Lieberman’s Exit: Good for Russian-Speaking Jews?

A picture of St. Basil's Cathedral in Russia. Avigdor Lieberman may live in Israel, but his heart appears to be here.
A picture of St. Basil's Cathedral in Russia. Avigdor Lieberman may live in Israel, but his heart appears to be here.

On November 14th, Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman resigned from the Knesset after a failed Israeli reconnaissance mission in the Gaza Strip led to the highest level of military conflict between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas since 2014, four deaths in Gaza (including two Hamas militants), and 20 people in Israel being wounded by Gazan airstrikes. Hamas’ fire also took the life of a Palestinian from Hebron by the name of Mahmoud Abu Asbeh, who was 48 and left behind a wife and six children. This violence prompted Hamas to offer the Israeli government a ceasefire, which it accepted. The current coalition of parties in Israel’s government is split between moderates who are willing to entertain the notion of Palestinian sovereignty and hard-liners who are in favor of increased policing of Palestinians, if not Arabs in general. Lieberman, being the latter, left Israel’s government in protest because he believed that the Israeli government has become unwilling to eradicate terrorism.

There is a large number of consequences to these actions. The IDF has showed visible restraint in its interactions with Hamas, the ruling coalition has just barely escaped collapse, and a possible early election has been staved off through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiations with his partners in government. These are developing in real time, as of this writing, but one group has been left out of the limelight to bear the weight of its disgrace: Lieberman’s abandoned constituency, the Russian-speaking Jews of Israel.

Lieberman’s base mostly consists of an older generation of immigrants from the former USSR and, historically, his policies have reflected this. The name of his party, Yisrael Beitenu, translates to “Israel is our home” in English, but between its contempt for the Chief Rabbinate and goal for Israel to join NATO and the European Union, the name and platform of the party fit together like kolbasa and vegetarianism. Even if one were to agree that civil marriage is compatible with Israel’s governing institutions and that NATO and EU membership are appropriate for a Middle Eastern country, this raises a number of concerns.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is the national governing body that controls marriage, divorce, burial, the validity of Jewish conversions, and which foods are considered kosher. Its popularity has historically been low due to internal corruption and lack of representation of common Israeli opinions, especially in their most recent elections. Although I believe in separation of church and state and am often critical of the Chief Rabbinate, I cannot deny that the Chief Rabbinate is a democratically elected governing body in which both religious and secular Jews vote. Although most Russian-speaking Jews in Israel are not religious, it is in their best interests to participate in the elections of democratically chosen leaders that represent their needs rather than voting for a party that tries to bypass its country’s institutions altogether.

With regards to NATO membership, although it would be theoretically beneficial to Israel, past precedents exist for member states to have high tensions with one another, impeding the effectiveness of the organization. For example, in 1983, Greece pulled its military out of NATO training exercises after Turkey invaded the island of Cyprus, which belonged to Greece at the time. If a conflict occurred between and the rest of NATO, like if Turkey had well-documented relations with Hamas or if most of NATO’s members did not recognize Israel’s capital as such, history could repeat itself easily with Israel following in the footsteps of Greece. As for the European Union, although it may theoretically be useful, it is an unrealistic goal at present. The European Union has stated that its membership is open to any “European country [with] a European perspective.” Even if Israel’s culture could be considered Western, it is geographically Middle Eastern and is closer to Africa than to Europe. Thus, Lieberman’s goals were never fully possible, much less in line with Israel’s internal politics. His culturally alienating goals and histrionic attitude towards resignation should be seen as a disgrace by Russian-speaking Jews, and that’s coming from a proud member of that community.

Most offensive to any self-respecting Russian, with Jewish heritage or otherwise, is the long record of resignations that Lieberman has used as leverage throughout his political career. There is a classic Russian proverb that translates as “Moscow does not believe in tears” (original: “Москва слезам не верит“). It demonstrates the stoicism and hard-jawed determination that characterizes Russian life. Both my Jewish and Russian ancestors fought in World War II and, under the rule of Joseph Stalin, every civilian of every background was forced to fight for their homeland because if they failed, there would be no homeland to return to. Where, amid Lieberman’s histrionics, is this resolve? If Moscow does not believe in tears, where is Lieberman’s disbelief? No, it is Lieberman who sheds graceless tears and it is the Russian-speaking population of Israel that must not believe in him.

About the Author
Daniel Yeluashvili is a political science student at San Francisco State University with regular involvement in various social causes. He is a donor to the ACLU, NAACP, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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