forces is that “[i]dentity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity causes evil” (68).

Most of the examples that Sharansky gives to illustrate the various assaults on identity relate to manifestations of post-identity politics. To name a few of these, he attacks self-flagellating post-Zionists, juxtaposes the U.S.’ historical comfort with pluralism with French fears of difference, with particular attention to the French law banning the veil, and contrasts Theodore Herzl’s vision of a Zionism deliberately drawing upon the diverse experiences of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews with David Ben-Gurion’s militant determination to start Jewish history anew with the Sabra.

Defending Identity is highly-accessible and will be appreciated by both generalist and specialist audiences. Those who have read The Case for Democracy and who may have wondered whether democracy alone is sufficient to secure international peace and security will find their answer in this book. Alone, democracy is not enough: “[i]dentity without democracy is totalitarian; democracy without identity is weak and self-betraying. Rather than being implacably opposed to each other, democracy and identity demand one another” (45-46).


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[1]. Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), xviii.

[2]. The Case for Democracy grew out of Sharansky’s conviction that “all people are capable of building a free society. I believe that all free societies will guarantee security and peace. And I believe that by linking international policy to building free societies, the free world can once again secure a better future for hundreds of millions of people around the world.” Ibid, xxv. Bernard Lewis refers to this as “‘the Sharansky effect’.” See Etgar Lefkovits, “Islam Expert: Conflict Seen as Mainly Religious,” Jerusalem Post, 17 February 2009. For a critique of this thesis, see Martin Kramer, “Mr. Sharansky, Ease My Doubts,” 23 February 2005,

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DR. ROBERT P. BARNIDGE, JR., is a Lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Reading.