Natan Sharansky discusses the resurgence of national identity around the globe, Europe’s populist parties, Israel and the Diaspora, Donald Trump and the Pittsburgh synagogue attack.
There can be no doubt that recent years have brought political turmoil to the Western world, which has witnessed a strong backlash from many citizens in Europe, the US and beyond against globalism, mass immigration and perceptions that scorn or deride national and religious identities.
These processes have also affected both Israel and the Diaspora in numerous ways, leading to internal divisions among both entities as to how to deal with these phenomena.
Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident, refusenik, Israeli government minister and chairman of the Jewish Agency, who has also authored several books on political thought, spoke this week with The Jerusalem Post
about what he described as the hollowing out of national and religious values in the Western world in recent decades, the reaction to these phenomena and their connection to the rise of populism, and the necessity to bring a balance to the values of identity and classic liberalism to preserve global stability.
In recent years, Europe has seen a dramatic rise in the appeal of populist parties, mostly on the far Right, but also on the far Left of the political spectrum, with several of these parties scoring significant political successes and even entering coalitions in countries such as Austria, Italy, Greece and beyond.
The rise of these parties has presented a significant problem for local Jewish communities, since many have advanced or promoted policies to restrict or control Jewish practices such as religious slaughter and circumcision, and have associated with antisemitic elements.
Some members of such parties have also expressed antisemitic opinions and engaged in Holocaust denial or revisionism.
At the same time, several of these parties, such as the AfD in Germany and the ruling Fidesz Party in Hungary, have expressed strongly pro-Israel attitudes, which has attracted diplomatic interest and engagement from Israel that has in some instances upset local Jewish communities.
“Unlike liberals who cannot feel solidarity with Israel because it is a national state, these parties welcome Israel [precisely] because it is a national state,” says Sharansky.
Sharansky asserts that not all populist parties, on the Right or Left, should automatically be rejected by Israel, and that there are objective tests by which such parties can be evaluated.
“Do they support Holocaust deniers? Do they support legislation against Jewish life, ritual slaughter and circumcision? Do they use antisemitic stereotypes?” he says, and points to his three D’s definition of antisemitism – demonization, delegitimization and double standards toward either Jews as people or the State of Israel – as a good barometer.
But he cautioned against rejecting political parties due to ideological or political differences local Jewish communities may have with them.
If a local Jewish community and its institutions are liberal and take offense at certain policies by a particular party, such as restrictions on immigration, this is not a reason for Israel to refuse engagement with them, he argues.
On the other hand, he adds, “It’s important that Israel doesn’t get in a position of saying “their pro-Israel platform is so important to me that I will ignore the fact that they are against Jews.
“We don’t want to be friends of those who hate Jews and love Israel, or those who hate Israel and love Jews. There must be space for legitimate political disagreement, whether on the Left or the Right.”
Sharansky contends that the West is seeing a backlash against mass immigration, multiculturalism and the dilution of national identity and values, which has spawned populist parties, and that this reaction is a natural response to the loss of identity many people in Europe and beyond have felt in recent years.
“After the Second World War, there was a lot of anger against nationalism, and it turned into a philosophy that nationalism brings about fascism, and that we in Europe had a few hundred years of religious wars and then national wars, and that the time had come to be above religion and nationalism,” he says.
“The dream was a world where there was nothing to fight over and nothing to die for, but it meant that there was also nothing to live for.
“We must remember that all people have two basic feelings: they want to be free and want to belong, and we should not weaken their feeling of belonging. Patriotism, nationalism and religious belief can be very positive and a very necessary part of building our liberal world,” Sharansky asserts.
“When we take it away from our liberal world, then at some moment liberalism will become a hated word by everybody who is looking for their national identity, he continues, adding however that “there will then be bad people who use this sentiment to fight back.”
SHARANSKY, THOUGH, is extremely cautious about comparing the rise of the populist Right in Europe to the rise of US President Donald Trump in America, despite the similarities between the two phenomena, mostly it would seem due to the highly sensitive and combustible nature and timing of the topic.
Trump has, of course, not threatened any Jewish religious practices, as some European parties have, but has indulged in incendiary rhetoric against immigrants.
Critics also point to his reluctance to explicitly condemn the neo-Nazis who staged a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, his subsequent comments that “there were very fine people on both sides” of the neo-Nazi rally and the counterprotesters, and various tweets and comments that have either tacitly approved of white nationalist positions or failed to condemn them.
On the other hand, and like the right-wing populists in Europe, Trump has been strongly supportive of Israel, transferred the US Embassy to Jerusalem, supported Israel’s security measures against Palestinian violence, withdrew from the Iran deal which the Israeli government opposed, imposed tough new sanctions on Iran, and refrained from criticizing IDF actions against Gaza and Iran and its various proxies in Syria.
With tensions in the US between liberals and conservatives, including among the Jewish community, rising dramatically in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack at the end of October, many liberals accused Trump of having incited a toxic atmosphere regarding immigration and specifically a migrant caravan from Central America heading toward the US that the Pittsburgh shooter specifically referenced on social media several times before his attack.
Sharanksy was clearly reticent to make sensitive associations between Trump and the anti-immigrant rhetoric and nationalistic sentiment of European far-right parties, given these tensions, especially when combined with the fevered atmosphere surrounding the US midterm elections.
He did, however, assert in general terms the dangers of inflammatory and pejorative language directed against minority groups.
“We should be against any rhetoric which descends into stereotypes. If someone says people from South America are all drug dealers, of course this is bad,” says Sharansky, noting that immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel were smeared for bringing mafia and prostitutes to the country.
“We don’t want stereotyping of any ‘other,’ whether it is about people of different countries or different political views, or that all leftists are betrayers, or all rightists are fascists. This rhetoric is extremely dangerous. And the higher the politician who is using this type of rhetoric, the more damaging it is.”
He ventures cautiously that “there are many reasons for American liberals to be irritated with their president,” but adds that “there are many reasons for Israelis to be very happy with some decisions of the American president.”
But Sharansky says very definitely that he does not believe Trump’s political rhetoric and actions had anything to do with the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, as some have alleged, or the rise in antisemitic incidents since 2015 recorded by the Anti-Defamation League.
“The majority of hatred against minorities and Jews was there long before Trump,” Sharansky opines.
“Trump came to office as part of a global process of people seeing the loss of their identity as a bad thing.... I think Trump’s campaign took into account the fact that people want to be much more proud Americans,” he says, adding that the US president’s analysis of the US electorate was “much better” than that of The New York Times.
“It is the desire of people all over the world to belong. That definitely Trump used. Whether he used such political language that was inflaming, that’s another question. There are many people who think he did.
“Whether it caused antisemitism in the US, no, I don’t think this has anything to do with antisemitism in America. There is no connection between the US president and this shooter.”
He also pointed out how “new” antisemites on the Left in the guise of anti-Zionism have created the concept of intersectionality to unite all oppressed groups, but from which Jews are excluded.
Yet Sharansky says he does believe that the reaction to the forces of post-nationalism has now swung too far in the opposite direction. He says though that he is confident that a corrective balance will eventually be found, citing the thought of Maimonides and Hegel by way of explanation.
“You have thesis, antithesis and then synthesis, or as Maimonides put it, people first go to one extreme, then to the other, and end up in the middle,” he argues, saying that the world is currently in the midst of this very process.
“The reaction to the First World War and the Second World War was to erase all identities, and the result was a decadent society with almost no values. Now there is overreaction to reestablish identity, and you’re afraid of every foreigner, and there is a danger there [as well].
“The sooner we will bring these two extremes together and people will be able to enjoy a liberal-democratic, national world, the better.”
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