Natan Sharansky -- the world-famous refusenik and symbol of the Soviet Jewry movement, who later became a deputy prime minister of Israel and a noted author -- began his talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia by posing something of an odd question: What do John Lennon and Al Qaeda have in common?
Speaking on June 5 before a surprisingly sparse lunchtime audience, the 60-year-old Sharansky made sure to point out that he had great respect for the former Beatle, who died tragically in 1980, and whose lyrics espouse a love of life and a commitment to non-violence and humanism -- clearly, not the stuff that fuels the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism.
In fact, the speaker acknowledged that the two subjects mentioned in his question don't have much in common, except for the fact that they represent opposing sides of what might be called the battle between individual freedom and collective identity. In short, Sharansky asserted that what the world needs now is both of them and that one without the other can breed danger.
"John Lennon, in his great song 'Imagine,' dreamt about a world where there are no nations, no religion, no borders, nothing to die for," said Sharansky. "He believed that, in order to be free, there should be no identities."
Sharansky -- who served in the Israeli Knesset from 1996 to 2005, until he left the government in protest over the Gaza disengagement -- clearly disagrees with Lennon. The former politician argued that the song embodies the secular humanist belief in the primacy of universal values and individual freedom.
Sharansky said that, on the other hand, Islamists preach a total belief in collective identity, and utterly reject freedom and any notion of the inherent value of individuals. The same could be said of communist Russia and other totalitarian states.
In his latest book, co-written with Shira Wolosky Weiss, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, the director of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem claims that a truly healthy society -- be it Israel, Western Europe or the United States -- must possess a tradition of freedom and democracy, as well as a strong sense of itself and its past.
Many consider nationalism and religion to be prime causes of war. But, Sharansky argued, in the right context -- namely, when coupled with a healthy democratic tradition and vibrant civil society -- a strong national identity could foster stability, and also help a nation ward off internal decay and external threats.
"Identity gives meaning to your life," he said, adding that many of his fellow prisoners in the Soviet gulag found strength in their Christian faith. "Your life is bigger than you own personal existence."
In his speech, he did not address the fact that in many free societies, there are often widespread disagreements and debates over the nature of identity -- be it the so-called culture wars in the United States or the clash between religious and secular Israelis over the evolving character of the Jewish state.
Sharansky's new book comes four years after The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, which was co-written by Ron Dermer and sited by President George W. Bush as a blueprint for American foreign policy. It also earned Sharansky invitations to the White House and to speak on TV's "Meet the Press." (In fact, he had another private meeting with Bush this past week.)
But after the book's appearance, what looked to be democratic advances in Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian authority later turned into setbacks -- and Iraq's autonomous government became mired in dysfunction and sectarianism -- thus, draining the notion that America could be a democratizing agent in the Middle East of much of its force. (Sharansky had, in fact, criticized the Bush administration's focus on pushing elections in the region before fully establishing Democratic intuitions.)
Perhaps consequently, Sharansky's latest book has appeared with little fanfare and has received scant attention in the press. Nonetheless, he insisted that this book is a natural outgrowth of the earlier one, and that the thinking behind both of them was developed between 1977 to 1986, the years he was a prisoner in the Soviet Union, and subjected to interrogations and torture by the KGB.
"As a loyal Soviet citizen, I was deprived of both freedom and identity," he said, adding that his identification with the Jewish people helped him endure the long ordeal.
During the question and answer session, Sharansky was queried about the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He answered that if the Palestinians manage to reform themselves and create a legitimate civil society, anything is possible.
"I want the Palestinians to have all the rights I have -- except the right to destroy me."