Welcome to the Middle East – Avigdor Lieberman TLV Salon Conference

How interesting it is to watch politicians talk.

They arrive at venues, walking self-assured, with a costume that somehow still makes them look casual, reminding us the human inside of the decision-policy maker. At their arrival on stage, a tacit understanding with the public makes people clap until they are comfortably sit, facing the crowd.

A good politician generally opens the conference with a light statement, a statement that relaxes the ambiance, ideally that makes the public giggle. The public is an anonymous mass to the politician, while the politician shows up in living rooms, in beds, or on the public rides of the audience.  It almost feels the public knows the politician personally, for he/she has been with the audience in their most private settings. And then, you meet them in reality, for the first time, and they bring to your attention that behind policies and ideas there is a human to be found.

Avigdor Lieberman, the current Ministry of Defense of Israel, gave a talk yesterday at the Namal Port, an event organized by the Tel Aviv Salon. The crowd attending was mixed, young to older internationals and Israelis, journalists, followers, or interested young professionals and students like me.

I was really impressed by the ability of this Moldavian/Soviet/Israeli man to speak. It seems what he was saying was simply common knowledge. Listening to his tone, to his ability to channel the conversation, his facts and analysis seemed to make perfect sense. It almost felt as if no argumentation could be done against what was presented, as if only a completely different angle should be taken to advanced a constructed disagreement. Still, if you gave it some thoughts, you realize that some of the things that were said should seriously make you frown your eyebrows and open your eyes wide.

Coming from Switzerland, I often wonder what in the mentality of the Middle East differs from the European mentality, if I may make generalizations. Still, what makes our States so different than the ones in the Middle East ? Why is there so much hatred, violence and exclusion in this region, while in Europe, despite our (many) imperfections, the level of violence and disgust towards the Other is undeniably lesser?

The concept of Nation-State invokes the idea that each nation (that is, a group of people sharing similar cultural traits, religious practices, customs, an idea of coming from the same descendant and maybe from the same land) should have its own state. However, in Europe (or in “Western” countries), the definition of nation does not include a similar cultural traits, or religions, or even customs, nor the idea of being from the same descendant or the same homeland. It mostly focuses on the solidarity felt among the people, among a group of people who has agreed to live together with all their differences and feel they belong too. In Europe, not a single country is homogeneous ethnically or religiously.

In here, in the Middle East, the logic is different. Every group wants a “perfect state”, a state of perfect homogeneity, with either the same religion, or ethnic (imagined or real) background. Minorities are always considered as internal enemies, and the (contemporary) history of this region shows how they always end up either considered as alien, persecuted, displaced, or harshly forced into assimilation.  Sometimes there is a thin equilibrium, where the minority is tolerated; but for sure, minorities have never been embraced. This mentality can be seen, for example, in the current wars happening in the region. All groups, factions, tribes, clans, or individuals sharing a religious particularity are trying to get their own sovereignty and displace the Others. It seems people view it as impossible to live together, solely because of the way the newborn is being born into.

Coming from Europe, from a multi-confessional, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country, the Middle Eastern view of the Other is very particular. What I learned when studying European contemporary history, is that when a leader wants a perfect state and manages to convince its people of this necessity by showing how the Other is the reason for all Evils, it leads to millions displaced, murdered, denied of their humanity, and killed in masses.

So imagine my shock when yesterday Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel should be a country with only Jews, and that Arab-Israeli should be transferred to other Arab countries. Yes, this is the rule of the Middle East, the predominant ideology of wanting “a Perfect Homogeneous State”. All the region, starting from Turkey, and including Palestinians, follow this idea of “Nation-State”: one nation, one state, in which the nation only includes people with extreme resemblance and similarities.

Is this the ideology, the mentality Israel wants to abide by? Shouldn’t Israel be the representative of Western mentality (as it claims to be) with a concept of nation-state that is inclusive, and does not depend on your blood or religion, but on the solidarity that you built with the people surrounding you, embracing the differences, discussing across them, and by being tolerant toward the Other? I come from a place where the ethnic background and religion does not define who is in my in-group and who isn’t: we are all living together at the same time, we are all equally concerned by what is happening around us; and we discuss about it.

Israel claims to be the only civilized democracy in the Middle East. Yet it seems some in Israel have forgotten the civic nationalism we have in Europe, and is shifting toward the mentality of the “Perfect State”.

Well done, you adapted well: you truly became Middle Eastern.

About the Author
Originally from Switzerland and Turkey, Danielle Levi completed her B.A. in International Relations at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) and finished her Master degree at Tel Aviv University in Public Policy, Conflict Resolution and Mediation. She is currently working as a political analyst for a security company based in Israel. She is passionate about the international world, from its politics to its culture, and has traveled throughout the continents for an extensive period of time.
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