Center Field: Group pride guarantees individual freedom

By Gil Troy, JPost, June 30, 2008

In one of the summer’s first blockbuster comedies, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Adam Sandler plays an Israeli commando who finds love and leisure in New York. A kind of Munich meets West Side Story, spiced with more than a touch of madcap Mel Brooks, the movie has a clear, all-American message behind the entertaining mixture of mayhem and mirth: A happy ending comes when our hero abandons his country and his identity, joining the all-American intermarried mélange.

This message of redemption through renunciation echoes throughout modern North American popular culture. Michael Chabon’s best-selling novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union has been criticized by some for being post-Zionist, with the “frozen Chosen” shivering in Alaska rather than sweating in the Middle East. Actually, I found it quite Zionist, as Chabon’s imagined post-World War II refuge of Sitka, Alaska fails to give the Jews the permanent home they so clearly need. Yet as creative and alluring as it is, the novel in Jewish terms is depressing. Jewish identity in Chabon’s Sitka is an historical burden groaning with the misery of 2000 years, a pair of inherited ethnic handcuffs shackling Jews to provincialism, and – all too frequently – providing a mask of public piety shielding rank criminality.

Our universities and so many leading intellectuals reinforce this message. Birthright, MASA, and all the identity-building programs for Jewish 20-somethings are valiant attempts to counter the overwhelming lesson most North American kids absorb for decades culminating with university life – the American ideal is to transcend identity, to jettison your particular past, to become a cosmopolitan world citizen. Ten days or ten months can only do so much to counter the mass seduction of Jews with a warm embrace that ultimately entails losing our memory, and thus our identity.

Even in Israel, the Jewish people’s headquarters, the 24/7 center of rich, multi-dimensional Jewish living, the alluring modern voices promising deliverance by detachment grow louder. The lure of Americanism, the characteristic Sabra cynicism, and the sophisticate’s post-Zionism promise salvation by separation from the tribe, the clan, the nation, the religion, our people. All too often, believers – in Judaism or Zionism – find themselves mocked as old-fashioned, as freiers (suckers), as chauvinists.

FORTUNATELY, ONE of the greatest Jewish heroes alive today has jumped into this battle, armed with his usual weapons – wit, iconoclasm, erudition and courage. Having survived Soviet prisons, having survived years in Israeli politics with his reputation for independence and integrity intact, Natan Sharansky is now ready to lead the charge against those who are deluding themselves by denuding themselves. In his new manifesto, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, Sharansky confronts the modern, all-consuming message of universalism as fiercely as he battled the contagion of Communism. In fact, Sharansky – with his co-author Shira Wolosky Weiss – suggests that this religion of nothing is an unhappy vestige of the ill-conceived Marxist universalism that misled so many and ruined so many lives.

Sharansky begins his book by recounting the Soviet Chamber of Horrors he endured – and explaining how he survived. Sharansky attributes the internal grit so many Jews and Pentacostalists displayed in resisting Soviet secret police interrogation, to their external ties. By having a strong identity, by being part of something greater than themselves, a people, a religion, a tribe, individuals felt responsibility for ideas greater than themselves. In fact, Sharansky noted, the prisoners who stood up most heroically for universal human rights were the ones who, like him, tended to be anchored in a particular group, with a particular narrative that their resistance helped advance.

Sharansky then goes beyond the Soviet example to argue that democracy in America, Europe, Israel and elsewhere cannot survive without a similar rootedness in identity. He uses “identity” broadly, meaning membership in an ethnic group, a religion, a nation. Noting the weakness of Europe, the cowardice of the professoriate, the hypocrisy of the human rights crowd in the face of the Islamist scourge, Sharansky insists that the future of democracy hinges on free people ready to defend themselves because they are rooted in strong, secure identities. Group pride guarantees individual freedom.

THIS TWIST makes Sharansky’s argument fresh, powerful, compelling, and yes, subversive. Rather than joining the Jewish woe-is-me crowd lamenting that particularist Judaism cannot survive America’s universalizing embrace, Sharansky fears that America, Europe and the West cannot survive modernity’s universalizing embrace. Sharansky endorses a strong Jewish identity, a vital American identity, a vigorous Israeli identity, a proud Western identity, to preserve democracy. The Gulag’s lessons apply to the Google generation. Even when Thomas Friedman claims the “world is flat,” even amid globalization’s vast sweep, individuals need to belong to a collective, to share the anchors of the past, the challenges of the present, and the hopes of the future.

Sharansky’s book should make us appreciate how lucky we are as Jews to be a part of such an inspiring story. We are the heirs to a rich civilization, with a faith, a homeland, a culture, and a collective commitment to one another. These are blessings not burdens, ways into the rich human experience not obstacles to deeper human connections. We can engage in tikun olam, repairing the world, as Jews, through our affiliations not despite our affiliations. And we can fight for our rights and freedoms by knowing who we are and why we deserve a homeland after nearly two thousand years of exile.

Those of us in Israel and those of us in democratic countries abroad are doubly blessed, lucky to have our Jewish and Western identities. As Sharansky shows, and as so many of us know, these are not dueling identities, but complementary ones, no matter what Hollywood or Harvard types might tell us.

The writer, a professor of history at McGill University, is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His most recent book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, has just been published by Basic Books.

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