Interviews May 2007

"Israel Is Our Home"

Gershom Gorenberg elucidates the startling politics of Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing Israeli politician who has lately taken center stage

In September 1917, a Russian-Jewish socialist named Bor Borochov addressed a group of fellow Zionists at a conference in Kiev. Some outside voices, he acknowledged, were charging Zionists “with the odious crime of wishing to oppress and expel the Arabs from Palestine.” On the contrary, Borochov insisted, Zionist settlers would open up more land for everyone by making the desert bloom. “When the waste lands are prepared for colonization…,” he proclaimed, “there will be sufficient land to accommodate both the Jews and the Arabs. Normal relations between the Jews and Arabs will and must prevail.”

Were Borochov alive today, he would likely be among the many outspoken critics of Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman. Like Borochov, Lieberman is a Russian-speaking Jew and a committed Zionist, but his vision of peace and stability is at antipodes from the one Borochov set forth in 1917. In 2004, Lieberman introduced a plan to transfer all Arab citizens of Israel to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank. His initial proposal met with booing and catcalls when he presented it before the Knesset in June 2004. More recently, he has modified his suggestion, allowing for Israeli Arabs to remain in the country, provided they take an oath of loyalty to Israel’s state, flag, and national anthem.

As journalist Gershom Gorenberg demonstrates in his May Atlantic profile, Lieberman, once seen as a fringe figure, now sits at the table with members of the mainstream. A native of Moldova, Lieberman was born at the height of the Cold War to a father who had toiled for 10 years in a Siberian labor camp. Like so many Russian Jews who spent years battling Soviet anti-Semitism, he arrived in Israel with a distaste for leftist politics and a profound cynicism about the old socialist dream of panethnic unity. The party he founded in 1999 is called Yisrael Beitenu, or “Israel Is Our Home,” and its base consists primarily of Russian-Jewish immigrants who desire above all else, in the words of the party platform, “to actualize the Zionist vision of a Jewish State for the Jewish people.”

Although his politics might appear simplistic, Lieberman is, according to Gorenberg, forcing Israelis to redefine the terms “left” and “right.” Unlike traditional right-wingers, whose primary agenda was to hold onto land, Lieberman is willing to part with most of the West Bank. But his attitude toward ethnicity marks him as anything but liberal. Gorenberg explains that Lieberman’s newfound prominence—at a time when socialism is all but dead and the center-right is foundering—raises important questions about the country’s future:

Lieberman’s ascent, say supporters (and some rivals), shows he has moved toward the center. It could just as easily be read as evidence that the center of Israeli politics has collapsed. Olmert and the centrist Kadima movement were casualties of the war in Lebanon last summer. To bolster support in parliament, the prime minister had to offer Lieberman influence over decisions that could shape, and shake, the Middle East. Simply by granting him a ministerial position, Olmert gave legitimacy to hard-line views on internal issues. In December, addressing a convention of his Yisrael Beitenu, Lieberman declared that his goal was “to be the ruling party” within two elections. When aristocracies fade, a pariah may reign.

Gorenberg’s writing has appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post along with The Jerusalem Report, where he is a senior editor. He is the author of the book The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements. I spoke to him by telephone from his home in Jerusalem on March 7th.

Jennie Rothenberg

Israel is a young nation that was built entirely by immigrants. Why is there such a divide between sabras [native-born Israelis] and people who immigrated during the past couple of decades?

There’s an old Israeli saying that Israelis love immigration, they just don’t like immigrants. You could translate that as saying that the official ideology favors immigration of Jews, repatriation of Jews to their homeland as it were. But the social realities aren’t any different in Israel than anywhere else. People come in with a different language and a different culture, want to belong, and find it hard to fit in. And that’s part of what Lieberman’s party appeals to. But there are certain aspects of the situation that are unique to Israel. In most cases, the right is anti-immigrant; in this case, the right is seeking its constituency among immigrants.

When immigrants began arriving en masse from the Soviet Union, they often found themselves living side by side with lower-middle-class Israeli Arabs. Did this shape their political outlook at all?

Well, there are certain glaring instances where that’s true. For example, the town of Upper Nazareth is heavily Russian, and it’s next to the largest Israeli Arab town, which is Nazareth. But what shaped their outlook more was downward mobility. In the Soviet Union, one of the ways Jews defined themselves was by their highly educated professions. The simple fact of mass immigration meant a large portion of those people weren’t able to pursue the same professions here as they were in their home countries. So you have tension over a changed social position, you have tension over ending up in a part of the world that may have been a second choice. All of these things influenced the political outlook of many Russian immigrants.

Do Russian-born Israelis like Lieberman and Natan Sharansky feel they’ve earned the right to speak out forcefully against left-wing views because they spent so many years battling a socialist regime?

You know, one of the people I interviewed for this article pointed out that there’s often a contradictory reading of the Russians’ politics. People say, “The Russians reject socialism because the Soviet Union was socialist.” But people also say, “The Russians are secular because the Soviet Union was secular.”

In other words, some people believe that the Russians reacted against the culture they came from, and others believe they were colored by it.

Right. Now, that criticism is valid, and it is also true that people switching societies can do both of those things. It’s just a much more complex transaction than simple rejection or simple acceptance. Somebody who stands between two backgrounds both belongs and doesn’t belong and is critical of each of them.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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