The Magazine

Who Are You?

Ignore the question at our peril.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By JEREMY RABKIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

By contrast, those who are only for human rights are often unprepared to take risks for their cause. Campaigns for "peace" in the 1970s and '80s tended, as he notes, to advocate appeasement of the Soviet Union--and were, for that reason, encouraged and nurtured by the Kremlin (at least in the West). In a somewhat similar way, Sharansky protests, the cause of human rights has been hijacked at the United Nations by Islamic states, who subordinate all other concerns to their campaign against Israel. Western human rights advocates have accommodated this perverse priority rather than lose access to international forums or risk unpleasant confrontations with Islamist organizations.

Europeans, Sharansky warns, have come to see national and religious loyalties as obstacles to global undertakings and departures from a properly cosmopolitan spirit. Too often they think of the United States and Israel as obstacles to global harmony because they do not go along with global trends--most of all, the trend toward accommodating Islamist extremism. Those who have "democracy without identity" find it impossible to resist those who have "identity without democracy," and end up trying to appease them.

Sharansky makes his case in broad strokes. The broad images he paints are certainly recognizable. For all the high talk about human rights in Europe, there does not seem to be much stomach to fight for human rights in other countries, or even to take the necessary steps to defend freedom within Europe itself. There is surely some troubling deficiency in patriotic pride or civic spirit when a country like the Netherlands, long proud of its spirit of tolerance and asylum, essentially expels a controversial figure like Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she became the target of Islamist terror threats.

Still, Sharansky's way of arguing his claims may leave some readers with remaining doubts. First, he relies on a very elastic or encompassing term when he speaks of "identity." It's a term he never clearly defines or defends (as a term) in Defending Identity. In modern usage, the term has the rhetorical force of the given, the irreducible, the fundamental. Your "identity" seems to be what defines you, what makes you what you are, so who could dispute "identity" without disrespect?

But there are all sorts of "identities" held with varying degrees of intensity, interpreted in various ways, even by those "identified" by the same "identity." Sharansky's argument is not simply for "identity" but for versions which are, at least, broadly compatible with political democracy and appreciative of its protections. History shows many versions of Christianity and Islam, of ethnic nationalisms, of socialism, and the like. But as soon as we acknowledge that there are different versions of various "identities" we must acknowledge that these are not simply "givens" but questions that invite thinking beyond their own boundaries.

Sharansky, himself, talks about the inspiration he drew while in Soviet prisons not only from the Psalms of David but from classics of world literature, from Aristophanes to Cervantes. In Fear No Evil he wrote at even more length about the "community of souls" who inspire each other across the ages by their writings, or sometimes, simply by their known deeds. That is, after all, an appeal to something that transcends "identity" in its usual sense.

Perhaps it follows that, if democracy has need of "identity," it also has need of people who have the imagination and understanding to lead "identities" in paths that are both durable and compatible with democracy. This might mean that democracy has need of people who are not just ordinary democrats. It is not a new thought, but still bracing.

Others may wonder if Sharansky's argument is not too much centered on Israeli experience. He devotes quite a few pages to attacking advocates of a "post-Zionist" approach to Israeli policy. He insists, as in The Case for Democracy, that there cannot be a reliable peace with a Palestinian entity that is not a true democracy. Here he also emphasizes that there cannot be peace with neighbors who demand that Israel give up its character as a Jewish state.

No other currently existing state is quite so threatened as Israel. Few others have such a complicated "identity"--partly, but not simply "religious," partly but not simply "ethnic," partly grounded in ancient tradition but not at all simply traditional or given. Sharansky takes it for granted that much of the world will gain understanding from considering -Israel's case.