Imagine if you will George Wallace in the 1968 presidential campaign telling the white world he knew how to deal with Negroes. To convey this, he coins the slogan: “He speaks Negro.” Or imagine Strom Thurmond running as a Dixecrat for president in 1948 on a States Right platform. His slogan is: “He speaks Nigger.” I imagine too that it would’ve made a great campaign slogan for Ol’ Bull Connor when he ran for sheriff in Montgomery in the 1960s. Show those darkies who’s boss.
Of course, no presidential candidate in this country could get away with adopting such a slogan. We may have racism underlying our politics, but we’re much more genteel about it and speak in code rather than overtly as Avigdor Lieberman does.
All this by way of saying, I find it astonishing that Lieberman can make such a slogan the heart of his campaign and actually win votes by doing it. Not only win votes, but likely become the third largest political party in the process. I don’t want to ever read another pro-Israel comment here that dares to brag about Israeli democracy and the “good deal” that Israeli Arabs get.
Let’s lay bare what this slogan means. It means that Lieberman “speaks their language.” That he knows how to “deal with them.” He fights fire with fire (Arabs are viewed according to these terms as shiftless, violent, and malevolent). One way he will deal with them is by adjusting Israel’s borders so that Israeli Arab villages in northern Israel would be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty, while Jewish settlements in the West Bank would be transferred to Israeli sovereignty. It’s a slightly more sophisticated form of population transfer advocated by the Israeli far-right ultra-nationalists. Slightly more sophisticated but no less odious or racist for that.
Lieberman’s slogan also conveys the hatred and mistrust that many Jews feel for Israeli Arabs. In fact, one of the hallmarks of his ‘populist’ campaign is a McCarthy-style demand for non-Jewish citizens to sign loyalty oaths to the Jewish state and “Israeli democracy.” Apparently the irony of demanding a loyalty oath from 20% of the nation’s citizens and believing that such an oath represents “democratic values” is lost on Lieberman.
Lieberman is the very same politician who on TV called an Israeli Jewish lawyer who brings human rights cases against the IDF for killing civilians in the midst of targeted assassination operations, a “kapo.” He’s the very same who said Israeli Arab Knesset members should be “strung up on lampposts.” Haaretz just revealed he was a member of Meir Kahane’s Kach party when he first arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter, Kach was outlawed as a terrorist organization.
Haaretz’s Gideon Levy as usual puts it so well in Kahane Won:
Rabbi Meir Kahane can rest in peace: His doctrine has won. Twenty years after his Knesset list was disqualified and 18 years after he was murdered, Kahanism has become legitimate in public discourse.
If there is something that typifies Israel’s current murky, hollow election campaign…it is the transformation of racism and nationalism into accepted values…Now the instigator of the new Israeli racism will apparently become the leader of a large party once again in the government. Benjamin Netanyahu has already pledged that Lieberman will be an “important minister” in his government. If someone like Lieberman were to join a government in Europe, Israel would sever ties with it…
…The nightmare is here and now. Kahane is alive and kicking – is he ever – in the person of his thuggish successor.
All this is viewed in Israel as politics as usual, more or less typical jockeying for advantage. No one suggests that Lieberman be arrested for inciting race hatred or violence against an ethnic minority, as would certainly happen in any number of other western democracies. He’s not denounced by mainstream politicians as he would be here. In fact, many Jews believe Lieberman to be a “man’s man” for such disgusting utterances. Anyone who criticizes Lieberman is viewed as hopelessly effete and ineffectual.
Meanwhile, Lieberman’s campaign distracts attention from the real life and death issues that confront Israel: negotiating peace treaties with Syria and the Palestinians. Yisrael Beitenu provides the country with a political sideshow that enables voters to express their frustration and impotence with issues over which they have no control. It allows them to lash out at the weakest sectors of society and blame them for society’s ills.
It’s a shameful performance. A sign of the profound weakness of Israeli democracy. I fear that it hangs by a frayed thread and the least wind will sever it. Israel cannot stand the assaults upon common decency and tolerance represented by Arab-haters like Lieberman.
Looked at another way though, Lieberman’s obsession with Israeli Arabs does raise important questions about the future of Israeli democracy. Will Israel turn into an ethnocracy in which Arabs have little or no rights, while Jews are supreme? Or will Israel recognize that it simply cannot be a real democracy unless it offers ethnic minorities rights that are equal to the majority Jews? In this sense, Lieberman is laying down a marker and saying that for him Israel must become the equivalent to apartheid-era South African. Arabs who remain in Israel under Lieberman’s regime will accept explicit (and not tacit, as in the current system) second-class status. There will be no more talk of equality. Arabs will know who’s the boss. If they don’t like it they will be invited to deplane to any other Arab country that will have them.
This is an Israel that very few Diaspora Jews I know will embrace. Lieberman’s strategy will not only deepen the rift between homeland and Diaspora, it will sever ties except for all but the most hearty pro-Israel supporters. Unfortunately, the Israel lobby here in this country refuses to recognize the danger. They refuse to see that Lieberman is the Jorg Haider, Kurt Waldheim, David Duke, Jean Marie Le-Pen, or yes, the Meir Kahane of the State of Israel. He is the far-right politician who should be the last straw. The one that makes them put their foot down and demand that Israel clean up its act or risk permanent alienation of affection with American Jewry. Will it happen? Don’t hold your breath.
I suppose it could be worse. Back in Lieberman’s old home, Russian neo-Nazi skinheads mimic Al Qaeda and sever the heads of migrant workers and display their handiwork on videos they proudly offer to the public. Imagine Yisrael Beitenu’s youth wing showing Israeli Arabs that they won’t take shit from anyone by beating a few Arabs to within an inch of their lives or even decapitating one or two particularly uppity ones. That would teach THEM a lesson, wouldn’t it?
In the meanwhile, Lieberman stands to become the next defense, foreign or interior minister. In the latter post, he would control the nation’s entire social agenda, law enforcement and judicial apparatus. That’s quite rich considering the police are investigating him and his immediate family on money-laundering charges. Wouldn’t that be a bit of a conflict of interest? Perhaps not in that glorious democracy that is Israel.