Natan Sharansky and the courage to resist tyranny

Though I’m married to a religious Jew, and now live my life largely consistent with Jewish tradition, I’ve spent much of my life as a secular Jew.  Either way, I think that there is a general connection between  a particular identity – whether it be ethnic, religious, cultural, etc. – and the willingness to make sacrifices necessarily to defend values such as freedom and democracy, even in a secular state.

I was thinking about this while reading Natan Sharansky’s newest book, Defending Identity. I’ve read his inspiring autobiography, Fear No Evil, and, more recently, have read, The Case for Democracy.  In his latter book, he argues persuasively that the democratic values we all cherish can more vigorously be defended by citizens who possess strong individual identities, in addition to their more abstract identification with democratic values, as such.

On page 3, he says,

“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 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.”

For Sharansky, who was both a human rights activist and Jewish Refusenik in the former Soviet Union, it was his connection to Judaism – its values, history, struggles, and aspirations – which provided him with the strength, courage, and perspective necessary to fight for human rights in a totalitarian state. For him, as for many courageous people throughout history, there was nothing more liberating than fighting for a cause greater than merely his own self-interest, a cause that encompassed him, but wasn’t defined by his existence alone.

Sharansky’s new identification with his Jewish heritage – in a state where religious belief of any kind was considered subversive and where most of the nation’s Jews were forced to leave such faith behind to be considered loyal Soviet citizens – helped him to endure nine years in a Soviet prison, as he saw his struggle against state tyranny in the context of the Jewish struggle for liberation from tyrants throughout history. Moreover, it was the universal values of Judaism that gave him the intellectual and moral strength to resist his interrogators and their cynical rhetorical tricks – that is, their frequent attempts to convince him of the truth of two inherently contradictory thoughts…what Sharansky refers to often in his book as (Orwellian) double-think.

While I’m not saying that secular people who don’t possess a strong particular identity can’t resist tyranny – and, indeed, this is part of a much larger discussion that could be had about secularism and democratic states – it is hard not to be moved when Sharansky, describing his Judaism in the context of his struggle to resist Soviet tyranny, says:

The fire of freedom that burned inside me was fueled by a passionate connection to my people, our common history and our shared destiny. When I crossed the line from doublethink to dissent, I suddenly discovered a new world. I was no longer an isolated Soviet citizen but part of a vibrant community with a long history of struggle and liberation – a history that had left great empires in its wake.”

Perhaps the significance of Sharansky’s insights aren’t completely apparent to many reading this blog.  However, as the citizen of a state threatened by state and non-state actors intent on our destruction – and by publications such as the Guardian who routinely advance narratives which aid and abet such reactionary movements – I’m continually concerned with the question of why certain people possess the courage and fortitude to resist such threats and why others engage in any number of rhetorical and intellectual contortions to avoid such confrontations.

For me and my wife, this isn’t some amorphous intellectual musing.  It’s truly a matter of life and death.

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