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 your article, Faina Kirschenbaum, director of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, describes the party members as “pragmatic.” Some of the more moderate Israelis I know have told me that Lieberman is a pragmatic man and that his logic makes a cold sort of sense. They usually conclude by adding, “But of course we cannot do this, because it’s inhumane.” Is this a common Israeli reaction to Lieberman?

I haven’t run a survey on it, but I think that when people react against Lieberman’s ideas, what they’re saying is, “You can’t do that. You can’t take people who are citizens and exclude them.” What he’s proposing is very simple. It’s terribly logical. And like many terribly logical things, it can’t be done. Logical simplicity is very often the mark of extreme positions. Because an extreme position is often based on saying, “This is the only problem I need to solve. And everything else will just be pushed aside in order to solve that problem.” But in the real world, you have to deal with a whole set of values that you’re trying to maintain, not just one.

When I was in Israel during the summer of 1999, I spent a night in an Arab village in the Galilee. I really wanted the people to share their grievances, their feelings of being an oppressed minority, but they really seemed surprisingly content. Of course, things have probably changed in the past eight years. How much unrest do you think there is in Arab-Israeli villages these days?

I think there’s a lot of tension. There’s been a considerable amount of politicization among Arab citizens of Israel since 2000. At the beginning of the Second Intifada, in October 2000, there were disturbances inside Arab villages in Israel, and there was a very harsh police reaction, which led to a state inquiry afterwards. That issue remains very raw.

Let me put it this way. The issue of how to deal with an ethnic minority and how to integrate it into mainstream society is certainly not a uniquely Israeli issue. I mean, Europe has been embroiled in this for ages. Go back and look at how World War I started. Look at the conflict in the Balkans. Spain is still dealing with this. That’s why I said that I actually think, in a lot of ways, these issues are less surprising from a European perspective than an American perspective.

How do American immigrants fit into the political landscape in Israel?

First of all, the number of American immigrants is quite small. There are certain areas where more Americans live, but you don’t have the huge subculture you do with the Russians. Russians make up one sixth of the Israeli population, and the larger an immigrant group is, the more it can maintain a separate identity. I don’t think Americans, as things stand now, are a political constituency of any weight in Israel.

The other obvious difference is that the Americans, unlike the Russians, didn’t come here for reasons of personal comfort or economics or safety. So you have self-selection among immigrants. They are people who are coming here out of ideological commitment. Another thing about American immigrants is that because they’re not part of the old power structure in Israel, they’re much more likely to get involved in non-party groups. So whether you go to a Peace Now meeting or to a settlement, you will find Americans.

On the other hand, I would stress that there’s an illusion in America that I’ve run into repeatedly that all the settlers are Americans. I can only guess this has to do with the fact that if someone shows up with a TV camera and a microphone, the one American in the settlement will be pushed out to speak. In reality, the percentages don’t line up that way at all.

Lieberman believes that Ahmadinejad is every bit as dangerous as Hitler, and that his threats are parallel to the threats the Nazis made before World War II. Do most Israelis agree?

I think there’s a lot of fear surrounding this, and I think that Iranian statements serve to arouse those fears. For very obvious reasons, Israelis, as a traumatized people, have an inclination to relate the current threat to what’s happened in the past. Therefore, the Nazi metaphor is very easily applied. Lieberman is certainly not the only person who uses those terms. The reason he is able to use those terms is because they resonate in the wider society.

Without any dismissal of the Iranian threat, I think the most obvious reason it can’t be compared to the Nazi threat is that in 1938, the Jews were not an independent nation with considerable military power. There is something almost ahistorical and, I would say, ironically non-Zionist in equating the situation of the Jewish people today with that of 1938.

In other words, I think that because of the pain of the past, it’s very easy for Israelis to have a sense of helplessness in the face of a threat and want to respond to that threat sharply. But while we are not omnipotent, we are not helpless. We have achieved what Israel set out to do: we are a country. That means we face some threats, but we also have a degree of power—not unlimited power—to deal with those threats. Both the current rhetoric of Iran and the pain of history sometimes make it difficult for people to remember those things.

The Israeli political system is so different from America’s three branches of government that it’s hard to get a sense of how much power Lieberman actually has and where his career is heading. Is his current position really a stepping stone to even greater power?

Look, he sees it as a stepping stone. He increased his representation in the Knesset from something marginal to something significant at the same time the traditional major parties were continuing to lose votes and influence. I won’t make any predictions as to how this will play out electorally, because in a parliamentary system we don’t even know when the next elections will be held, much less what the political constellation will be at that moment. Therefore, it’s very difficult to say whether he is correct in his evaluation. What I tried to convey in the article is that because of the breakdown of the classic ideologies, there is an opening for him. But there are a lot of other factors that could come into play.

Is Israel’s parliamentary government really the best system for a small country with so many splinter groups? Do you think another system could be more unifying?

The Israeli system is based on the idea that the primary constituencies of the country are ideological groups and not necessarily geographic regions. This is very different from the American system, which was based on the states as the building blocks of the country. The Senate is the best example of this. The Israeli system is designed to guarantee representation for all the different ideological communities so they can negotiate their coexistence in a parliament. Even though that makes it look like the government is unstable, I think it actually promotes social stability.

Israel’s mission as a country has always been more complicated than “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Amos Oz has said that as far as the early Zionists were concerned, Israel was going to be the most secular country, and the holiest country, and the most socialist country, and the most democratic country, and the most ancient country, and the most modern country. With a founding vision like that, wasn’t Israel bound to fall short of its own ideals?

If you don’t fall short of your ideals, then you have pretty poor ideals! But I think Israel has done all right when you compare it to a lot of other countries that became independent in the post-World War II period. You could do worse at creating an independent society.

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

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