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

I was intrigued by a reference you made to Avshalom Vilan, one of Lieberman’s opponents in the Knesset. You wrote, “As a kibbutz member, Vilan is part of an Israeli gentry whose fortunes have faded like those of the antebellum plantation owners in Faulkner’s novels.” What exactly did you mean by this?

When Israel became independent, the Labor-Zionist movement was the dominant political movement, and the kibbutz was the vanguard of the Labor-Zionist movement. Kibbutz members were utterly overrepresented in every aspect of leadership. They were, in a sense, the ideal Israelis, as Israeli society saw itself at its beginning. Today, socialism in Israel is somewhere around where the log cabin is in America. It’s something that you learn about in history class if you’re paying attention. And the kibbutz is really very marginal.

I assume this was intentional, but there’s a real irony in comparing plantation owners to socialists who owned nothing.

I understand the irony completely. But the elite of the society were also those who believed in owning nothing of their own. The fading of that idea is shown in the fact that they are privatizing their communes!

It’s fairly common to newly independent countries that the movements that established them hold power at the beginning. But if they’re actually successful at creating a democratic process, eventually those movements fall away, because what defined them were earlier issues. Either the movements redefine themselves, or they become irrelevant. All that’s really left of socialism in Israel is the name “Labor Party,” which hasn’t been socialist in many a year.

Why would someone like Avshalom Vilan be particularly offended by Lieberman’s population transfer proposal?

There are two things going on here. One is that Vilan is still, despite everything I’ve just said, left-wing in terms of being dovish, in terms of stressing equality in Israeli society, in terms of being oriented toward dialogue with Palestinians. And he saw the proposals that Lieberman was making as racist.

But in the particular comment I quoted [“What chutzpah! Who are you at all?”], I felt there was also a certain tone of “Who does this guy think he is?” So there was the irony of a very determined and committed position of pro-equality along with a kind of elitism.

I think it’s difficult for Americans to fully grasp what the phrase “right-wing politician” means in Israel. How does someone like Lieberman compare to David Duke, for instance?

This is what’s so interesting about the Lieberman phenomenon. For the first phase of Israeli history, through 1967, “left” and “right” meant what they meant in Europe. The left was socialist, and the right was free market. After 1967, gradually the dividing line became what you thought we should do about the occupied territories—or, for that matter, what we should call them. Were they the “liberated territories” or were they the “occupied territories”? Should we keep them because they were our homeland? Or should we give them up for the sake of peace and because it was wrong to rule over another people? How far right you were was determined by how eager you were to hold onto territory, and how far left you were was determined by how much territory you were willing to give up.

By those terms, Lieberman is not a right-winger, because he’s talking about giving up land. In fact, he’s even willing to give up land from sovereign Israel. On the other hand, as one of the people quoted in the article says, he’s opened up a new front against Israeli Arabs. And he wants to underline in black the definition of the state as being the expression of one ethnic group. The other group will either have to declare loyalty to that or be excluded. I think one of the reasons people say Lieberman is in the center is that they don’t realize he has, in effect, redefined the terms.

It’s telling that you just used the term “ethnic group” to describe the notion of the Jewish State. I think a lot of Americans believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially a religious one.

This is the most basic misunderstanding that comes from looking at Israel from the outside, particularly looking at Israel from the American experience. In America, the word “Jew” is primarily a religious term. And in Israel, while “Jew” is a religious term, it is primarily a term of nationality. That is the entire underlying idea of the state of Israel: Jews define themselves as a nationality and seek national self-determination. And therefore, the conflict is defined as the conflict between two ethnic or national groups.

Now, there has clearly been an overlay since the beginning of the conflict of the religious connections of both groups. I will be the first to stress that the ethnic and religious dimensions are hard to separate. But you’re starting with the idea of thinking of these as nationalities, in the sense of European conflicts of nationalism. For instance, one of the ethnic groups in Bosnia was “Bosnian Muslim.” In other words, there were three ethnic groups, and they were called Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.

Lieberman himself isn’t particularly religious, is he?

He is not religious. He lives in a mixed religious-secular settlement.

So it doesn’t necessarily follow that the more religious a Jew is, the more right-wing he’ll be, and the more secular, the more left-wing?

There’s an overlap. And certainly if you ran a statistical study, you’d find a relationship between the two things. But there’s no absolute correlation between them. For instance, there’s always been a very strong secular right wing.

And there’s always been an ultra-Orthodox Jewish population that doesn’t even recognize the State of Israel and goes so far as to side with the Palestinians.

Yeah, but that’s outside of the right and left issues. That’s a different universe. Let’s not go there.

I think that if you tried to understand this conflict and said, “Okay, I’ve got it now. There are these two shades”—you’re going to be in trouble. There’s more than one fault line running through this.

You mentioned the idea of left and right in Europe. Is Lieberman’s status as a right-wing politician more analogous to what a right-wing politician would be in Europe right now, where they’re dealing with identity issues like headscarves in schools?

Without trying to make everything line up precisely, I think a Western European could have a much easier time simply identifying Lieberman as being on the right. The whole idea that we have to define who we are, and everyone who is not part of that has to adapt to our society—if you asked somebody in France or the Netherlands or Germany, they would say, “Well, of course. That’s what our right looks like as well.” But because for the last 40 years Israel has been defining its left and right in terms of territorial issues, when Lieberman was willing to give up land, people said, “He’s moved to the center.”

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

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