Last evening I attended a talk at the Israeli Embassy by the great Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who spent 9 years in the Gulag and Soviet prisons for his human rights activism. At the embassy he was interviewed by an Ethiopian Jew who’s producing a film on the exodus of Ethiopia’s Jews in the 1970s and 1980s from Mengistu’s horrific Marxist regime. As an eventual Israeli, Sharansky helped in later rescues of Ethiopian Jewry.
One of the Cold War’s great heroes, and an Israeli political leader over the last 30 years, Sharansky recalled this week was the 100th anniversary of both the Bolshevik Revolution and of the Balfour Declaration in which Britain pledged support for a Jewish state in Palestine. He noted that Russian Jews had divided over these events. Some had endorsed the promise of universal fraternity under Leninist Communism, in which national distinctions and religion would disappear. Others very differently looked to Zionism’s promise of Jewish return to the ancient homeland.
The first experiment of course ended disastrously after most of a century devoted to enslaving, impoverishing and murdering millions, in which Jews never found full acceptance, even when supportive. The Zionist project, with Israel now nearly as old as the Soviet Union lasted, has by contrast produced a robust democracy that offers haven to a long persecuted people.
Sharansky emphasized Zionism as central to defense against pervasive anti-Semitism. And Israel’s right of return to all Jews globally, whether Russian or Ethiopian, helps ensure that Jews escaping persecution will always have a final home.
But equally striking in Sharansky’s comments is that religious and national identity are far more persevering than utopian universalists, Bolshevik or otherwise, had ever conceived. Jews found little to no safety in the Soviet utopia and many renewed their Jewish commitment in revulsion against Marxist torment. Of course, many other nationalities emerged from the Soviet rubble to reclaim their own sense of distinct nationhood. Christianity and Islam, among other faiths, have resuscitated in lands once governed by atheist ideology.
Some of the revived post-Soviet nationalisms, chiefly Putin revanchist authoritarianism, are nasty. Others are more committed to human rights and harmony with others. Not just in formerly Soviet lands, but around the world, the vast majority of people still find primary identity in religion, nation and/or tribe.
Marxism-Leninism was a sort of parody of Christianity, with the Communist Party substituting for the church as the primary mover of history towards a perfected human community. But its materialism could not replace spirituality and earthly fraternal loyalties.
Sharansky survived Marxist materialist oppression by recommitting to Judaism and to Zionism. As a committed Jew and Israeli he has been a potent voice for the urgency of human rights for all people of every faith and nationality. His example is instructive for Americans Christians, many of whom increasingly believe they must shed national and even religious identity to become more effective humanitarians.
But the opposite is true. We who are Christian and American best serve humanity when cleaving strongly to the particulars of our faith and leaning against the rock of our own special nationhood. We can’t effectively love and serve others without first demonstrating love and service within our own faith and national communities.