Identity and democracy can coexist, says Natan Sharansky, former Soviet dissident, political prisoner, and human rights activist, "but only if both are strong." "Identity has to be framed within a democracy," Sharansky told The Jewish Standard, taking a few minutes out from a busy East Coast book tour promoting his latest work, "Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy" (PublicAffairs ‘008). The book is co-written with Shira Wolosky Weiss, professor of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Sharansky author, political activist, and former member of the Israeli government will speak on June ‘5 at Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.
According to congregant Kenneth Hoffman, who said the appearance was arranged on very short notice, "the opportunity arose at the last minute." He noted that Sharansky’s visit was arranged by members of the congregation who have a personal relationship with the Israeli. Sharansky who has received both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and who serves as chair of the Adelson Institute of Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem told the Standard that there are significant differences between the European and American approaches to integrating identity and democracy.
As he wrote in an op-ed in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, "To Europeans, identity and democracy are locked in a zero-sum struggle. Strong identities, especially religious or national identities, are seen as a threat to democratic life." The United States, on the other hand, "has been able to reconcile identity and freedom in a way no country has been able to match . The right to express one’s identity is seen as fundamental. Exercising such a right is regarded as acting in the best American tradition."
Sharansky said, however, that he understands why some Americans are suspicious of the concept of identity, since the media are filled with images of intergroup warfare, with diverse national, ethnic, and religious groups pitted one against another. He maintained, however, that "far from being the hostile enemy of democracy, identity is in fact necessary to sustain it . Identity without democracy can become fundamentalist and totalitarian. Democracy without identity can become superficial and meaningless. If either aspect is endangered, we are all endangered."
Born Anatoly Shcharansky, the author, whose previous books include "Fear No Evil" and "The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," spent more than nine years in Soviet prison and labor camps. During that time, which included months in punishment cells and on hunger strikes, he attracted international attention through acts of defiance refusing, for example, to part with his Book of Psalms.
Subsequently making aliyah and changing his name to Natan, he founded the political party Yisrael b’Aliyah in 1995 to help immigrants with their professional, economic, and social needs. After his party won seven seats in the Knesset, he was named minister of industry and trade, a position he held from 1996 until 1999.
Going on to serve as minister of the interior, minister of housing and construction, and deputy prime minister, he was named minister without portfolio in February ‘003, with responsibility for Jerusalem and social and diaspora affairs. In May ‘005, he resigned from the government because of his opposition to a disengagement plan.
According to event organizers, the doors to the synagogue will open at 7 p.m. for sponsors. General admission begins at 8:15. Rinat is located at 389 West Englewood Avenue between Sussex and Rugby streets. For further information, call the synagogue office at (’01) 837-‘795.
Organizers note that the location is subject to change, based on the number of reservations received. Those interested in attending should check the TeaneckShuls Website for the final location. All profits from the event will be donated to the Ida Milgrom Fund benefiting indigent former refuseniks in Israel.