The Human Spirit: Identity and freedom

whenever I’m privileged to address Birthright groups, I make a point of wearing one of my many beautiful Jewish stars.

israel flag draped 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
israel flag draped 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
W hat changes a Jew from someone who would be content to pass as a nonJ-ew to someone willing to give his life for his people? Speaking at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem on Tisha Be’av, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky described the radical alteration of his own Jewish identity. “Living in the Soviet Union, any identity was preferable to having ‘Jewish’ written on your identity card,” he said.
“All you knew about being Jewish was that you had to be the best for a chance at success. We were deprived of both freedom and identity.”
The Six Day War and Israel’s surprise victory changed his life: “They still made jokes about Jews, but instead of being the parasites and cowards, suddenly we were hooligans with chutzpa. We realized that what was happening in Israel had an impact on us, and decided to find out more about it.” Jewish self-education had to be accomplished sub rosa with books smuggled in by visitors. As it worked out, the revolution of Jews within the Soviet Union had an enormous impact on Jews like me in the free world. My Jewish identity was honed by taking part in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. How many of us who would become committed Jews in Israel and the Diaspora marched, demonstrated, set our Passover tables with the matza of freedom? The Soviet Jewry motto “Let my people go” connected us with our Jewish past, too. Sharansky’s defiance of tyranny and heroic triumph over the Soviet Union was one of the great fulfillments of our lives.
So potent was this experience that Sharansky recalled a neighbor in Jerusalem watching him play with his children in the yard, and sighing with nostalgia: “Oh, how I miss the days when you were in prison and we all worked so hard to get you out.” Jewish identity, the chairman of the Jewish Agency assured us, could be had without anyone sitting in a Soviet prison.
He still harbors a dislike of labels.
“Back then, I was very far from the 613 mitzvot. Even today, people are always asking me if I’m religious or secular. I wonder how many of the 613 I have to do to call myself religious.” Back in the USSR, he represented both the Jews who wanted to leave the USSR and the Moscow Helsinki Groups. He was always urged by the Jews or fellow human rights dissidents to choose a single issue. But for him, Jewish identity and defending freedom were and still are inextricably linked. In contrast to those who equate identity with an ideology of evil, his thesis – developed in his book Defending Identity and informing his role as Jewish Agency chairman – is that if you don’t know and value the power of your own identity, you can’t possibly appreciate anyone else’s. I was still thinking of Sharansky’s words the next morning when I read Benjamin Weinthal’s startling Jerusalem Post article about non-Jews assuming false Jewish identities to more effectively bash Israel. Several of the much-publicized Jewish participants on the flotilla to Gaza apparently faked their Jewish identities. The most egregious recent example is Gabriel Matthew Schivone, a student from Arizona, sailing on The Audacity of Hope, which shares a name with President Barack Obama’s pivotal memoir.
Schivone had the audacity to write an opinion piece in Haaretz in which he claimed to be “one of a growing number of young American Jews who are determined to shake off an assumed – and largely imposed – association with Israel.” In YouTube videos watched by hundreds of viewers, Schivone repeated that his attacks on Israel were an expression of his Jewish values. In a reversal of Sharansky’s experience of being inspired by Israel, Schivone declared that he rejected the “the claim of the State of Israel over me, as a person, as a human being.”
A letter from Valerie Saturen, a fellow traveler of Schivone’s, alerted Haaretz that they had fallen for a hoax.
Schivone is no Jew, wrote Saturen: “I feel I must point out that this is not his true identity but one he has created in order to generate insider credibility, shield himself from accusations of anti-Semitism, and resonate with a target audience.” The target audience was, of course, young Jews, not so different from us back then, ready to be inspired. Could the editors of Haaretz and journalists who covered the flotilla have guessed they were abetting Schivone’s allegedly false campaign? There are, of course, Jews who regrettably express views similar to Schivone’s. But the so-called messages that the soft-spoken, eloquent young man repeats in his writing and in the videos relate to what he calls the “values of Judaism that aren’t emphasized enough”: “the imperative to welcome the stranger as you would want to be welcomed; and of helping to free the slave from a bondage that you would not wish to suffer.” Alternately he says you should “welcome the stranger as you would want to be welcomed, free the slave as as you would want to be freed.”
Notice the difference. We Jews are commanded to welcome the stranger, but because we were strangers. We are commanded to struggle for freedom because we were slaves in Egypt. We don’t speak of theoretical slavery. But to recognize our history of oppression is to recognize our ancient ties to this land. No “Let my people go” for Schivone.
The second clue is his repeated knocking of Birthright Israel, the program that brings young Jews to the country on free trips. Birthright is successful in engaging young Jews and making them less fertile recruiting grounds for so-called freedom movements that are aimed at delegitimizing Israel.
In the videos, Schivone fingers the large Star of David that he allegedly received from a dear friend on a “so-called Birthright” trip. The friend, he says, experienced so much “crude brainwashing” that she actually purchased this symbol of Jewish identity from a Haifa silversmith. Now he will put it to “good use.” As it happens, whenever I’m privileged to address Birthright groups, I make a point of wearing one of my many beautiful Jewish stars. I’m hoping that the young people will be inspired while shopping to purchase their own Jewish jewelry. For some of them, wearing a Magen David on campus goes beyond saying you’re Jewish. On campuses where anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activism is growing, wearing a Star of David has become an act of courage. As Sharansky would say: Identity and human rights are always inextricably linked.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.