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    Middle East
     Oct 21, 2008
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Sharansky's mistaken identity
By Spengler

Natan Sharansky defied Soviet tyranny during the Cold War and thereby earned the gratitude of free people everywhere, including the United States, which in 2006 awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

After enduring years of persecution in Russia, Sharansky emigrated to Israel and became a political leader. In his new book, Defending Identity [1], he sets out to defend Jewish national identity by asserting that national identity as such is a good thing. We must belong to cultures and nations, Sharansky asserts, rather than to the insipid soup of global citizenship. The trouble is that some identities are hostile to other identities by their nature. Democracy should solve this problem, Sharansky argues, except


that some identities are by their nature anti-democratic, and so on.

A worthwhile thought was gestating in Sharansky's mind, but was stillborn in the present volume. Sharansky wants to say that the particularism of Jewish national identity offers universal benefits for humankind. But he does not want to say so in religious terms, and cannot find a clear way to say so in secular terms.

Jews often are loath to make theological claims for their own importance, which sound megalomaniac to secular ears. But the Jews might as well resign themselves to being hanged for a sheep as well as a lamb. Except for its religious implications, the world has little use for Jewish nationhood, and considers the presence of a few million Jews in the Middle East an inconvenience at best, and a danger at worst. That is why the only true friends of the Jewish state are American and some other evangelicals, and a few leaders of the Catholic Church.

Franz Rosenzweig, the great German-Jewish theologian, asserted that the history of Israel was the history of the world. Expansive as this claim may appear, it is well grounded in Rosenzweig's sociology of religion. What Rosenzweig meant is that Israel's existence forever transformed human identity. From Israel, Western Asia and Europe first heard the promise of eternal life, and afterwards looked at themselves differently. The pagans of the ancient world knew their days on Earth were numbered, and that their time would come to die out and be forgotten. But the promise of eternal life that the nations heard from the Jews undermined their ancient fatalism.

Reasonably, or not, we want to live forever. The first people to believe that God promised that it would endure forever became the standard against which all nations must measure their condition. From Ireland to Afghanistan, the identities of all tribes and nations became a response to Israel: Christianity offers a New Israel, Islam a competitor to Israel, neo-paganism a Satanic parody of Israel. The trouble is that Jewish national identity is not one national identity among many national identities. There is only Jewish identity, and a set of responses to Jewish identity. Jewish national identity has a radically different character than all other national identities, for the Jews uniquely believe that their nation was summoned into being to serve the sole creator God of the Universe.

It is somewhat uncomfortable for the Jewish to insist on the point, and it is understandable why Sharansky would wish to take refuge behind the notion of "identity" in general, but that simply doesn't work, and the Jews really have nothing to lose.

It is tricky to discuss human identity in other than religious terms, for our identity often implies continuity. With what do we identify that makes our existence more than a random occurrence? Our ties of culture, language, faith and kinship make us heirs to the past and participants in the future, and it is the future, the vanishing-point at the horizon, that defines the composition of the other images. Societies that reject religion also appear to reject the future, for example, by declining to have children.

Sharansky takes to task utopian secular thinking, which claims that peace requires the extinction of all passionate attachments, national, religious or whatever. His antagonist is "post-identity" theory, for example, the head of the Modern Language Association who said, "Cosmopolites not only or even principally owe an allegiance to their place of birth but also to a broader, more worldly, supra and transnational world view," as opposed to the "negative consequences of resurgent nationalism, ethnic separatism, and religious fundamentalism".

Eliminating all passionate attachments, Sharansky might have said, is a fool's errand. A rabbinic tale of antiquity reports what happened when God decided to eliminate the ''evil impulse", by which the rabbis meant the competitive and sexual instinct among men. The next day not a single egg was laid in the land of Israel, and God was obliged to restore the impulse. Europe may have succeeded in eliminating nationalism, or rather, nationalism burnt itself out in two hideously destructive World Wars. As a result children no longer are born to the Europeans. The problem is self-liquidating.

On the other hand, the two countries considered most suspect for their nationalism by the supposedly enlightened Europeans, the United States and Israel, are the only ones in the entire industrial world to reproduce at above replacement level. Sharansky is beating if not a dead horse, then a sterile one. All that secular enlightenment can say to humanity is what that exemplar of the enlightenment, Frederick the Great of Prussia, barked at his fleeing soldiers during the 1757 Battle of Kolin: Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben? (Dogs, do you want to live forever?).

Countries subject to communist rule, the most atheistic and internationalist, also show by far the lowest birth rates.

Projected population in formerly communist countries
2005 2050 % Change
Ukraine 46918 25514 -46%
Georgia 4473 2575 -42%
Belarus 9795 5746 -41%
Moldova 3877 2330 -40%
Source: United Nations

Russia itself is not far behind Belarus and Moldova in the race to national extinction.

A great deal of violence has been perpetrated in the name of religion; the most violent of all supposedly religious wars, the Thirty Years War, had very little to do with religion. It is wrong to blame religion for war. Exterminating one's neighbors was the norm for human behavior from the dawn of man until early in the first millennium BCE, when the prophets of ancient Israel first spoke of universal peace under the reign of a single God.

The modern critique of religion emerged out of the 16th and 17th century wars of religion. Secular critics blame religion for the tempted as we may be tempted to dismiss as happenstance the way in which the idea of universal love came to humankind, but the peoples of the Earth did not dismiss it at all. The peoples of the Earth heard the message of God's love in the particular way in which it was told to them.

The Election of Israel as Franz Rosenzweig put it:
It was more or less through Christianity that thoughts of Election have spread among the individual peoples, and with them, necessarily, a pretension to eternity ... On the foundation of love for one's own people, there lurks the presentiment that at some time in the distant future, this people no longer will exist, and this presentiment lends a sweetly poignant gravity. But in any event, the thought of the necessary eternity of the people is there, and, strong or weak, it has an effect. [2]
Rosenzweig makes the striking observation that precisely because the Christian peoples have come to believe in their own eternity, and cannot accept the idea that they will be exterminated, as the ancient peoples did, their concept of war changes radically. War raises the possibility of the destruction of the people, continued Rosenzweig, and for just this reason it becomes a religious event. The ancient peoples fought wars, but the center of their civic life was the official cult, with its rites and sacrifices. For modern Christian peoples convinced of their own Election, war itself becomes the supreme act of collective religion. 

Continued 1 2  

Gambling, economic growth and imagination
(Oct 15,'08)

E pluribus hokum or When the gamblers bail out the casino
(Oct 23,'08)

The Complete Spengler

Pakistan does some US dirty work
2. A Caspian energy superpower is born

3. How to manage an imperial decline

4. The $55 trillion question

5. Gulf spending, US style

6. A Fukuyama moment in finance

7. Maliki in damage-control mode

8. Ba'ath seeks showdown with Baghdad

9. China confident in storm

(Oct 17-19, 2008)


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