Defending Identity

Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy


By Natan Sharansky

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Who is better prepared to confront challenges and defend principles in a volatile modern world? Those with strong national, religious, ethnic, or tribal identities who accept democracy, or democrats who renounce identity as a kind of divisive prejudice?

Natan Sharansky, building on his personal experience as a dissident, argues that valueless cosmopolitanism, even in democracies, is dangerous. Better to have hostile identities framed by democracy than democrats indifferent to identity.

In a vigorous, insightful challenge to the left and right alike, Natan Sharansky, as he has proved repeatedly, is at the leading edge of the issues that frame our times.


Fear No Evil
The Case for Democracy
with Ron Dermer

To our children

MY ADULTLIFE can be divided into three almost equal parts. First, I was a loyal Soviet citizen, a doublethinker who tried to adapt to and succeed inside a totalitarian regime. Then I became a dissident and ultimately a political prisoner. Finally, since 1986 I have been involved in public and political life in the free world, including almost a decade as a member of parliament and as a cabinet minister in four Israeli governments.
This is my third book, though I never considered myself a writer. I write when I feel that sharing my combined experiences from the dramatically different phases of my life might advance the causes I believe in and help others in their struggle for freedom.
My prison memoir, Fear No Evil, was written immediately after my release from nine years in the Gulag. The point of pouring onto paper all the stories from my years as a dissident and a prisoner was to remind everyone—but most of all those who remained trapped behind the iron curtain—how deep are the inner resources that each of us has when we defend our right to be free. I wanted to strengthen the spirits and the hopes of the people left behind.
My second book, The Case for Democracy, was written after nearly twenty years in public and political life. In these years the great victory of the free world in the Cold War had been followed by a period when the same free world seemed to want to disarm itself of the most potent weapon in its arsenal: freedom itself. The book was an appeal to democratic political leaders of every party and perspective to appreciate the power of freedom. With the perspective gained from being both a democratic dissident and a politician, I desperately wanted to explain why and how the democratic world can mobilize freedom to overcome the forces of tyranny and terror.
Still, I recognize that the power of freedom alone is insufficient to the task today. For while 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, the enemy possesses a strong will.
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.
In thinking about the challenges facing the democratic world in building strong identities, I soon discovered that precious few people in the West see identity as a friend of freedom. On the contrary: Identity is regarded by an increasing number of intellectuals and public figures as an antagonist to freedom, as a source of conflict, and as a threat to peace.
Yet the idea of a pitched battle between the forces of freedom and the forces of identity is entirely alien to me. I can read books and articles suggesting it is true. I can hear eloquent rationalizations explaining why it is true. But I know it is false. Not only are strong identities vitally important to individuals who hope to lead a life of purpose, they are essential for the ability of a democratic nation to defend its cherished freedoms. Far from being enemies, freedom and identity are staunch allies in the struggle against evil. That is the main message of Defending Identity, the message that I believe is important for every individual, every group, and every nation in the free world.
Over time I have come to understand that the notion of identity and democracy as allies is so obvious to me because I had an experience long ago that left an indelible mark on my view of freedom, my view of identity, and my view of the connection between them.
In the books I have written, I have drawn deeply on the experiences of my years in prison. I have done so not because I am under any illusion that the unique circumstances of prison life are easily transferable to the outside world but rather because I believe that those years in the Gulag afforded me a once-in-a-lifetime laboratory to discover first principles that put a bright spotlight on challenges and confusions that face the world. The lessons of the Gulag are stark but also very clear.
My years in the Gulag convinced me of this powerful alliance between freedom and identity. This is not to say that I never feel any tension between them—only that I recognized long ago that freedom and identity stand on the same side of a great moral divide and nothing I have seen or experienced since has convinced me otherwise. In fact in all my adult life I have doubted this truth for only a single day, and that was many, many years ago—in February 1977. . .
For dissidents in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s, telephone conversations with their comrades-in-arms abroad were like the light of a lamp on a dark street. It was a joyful reminder that despite all the efforts of the KGB, we were not alone. For me, the unofficial spokesman of two movements—the Jewish immigration movement and the movement for human rights—an important part of my activities took place on the telephone. Speaking very quickly before being disconnected, I dictated appeals from Jewish activists demanding freedom of immigration or Andrei Sakharov's appeals to the president of the United States to press the Soviet regime to release prisoners of conscience. As words from our dissident underground moved to the international stage, I could feel them gaining strength, amplifying the voices of their authors as they traveled across the oceans. And as information trickled back about what was happening in the world's parliaments from friends who had been fighting with us and who were determined to continue our common struggle, we felt that nothing could stop us.
The KGB understood the importance of controlling the lines of communication. That is why there was no direct dialing abroad. Telephone conversations were often jammed, and those telephones that were suspected of being frequently used for "illegal" calls were often simply disconnected. But with inventiveness and stubbornness we would restore our connections, informing our contacts in advance, often through tourists, about where and when and under what name we would be waiting for the next call. And each telephone call brought one more injection of encouragement, energy, and enthusiasm.
Especially precious to me were conversations with my wife, Avital, from whom I had been separated since the day after our marriage. She never abandoned the struggle for our reunion, not even for a single day. But our telephone conversation in the middle of February 1977 was exceptional. After it I felt like a balloon from which the air had been taken out.
It was a difficult time for all the dissidents of the Soviet Union. The Helsinki group created in April 1976 had been publishing dozens of documents about the Soviet Union's failure to fulfill its obligations on human rights under the Helsinki Accords. This had attracted the attention of the entire world. And, exactly as the founders of the group expected, at the beginning of February the repression started. Two leaders of the group, Yuri Orlov and Alexander Ginsburg, were arrested. A third central figure, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, was forced to leave the Soviet Union. I, as the unofficial spokesman of this group, was the next central activist in line to be arrested. At the same time, the Jewish immigration movement, which was more massive than any other dissident group and more specific in its single fundamental demand that Jews should be allowed to leave, was also under strong attack. For the previous two years we had established an unbelievable level of international recognition. Official delegations of senators and congressmen were meeting with us before they went on to summits with Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders. In Washington, D.C., our voice in support of the Jackson Amendment, which linked American trade with freedom of immigration from the USSR, proved to be stronger than the voice of the Nixon administration, which tried to circumvent it. Direct TV reports, taped in Moscow, of interviews with refuseniks—Jews who had been denied exit visas—and coverage of their activity began to appear on Western screens. (All these events would later become part of the accusations against me of high treason.) Such obvious and powerful dissident activity bewildered the KGB and in the beginning of the winter they began their counterattack. Articles and TV programs about Zionist betrayers of the motherland became more and more threatening. In the official film Merchants of the Soul, pictures were shown of activists and we were called traitors. Searches and confiscations unprecedented in scale were carried out in the provinces and later in Moscow. It was clear that all of this was in preparation for a serious attack against us.
It was at this moment that my conversation with Avital took place. She was calling from Israel. Our words were chosen carefully. There were many things half said, many hints, but the message she was asked to deliver was still very clear. I had to stop my involvement in the Helsinki Watch group and the dissident movements. It was taking me too far. It was dangerous for me and for other Jewish activists. At this critical moment for the entire Jewish movement, it was necessary to be careful. The State of Israel would not be able to defend me if I continued to be at one and the same time both a Zionist and a dissident. It was time for me to separate the two and make my choice between them.
The message was not a new one. I had received it a number of times, in different forms, from Israeli officials. But what made it difficult to simply ignore, as I had done many times before, was that this time the message was sent by them through Avital. What you are saying, I told her, would be a betrayal of the people who have been arrested.
When I met Natalia Steiglitz, later Avital Sharansky, near the Moscow synagogue in October of 1973, it was love at first sight. On July 4, 1974, we had our chuppah and the next morning I took her to the airport, where she left with her hard-won exit visa to Israel. We hoped and believed we would soon be reunited there. Throughout the years of separation since then, she had not stopped fighting for our reunion. Even across the vast distance stretching between Russia and the free world, we had always understood each other, even without words. So for her to ask me to do something that I could not do and was not going to do made it seem as if the connection between us, which had been the foundation of my optimism and my strength, was suddenly shaken.
But all this lasted for only twenty-four hours. How Avital succeeded in such a short time to organize another telephone call and to send me a message in Moscow as to where and when I should wait for her call I did not know. But the next evening I heard her voice again. I am sorry, she said; forget everything I told you yesterday. That was a moment of weakness. I fully trust you and I am with you in whatever you do.
Our bond was reestablished and remained unbroken for the next month before my arrest and for the following nine years of my imprisonment. And when we met at the moment of my release in Germany in February 1986, we knew and we felt that we had never been separated.
During all the years of separation, I never knew the details of what had been behind that telephone call. But it was easy to understand the context. My position of simultaneous allegiance to two movements—the struggle of dissidents for freedom and the Zionist struggle for identity—created many suspicions on both sides. Some activists of the Zionist movement and especially Israel officials who were dealing with the question of immigration from the Soviet Union were afraid of my work with Sakharov and other democratic dissidents. My role in the founding of the Helsinki Watch group was viewed as crossing a red line. This was mostly explained by the naïve belief that the KGB was ready to tolerate the struggle for immigration but not ready to tolerate the struggle to fundamentally change the regime. My activities were viewed by some in Israel as creating unnecessary risks to myself and my colleagues in our struggle. What they failed to understand was that to the KGB, any freedom was a fundamental change.
In addition, the Israeli government's attitude was also the expression of a genuine historical concern, based on long and unfortunate experience. Jews had often been ready to fight for many "isms," for freedom across the world, in which they would leave their people, their ghetto, their shtetl behind. Communism was only the latest example. But to what good either for the Jews or for the world? Our aim, therefore, should be to go back to our country, to our roots. Leave the abstract struggle for freedom to others: that was their message. The fact that I continued my involvement in both movements looked suspicious to many in the Israeli establishment, even after I had spent nine years in prison for Zionist activity. When I came to Israel I continued to hear insinuations like this: Isn't Sharansky the Soviet version of Timmerman—an Argentine leftist who had been arrested by the junta, was released under pressure from world Jewry, but soon abandoned Israel to join the European world cause?
Many of my colleagues in the human rights movement made the same separation and viewed me with the same distrust. One of the most noble and pure representatives of the Russian intelligentsia, the courageous Lydia Chukovsky, expressed her indignation in a conversation with me during the same difficult period at the beginning of 1977. Why do you have to leave for Israel? Didn't we struggle together for the same ideals? Didn't we share the same beliefs? But now you want to say that you have your own history and your own country, that you have a truth of your own. Another courageous woman, a member of the Helsinki Watch group, Malva Landa, said to me: I am ready to support nationalists only before the victory of their cause. After this victory, they forget about human rights.
Such suspicions continue to follow me. To this day I encounter self-confident democrats who attack me in article after article: When will the real Sharansky stand up—is it the one who is speaking about human rights or the one defending the Zionist state? To my critics, then and now, I had to make a choice: I could fight for universal values or for particularistic values. I could fight for human rights, democracy, and peace or I could fight for the rights of Jews, strengthen Jewish identity, and defend Israel. In this struggle, I would have to choose between the forces of freedom and the forces of identity, between being a man of the world and being a man of my people.
But except for those twenty-four hours between two phone calls with Avital I never felt any problem with my dedication to both; in fact, quite the contrary.
A year later, after my arrest, after accusations against me for high treason, after 110 interrogations, I entered the last stage before my trial, reading the documents prepared by the KGB against me. I spent much time going over the fifteen thousand pages of my "criminal activity," my involvement in both the Jewish movement and the movement for human rights. Suddenly I discovered a film produced in the West after my arrest. Parts of this film had been used as "proof" of my subversive activities.
In the film there was a debate between Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a democratic dissident, and Michael Sherbourn, one of the Zionist activists. They were arguing over why I had been arrested: One said I was arrested as a Zionist, the other, that it had been because of human rights. I could not hold back a smile. The year that had just passed had convinced me more than ever that to the KGB, there was no difference. Both movements were considered enemies. Both posed a threat to KGB control. Both were bulwarks against tyranny.
What I did not know then and could not foresee was that even after the Soviet Union collapsed, this tension would remain. I could not imagine that these two forces, identity and freedom, which were allies in the struggle to resist the world of fear that the Soviets had built, would become the bitterest of enemies in the free world.

Democracy and Identity
IN The Case for Democracy I tried to show how the free world has a unique weapon in its hands: freedom itself. The desire for freedom is a powerful force for peace and stability in the world. But as powerful as freedom is in the hearts of men and women everywhere, it is not the only force that moves them. There is another, equally powerful force at work. This is the power contained in identity. Identity is 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.
The spiritual leader of al Qaeda's declaration that "we will win because the West loves life and we love death," however horrifying and contemptible, offers an insight into the power of identity. He was saying that identity is so precious that it gives him and his Al Qaeda followers something worth dying for. This evil man is correct about one thing, identity is such a powerful force because it opens a world of meaning larger than physical and material life. It asserts that all of life is not merely immediate and that there are things for which life itself is worth sacrificing. By repudiating his words, the free world underestimates the power of its message at great peril.
To the fundamentalists, the West seems shorn of any clear identity, atomized, with each individual living for the day, in pursuit of purely egoistic, materialistic goals. The fundamentalists see a society unwilling to make sacrifices for a cause bigger than the self and view this as a glaring weakness that can be exploited.
What makes matters more ominous is that many in the West seem blithely unaware of the dangers such a lack of identity poses to the values they most deeply cherish. In Imagine, his ode to such a utopia, John Lennon conceives of a world without heaven and hell, religion, or nation-states, where there will be "nothing to kill or die for, a brotherhood of man." But a brotherhood without actual brothers, with no one committed to anyone else or to a way of life, is nothing but empty air. It is precisely the vapidness of such meaningless abstractions that encourages Al Qaeda and their ilk to believe that Western values will be swept away in the face of the inexorable power of a community willing to both kill and die for its beliefs.
Those who feel a connection to ideals and values beyond the individual self, who believe that they are participating in a grand collective adventure, and who are convinced that they are acting on behalf of past and future generations are prepared to make great individual sacrifices. This sense of purpose and meaning is what attracts so many to fundamentalism, not only in countries governed by (or torn apart by) fundamentalist groups but even among native-born Europeans. Without a similar strength of purpose and identity, the free world will not long be able to repel the assault against it.
Making the case for identity is much harder than making the case for democracy. No one seriously questions the benefits of a free society. Indeed, we may argue on how best to expand the rule of democracy or how long such an endeavor, if possible, will take, but virtually no one would suggest that a truly free society would not be a boon to its citizens, its neighbors, and the world. The best evidence of the universal respect afforded democracy is that even the world's most undemocratic regimes insist on calling themselves "democratic." Democracy is the motherhood and apple pie of international politics—everyone has to seem to be for it, whatever the differences in backgrounds and recipes.
In contrast, a fiery debate rages in the modern world about the influence of national, religious, and other identities on global peace and stability. This is not merely an esoteric debate among the democratic world's intellectuals, who are themselves preoccupied by post-nationalism, post-modernism, and other post-identity theories. Most people in the West turn on their televisions and see a world seething with hatred based on identity, with daily scenes of terrorism and barbarism that pit national, ethnic, and religious groups against one another. Our newspaper headlines blare day after day that identity groups are attacking and slaughtering one another, from genocidal ethnic warfare in Africa to religious bloodletting in the Middle East. The world sometimes seems an alphabet of disasters: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Darfur; even England is suffering from the threat of ethnic violence, as are France, Germany, Holland. Iraq has revealed the savagery of its internecine forces, and Iran's apocalyptic leadership poses a bewildering array of threats to world peace. It is possible to pursue the catastrophic alphabet all the way to Zambia.
Given this carnage, in which the most terrible atrocities are perpetrated in the name of some sacredly held identity, who could blame anyone for viewing identity as a kind of poison that endangers our world? To many who live in liberal democratic societies, where tolerance is taken for granted, this violence has no rhyme or reason. The struggles appear as a primitivism that recalls the absurdity of the children's story where the world goes to war over which side to butter your bread on. The vicious reality of the conflicts seems to suggest that identity is a force of global destruction, a gun aimed at the head of the free world.
Yet I will argue in this book that while identity can be used destructively, it is a crucial force for good. Strong identities are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. Just as the advance of democracy is critical to securing international peace and stability, so too is cultivating strong identities. Indeed, only by building societies where both democracy and identity can flourish can we ensure a peaceful world.


What is identity? It is not easy to formulate a single definition. Identity can involve a person's connection with history. It can mean the desire to have children be part of this history, to educate them about a valued past so that it becomes part of their future. It could mean belonging to a religious, a national, or an ethnic group.
One universal quality of identity is that it gives life meaning beyond life itself. It offers a connection to a world beyond the self. This can happen by associating with others who share similar backgrounds or religious affiliations, by connecting with previous generations or by being part of a nation or culture. Whatever its form, identity offers a sense of life beyond the physical and material, beyond mere personal existence. It is this sense of a common world that stretches before and beyond the self, of belonging to something greater than the self, that gives strength not only to community but to the individual as well.
Democracy—a free life in a free society—is essential because it satisfies a human yearning to choose one's path, to pursue one's goals. It broadens possibilities and provides opportunity for self-advancement. Identity, a life of commitment, is essential because it satisfies a human longing to become part of something bigger than oneself. It adds layers of meaning to our lives and deepens the human experience. Democracy asserts the value of freedom; identity gives a reason for freedom. Identity gives freedom purpose, directs it towards a goal, makes it part of a destiny: At stake is not only what your life is like but what your life is for.
Democracy offers a vision of opportunity, self-determination, and peace. But without a particular way of life and a set of commitments to live for, the democratic vision inevitably loses force, becoming empty and abstract. Without identity, a democracy becomes incapable of defending even the values it holds most dear.
Democracy promises and permits various possibilities of self-fulfillment. You are granted the freedom to pursue whatever personal course you choose, to try to attain your ambitions, to live a life fashioned by yourself. Such liberty, if it is to be afforded to all, requires a norm of nonaggression, where no one can impose on others. Freedom in this sense necessitates not interfering with other people's freedom, or as the old saying goes, your freedom ends where my nose begins.
Conceptually, liberal democracy is fundamentally about the individual. Each person is an individual endowed with natural rights who agrees to join with others in a social contract for the benefit of all. The purpose of government, then, is to safeguard those individual rights.
Identity, in contrast, is fundamentally about the links to others. The individual understands himself or herself in terms of a community, not only as a singular independent person but also as an individual attached to others and interdependent with them. Here, identity means identification: solidarity with others with whom you identify. Identity in this sense is a kind of communal self.
This tie to community in the past, the present, and the future is what adds a further dimension to your own immediate activities. It requires that you not simply engage the world as a lone individual. What you do contributes to a larger picture: linking your life to the lives of contemporaries who are part of the same community or to past and future generations of that community. History becomes as Burke described it: a pact between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Being part of such a community gives you great strength to defend your values and vision: a strength that comes not only from inside yourself but also in your ties to others who share with you these ideals and who are working to advance them. What you gain is solidarity—the sense of what is common among the members of this mutually committed community, from which each person draws support and strength.


Although identity would seem to answer a deep human need for community, building a world in which both democracy and identity can flourish is not easy. To many, democracy and identity are at best suspicious of one another and at worst antagonistic. Each sees the other as opposite and hostile.


On Sale
Jun 3, 2008
Page Count
304 pages

Natan Sharansky

About the Author

Natan Sharansky lives in Jerusalem with Avital He has two daughters and six grandchildren. 
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and has a residence in Jerusalem.

Learn more about this author