Identity deficit

In his new book Defending Identity, Natan Sharansky once again mines his nine years in Soviet prisons for crucial insights on the major issues of the day. Defending Identity complements and enriches Sharansky’s previous work The Case for Democracy.

The two works draw on different aspects of the political activism that led to Sharansky’s arrest and imprisonment: The Case for Democracy on his work as a human rights activist and spokesman for the Helsinki Watch group; Defending Identity on his work for Jewish emigration. The two roles coexisted easily enough in Sharansky, but colleagues in each movement doubted whether he was really one of them because of his involvement in the other.

The Case for Democracy argued that totalitarian regimes are inherently aggressive, while democratic societies are the opposite, since democratic leaders need to provide citizens with that which they value most – their own lives. Defending Identity adds the caveat that individuals and societies that value nothing above life cannot summon the resources to defend themselves against aggressive enemies.

IN PRISON, those with the strongest identity – such as Pentacostals – were the least likely to be broken by the KGB. For those with a strong personal identity, the fear of betraying that identity and thereby rendering one’s life worthless was greater than the fear of death.

The KGB’s trump card, Sharansky quickly realized, was fear of the firing squad. The only way to resist was to overcome that fear of death with a countervailing fear even more powerful.

Though he then knew little of his Judaism, Sharansky termed that countervailing fear the fear of God. “[T]he fear of not being worthy of the divine image, not the fear of death, was what I was most afraid of in my interrogations with the KGB,” he writes. At that moment, the KGB lost its power over him.

AS WITH the individual, so with nations: “Without a strong identity, without a commitment to a particular way of life, without a feeling of connection to the generations who came before and to those who will come after, there can be enjoyment of life but not the strength to defend that life when it is endangered… [The] insatiable desire for the safety of the self can become the greatest danger to the safety of all…”

Western Europe could serve as Sharansky’s proof text. National identity is under assault in Western Europe. The commonplace description of today’s Europe as having been born in Auschwitz contains within, says Alain Finkelkraut, the message that anything that divides or distinguishes one man from another is bad: Borders are bad; Internet is good. The European Union is good; nation states are bad.

Differences led to Auschwitz – or so goes the argument. But turning Auschwitz into the entirety of European history has resulted in severing a thousand years of history and civilization.

That rejection of identity has left Western Europe unwilling to defend itself or its values. Since World War II, Western Europe has allowed the United States to defend it, while resenting it for doing so.

European peace movements, Sharansky notes, have consistently aided and abetted totalitarian governments. First, by assuming, as a matter of faith, that the ultimate desideratum for all nations is peace, and thereby ignoring totalitarian states’ reliance on high levels of external aggression to defer internal criticism. And second, by treating the right of all governments to manage their internal affairs as the highest moral value. In The Case for Democracy, Sharansky relates that he and his fellow prisoners knew that the Soviet Union was doomed when president Ronald Reagan declared it an Evil Empire to be confronted. Europeans, however, were appalled at his simplisme.

Only Muslims, not notably shy about asserting their identity or its superiority, are given a pass for doing so. Rather than defend freedom of the press or speech in the wake of Muslim rioting over relatively tame Danish cartoons, the European Union commissioner for justice, freedom and security counseled “prudence” with regard to sensitive topics. Muslims marching in London chanting “Behead the enemies of Islam,” can count on protection by a phalanx of British policemen. But those who point out how unlovely are such sentiments uttered in the name of Islam will find themselves hauled before human rights commissions on charges of Islamophobia.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA is the most cosmopolitan, the most European candidate, ever to run for president of the US. His identification with America is measured primarily by its readiness to submit to his guidance.

He presented himself to the Europeans as if running for president of the world – as one of them, sharing their loathing of the “cowboy” president. Like the adulatory crowds that greeted him everywhere on his European pre-victory lap, he views America’s dominant military power as more of a threat than a source of hope. Obama has promised to slash tens of billions of dollars from defense spending.

And like European peaceniks, he assumes adversaries are rational and peaceful at heart. His “can’t we just talk about this” approach to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – as if he possessed a magical verbal formula unknown to European negotiators in four years of being monkeyed around by Iran – bespeaks a faith that all conflicts can be settled around the conference table with a little bit of goodwill.

Obama would also declare the internal affairs of other states matters of no concern. During the primaries, he repeatedly insisted that no matter what bloodbath ensued in the wake of an American withdrawal from Iraq, it could not justify the death of one more American serviceman.

He takes no pride in the fact that American troops have made it possible for Afghani women to once again receive medical care from a male physician or that 60,000-70,000 Iraqi children no longer die annually of malnutrition due to Saddam Hussein’s diversion of billions of dollars in oil revenues to maintain a security state, in which no one could ever openly share his thoughts with another human being for fear of informers.

Attitudes toward military service are a rough litmus test of pride in the United States and belief in its exceptionalism. For much of the Democratic base, military service, like pregnancy, is something that happens to you if you are too dumb to know better. The ban of voluntary ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) on most Ivy League campuses and San Francisco high schools is one expression of that disdain. Fouad Ajami notes that when Obama spoke at Wesleyan University on public service, he excluded military service. (On 9/11, he joined John McCain in calling on his alma mater Columbia University to allow ROTC back on campus.)

There will be only a small audience for Natan Sharansky’s robust defense of freedom, national sovereignty and identity in Western Europe. Defending Identity will not resonate with Europeans any more than Sharansky’s earlier argument in The Case for Democracy that peace between Jews and Palestinians can only follow the creation of a free Palestinian society.

But his ideas will find a large audience in America, where he is to receive the 2008 Ronald Reagan Award this week. And that audience will not likely be shaken by European threats of everlasting contempt if American voters fail to confirm their choice of the anointed one.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on September 18, 2008.

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5 Responses

  1. Charles B. Hall says:

    I don’t know about other “Ivy League” institutions (remember that the term refers to an athletic conference not an academic organization), but Harvard has for quite some time permitted its undergraduates to participate in ROTC through the program at MIT, which is two subway stops away.

  2. Chaim Fisher says:

    Dear Rosenblum really should make up his mind, at least inside the same article:

    First he says Obama is too cosmopolitan: “SEN. BARACK OBAMA is the most cosmopolitan, the most European candidate, ever to run for president of the US.”

    Then he says he’s too isolationist: “Obama would also declare the internal affairs of other states matters of no concern.”

    Well, that does not make sense. If he resonates with other states that are opposed to the Republican party’s newly-created US policy of unprovoked war, then he cannot be someone who does not care about what happens in other states.

    In fact the US people are also quite opposed to the Iraq war, and a huge majority wish it had never happened. Are they also Europeans now?

    But I also want to take issue directly with the “identity” card being played here. I never–never–want to claim there is an “identity” function going on in the US that needs to be represented. The leaders that pushed hard on “identity”, like the Nazis Y”Sh and Al Qaeda and so on, always did it over the dead bodies of other identities.

    If we surrender our pluralism and love for all people, even different ones, even different skin colors, then we don’t surrender to the enemy–in fact we become the enemy!

  3. Leah Cypess says:

    Do you believe that we invaded Afghanistan OR Iraq to bring feminism to Muslim women or because Hussein was spending too much money on the military and not enough on feeding his people? Or that McCain cares about the IRAQI people, and that’s why he doesn’t want to withdraw?

    Since Obama’s position on Iraq is a gradual pullout, obviously defense
    spending will be cut as a result. The whole reason it was enlarged in the first place was so we could fight the war. I don’t know which strategy toward Iraq is best, but that’s because I honestly don’t know exactly what we’re doing there at the moment anyhow, and I have a feeling that nobody else does either.

    Furthermore, it is not true that “Attitudes toward military service are a rough litmus test of pride in the United States and belief in its exceptionalism.” You can obviously be proud of America, believe that the military is necessary, and still not be all rah-rah and hawkish about it. The ban of ROTC is because the Ivy League Campuses made a decision to ban recruiting from ALL organizations that don’t treat homosexuals equally. You might not like that attitude toward homosexuality, or you might think an exception should be made for the military, but that’s the reason for the ban.

  4. Charles B. Hall says:


    Actually, ROTC was not “banned” from Harvard; it left on its own almost 40 years ago in part because not enough students were interested and in part because the faculty decided ROTC courses did not deserve academic credit (which is their right to do). Since then, students have had to enroll in the program at MIT as I mentioned. (Here is a link to the current Harvard President at this past year’s commissioning ceremony: ROTC isn’t allowed *back* because of the ban on gays in the military, but it wasn’t kicked out for that or any other reason.

    I don’t know about other universities. FWIW, very few high schools have ROTC programs.

    BTW, my father of blessed memory was a founding Air Force ROTC graduate. He entered college the same month the Air Force was created in 1947 and graduated as a Second Lieutenant in 1951. He got sent to Europe rather than Korea and was discharged from active duty in 1953 as part of the post-Korean War downsizing.

  5. Joseph says:

    >The ban of ROTC is because the Ivy League Campuses made a decision to ban recruiting from ALL organizations that don’t treat homosexuals equally. You might not like that attitude toward homosexuality, or you might think an exception should be made for the military, but that’s the reason for the ban.<

    I don’t buy that as they welcome professors and speakers who support regimes like Iran where homosexuals are openly strung up.

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