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.

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.”

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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