November 17, 2009

Israel politician encourages students to embrace identity

Former Israel politician and author Natan Sharansky called for a strong Jewish identity and universal human rights at a speech at Ida Noyes Monday.

Political Science professor Charles Lipson moderated the event, attended by around 250 students, faculty, and community members. It was co-sponsored by the Chicago Friends of Israel, Newberger Hillel Center, and the Jewish United Fund.

At the event, which was strikingly calm in contrast to a controversial talk given last month by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, Sharansky said a people can maintain a strong sense of nationalism while addressing universal issues, contrary to the anti-nationalist message of John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.”

“In this great freedom, where there is nothing to die for, there is no freedom, no meaning... If you’re not willing to die for anything, then you’re not living for anything meaningful,” Sharansky said.

Born into a Jewish family in the Soviet Union after World War II, Sharansky said he grew up experiencing very little freedom.

“The Soviet Union wanted to create a society where everyone will be equal, so they must remove differences - differences in religious views and national differences,” Sharansky said. “[The] Regime was trying to erase individuals. People must be cogs in the machine of communism.”

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sharansky emerged as a prominent spokesman for Jewish Soviets, speaking both for universal rights and for the Jewish people.

“I was pressed by friends and comrades to choose. They said, ‘If you believe in universal rights, you cannot favor one people over another,’ but I never accepted this,” Sharansky said.

Lipson said Sharansky’s message was unique.

“It’s rare to hear a political figure who can place his current remarks within the wider sweep of history and the struggle for freedom, and that’s exactly what Natan Sharansky did,” Lipson said.

Sharansky said his strong sense of identity helped him reconcile fighting for universal rights with fighting for national rights, and he called on his audience to do the same.

“Discover for yourself. You are a part of a tradition. Learn about your identity,” Sharansky said. “The more you want to be part of this tradition of this people, you realize there are things more important than your physical existence. That’s what gives you strength, and you start for the first time to live as a free person.”

Alliances are easier to form with a strong sense of identity, Sharansky said. When he was imprisoned for treason for spying for the United States in 1978, he learned who to trust.

“Who are your best friends in prison? In the conditions of the Soviet Union you didn’t know who’s working for the KGB,” Sharansky said. “In prison you very quickly learn that the stronger the identity, the less likely they are to be KGB because they know there are things bigger than them, things which they will die for.”

Sharansky concluded with the hope that Israel would “continue to be an island of freedom, democracy, and hope” among what he called dictatorial countries.

During the question-and-answer session, Lipson contrasted the atmosphere with the recent Olmert event.

“I was proud of the University as an audience [today]. The questions were good, hard, but in the calm, inquiring spirit of the University,” Lipson said.

According to Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) President and second-year Haley Ossip, security was an issue in planning for yesterday’s event due to the reaction to Olmert’s speech. Ossip explained that UCPD were monitoring for safety.

“We’re always a bit worried about how things will go before big events like this,” Ossip said. “The day Olmert spoke, I saw graffiti on campus saying ‘Israel Nazis.’”

No one protested during Sharansky’s speech.

Second-year Marisa Gage, vice president of CFI, said the event was one of the best she can remember.

“The questions were great, I think people were taking various components of what he said and combining it with personal ideology, and it created a great discourse,” Gage said.