Opinion

Israel's False Messiah of Religious Freedom Just Brought Down Netanyahu. It's Hilarious

I congratulate Avigdor Lieberman for bringing down Netanyahu. And thank him for giving me a good laugh for pretending he's a champion of religious freedom and a fighter against Jewish fundamentalism

Avigdor Lieberman, former Israeli Defence Minister and head of Yisrael Beitenu party speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel May 30, 2019
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

When Israeli friends ask me how American Jews are reacting to the news out of Israel, I tell them that we find it hilarious - and confusing.

American Jews assumed, as the experts and news media assured them, that Netanyahu had won the election and would form a government. That there would be drama was a given. That all sides among the potential coalition partners would threaten apocalypse if their demands were not met was also a given.

Still, the expectation was that at the last minute, as usual, arms would be twisted, ministries would be distributed, patronage would be granted, the Haredim would rake in outlandish sums of money, and a deal would be made, with Bibi emerging yet again as undisputed leader of his party and his country. 

But it didn’t happen. And for U.S. Jews, it is not clear why. 

It is true, of course, that American Jews, like all Americans, are distracted almost daily by the absurd antics of Donald Trump and the toxicity and tension of American politics, leaving less time than in the past for attention to Israel’s coalition-making. It is true as well that the complexities of Israel’s rightwing politics are not widely understood in America.  

But it is also the case that even for those well-schooled in the inner workings of Israel’s political system and knowledgeable about the major players, events of the last week just didn’t make sense. 

What exactly were the parties arguing about? What were the motivations of Bibi and Lieberman? How precisely are another round of elections likely to change things, and make them better? The usual experts, American and Israeli, are mostly silent, and what they do say provides little enlightenment.

Nonetheless, there is definitely a humorous side to recent events, especially for those involved in American Jewish leadership. What is hilarious is the idea that Avigdor Lieberman is presenting himself, apparently with some success, as a champion of religious freedom. 

Lieberman has told the Israeli public that he would not join the Netanyahu government because of his opposition to proposed changes in a law on the military draft; in theory, these changes would mean that fewer yeshiva students would be required to serve in the army. More generally, Lieberman has insisted that he opposes the idea of a Jewish state governed by religious law, and has indicated that fighting religious coercion would be central to his campaign in the upcoming elections.

The funny part is that in his entire political career, Lieberman has never once taken a tough, principled stand on matters of religious freedom. He has never once been responsible for the passage of a meaningful piece of legislation advancing religious freedom. He has never once followed through on his endless promises to Russian immigrants in Israel to fight the Chief Rabbinate on their behalf, despite the suffering that the Orthodox establishment has inflicted on them.

Israel's former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stands at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem. May 30, 2019
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

A true story: In May of 2010, when Lieberman was Israel’s foreign minister, he was visiting the United States and asked to meet with representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements about a conversion bill that his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, was trying push through the Knesset.

I was then President of the Union for Reform Judaism, and I organized a meeting with about a dozen Reform and Conservative leaders to sit with Lieberman. All were pleased that the foreign minister was taking the time and showing the interest to discuss the bill, which had caused a furor in the U.S. American Jewish community. 

Lieberman arrived and assured us that the bill was a good one and was in our interests. We responded that it did not, as claimed, help immigrants convert to Judaism, and that in fact, it did the opposite. It strengthened the Chief Rabbinate, would probably make conversions harder rather than easier, and would definitely be used against the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel in their conversion efforts. 

Lieberman had no response, and after a few awkward moments, it became clear, to our dismay, that he was unfamiliar with the particulars of the bill. It seemed to us, in fact, that he had not read the bill at all. We then took the time to explain it to him, slowly and carefully, detailing our objections. The meeting ended soon after. A few months later, the bill was withdrawn.

Lieberman is smart and shrewd. No one would suggest otherwise. But this incident was not unusual. He simply has no time for or interest in religious matters, outside of the political rhetoric that is useful for his election campaigns.

In the half dozen meetings that I had with him during my tenure in the Reform movement, he was never prepared to discuss the specifics of any religious bill or offer any vision of what religious freedom might mean in Israel. In response to questions that I would raise, he would say again and again: "On religious matters, we should take small steps, and that will lead to bigger things." 

Avigdor Lieberman, former Israeli Defense Minister and head of the Yisrael Beitenu party at a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel May 30, 2019. The banner reads in Hebrew: 'Lieberman: Both right-wing and secular!'
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

But that mostly meant that he would do nothing at all. And when he took small steps, they were truly tiny.

For example, that same year, 2010, his party passed a "Registered Union" law that made marriage possible for about 200 couples, while doing nothing whatever for the 400,000 Israeli citizens - many of whom are from the former Soviet Union - who are unable to marry legally in Israel. 

Was Lieberman right to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government?  In my view, absolutely.

The great majority of American Jews despise Netanyahu for obvious reasons: He has shown his contempt for them again and again, especially on religious issues. He is personally corrupt, and sees himself as above the law. He has made little or no effort to be moderate or reasonable on matters of peace and settlement. And perhaps worst of all, he takes pride in being the buddy of Donald Trump, a president that most Jews detest

And now, Bibi has suffered a monumental defeat, and the possibility exists, however slight, that he will be replaced in the September election.

For making this happen, I congratulate Avigdor Lieberman. I really do. And I thank him for giving me a good laugh by pretending that he really cares about standing up to the Haredi parties and advancing religious freedom in Israel. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie