NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 17, 2008

In his new book, "Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy," Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, presents a polemical take on an old problem, says Michael Skapinker of the Financial Times: What to do when ideas of universal human rights conflict with the need to belong to a specific group? 

Many democracies are deeply confused about identity, making dangerous mistakes over how much citizens owe to the state and how much to their ethnic or religious groups, says Sharansky.  He examines various ways countries have attempted to integrate new immigrants in the post-WWII era.

For example:

  • Great Britain and the Netherlands tried to adopt a policy of multiculturalism, the idea that all ways of life should be respected; however, both countries, infused with post-colonial guilt, respected all but their own.
  • France adopted a different strategy and insisted all citizens become resolutely French, forbidding all visible signs of difference; Sharansky says this road leads only to hypocrisy, and casting aside all symbols of identity is seldom healthy.
  • Israel, under the leadership of their first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, required Jews to ditch their diaspora baggage; Poles, Moroccans, and Germans were to simply become Israelis.

Sharansky says Europe should allow immigrants to retain their identities but insist on basic rules, such as non-violence; while Israel should hold firm to both its Jewish and democratic identities. 

Furthermore, the right way to tackle identity, says Sharansky, is American.  In the United States:

  • You can be American without forgetting what you were; you can be Irish-American, Italian-American or Jewish-American.
  • However, a central culture of democracy demands your loyalty, but outside that you can be who you are.

Source: Michael Skapinker, "The Thorny Question of Who You Are," Financial Times, June 16, 2008; based upon: Natan Sharansky, "Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy," Public Affairs, March 24, 2008.

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