Twenty years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell. Two great wars were being waged in those years. The first was a worldwide struggle to free Soviet Jewry, a cause which galvanized Jews across the globe as no other cause had, since the establishment of the State of Israel.
The second was the Cold War, the struggle of free democracies around the world against the tyranny of Soviet-style communism. In each struggle, the fall of the Wall became a turning point. Right after that fateful November day, a great exodus of Soviet Jewry began in earnest. And within months, the totalitarian stranglehold over Eastern Europe disintegrated before our eyes.
For years, I had been a foot soldier in both these great wars. In the years before my arrest I was in fact the unofficial spokesman of two movements — a human rights movement and a Soviet Jewry movement. I was often pressed by my comrades in arms on both sides to make a choice: Was I fighting for human rights for everybody or was I fighting for the rights of my own tribe? Did I belong to the world of universal values or to the world of nationalism?
I never felt that I needed to choose. And not only because I enjoyed both these battles, but because I felt that they are deeply connected. That in fact, the battle for freedom and the battle for identity was the same battle.
From where did the strength to fight for freedom come from? I was one of many assimilated Jews only because the Soviet regime aimed to deprive people of any loyalties to their faith, to their nation, to their family. As the official definition of citizenship stated clearly: All Soviet people are cogs in the communist machine. As cogs, we had no strength to fight. After all, the only value left for us was our physical survival and there was no reason to risk it.
When did this situation change? In 1967, the Six-Day War in Israel reconnected us with our people, with our country and history, and gave us pride in being Jewish. We discovered our identity, and this empowered us to fight for our freedom. But even then our small group for Jewish activists could never have survived if the struggle in the Soviet Union did not immediately become the struggle of hundreds of thousands, of millions of Jews all over the world. Why did these Jews for 20 years spend their time and energy, trembling with fear when they traveled to the Soviet Union to bring us books and bring us information from the free world and to press on their governments?
Many times I heard from many of these volunteer emissaries almost the same phrase: “We are from the same cities, [the same] shtetl, and it is almost by chance that we are there and you are here.”
When the time had come to make the last blow and have a historic march on Washington, I remember there were some voices of skepticism. Will big numbers of Jews really come to Washington in the winter? In order to dismiss these doubts, I went from city to city, from federation to federation, all together 30 of them. And the response was always automatic: “Of course we will be there. Not to be part of that demonstration would be like not going to a bar mitzva in our family.”
In fact this demonstration of a quarter of a million Jews in Washington in December was probably the biggest family reunion in history. The energy that was released from going back to one’s people was the driving force of the great struggle for freedom. The Berlin Wall was brought down because of the efforts of proud Czechs, proud Germans, proud Catholics, and proud Pentecostals, together with a proud army of Jews.
Today we live in a global, post-national, post-modern, post-identity world where people of the free world again are being asked to make a choice between universalism and nationalism, between freedom and identity. If you believe in the universal values of freedom and human rights, why stick to your national or ethnic identity?
This question hits home in an especially difficult way for Jews. Doesn’t Judaism prize tikun olam, perfection of the world at large, as its highest value? If we insist on being part of a Jewish state, does that make a mockery of our larger, universal ideals? If so, do we really want to shelter ourselves in a Jewish cocoon of a state?
And when young Jews believe that they must make a choice, that they cannot belong to both, they make the choice in favor of universalism. And then assimilation erodes our communities. And then it becomes more and more difficult for the people of Israel to defend their Jewish state. And our detractors sense our hesitation and our weakness and multiply their efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.
Just like 20 years ago, this choice between freedom and identity is a false one. We must remind ourselves that the Iron Curtain was brought down and hundreds of millions found their freedom only because we found the source of strength in our pride and in our identity. We succeeded in building the democratic State of Israel and bringing the ideas of human rights and equality to the darkest places populated by tyrants and dictators only because we were empowered by thousands of years of dreams and prayers of “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Our main battle today is to strengthen, to deepen, to build, and to defend our Jewish identity — the identity of one people, those in Zion and those in the Diaspora. And in this battle it was proved again and again that we need one another.
Like in the Soviet Union in the past, we need a strong Israel. But Israel today needs strong Jewish communities
Strengthening Jewish identity is the best answer in the struggle for Israel.
Strengthening our Jewish identity is the best guarantee to continue kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles.
And most important today, like yesterday, returning to our Jewish roots, rebuilding our Jewish identity, can empower us to fight for tikun olam, with more justice and more freedom for everybody.
This piece was adapted from a speech Natan Sharansky delivered in Washington Nov. 9 to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.