Opinion

Avigdor Lieberman’s New 'Russians'

Lieberman peeks through the curtains before heading on stage, Tel Aviv Expo, July 30, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

The prevailing conception in the Israeli critical sociological discourse over Soviet immigration during the 1990s was that this wave represented the great hope of those opposing a Jewish ethnocentric hegemony in Israel. According to this conception, a salient proponent of which was the late Professor Baruch Kimmerling, the “Russian” immigrants, who were not committed a priori to the Zionist ethos, were indifferent or even hostile to religion, and interested in preserving the unique characteristics of their own identity and cultural heritage. They would thereby, it was believed, make an important contribution to the consolidation of cultural pluralism and the entrenchment of democracy in Israeli society.

It quickly became apparent how disconnected this view was from the actual social-cultural and political reality. Anyone who looked in depth into the political trends among Russian Israelis from the mid-’90s on could clearly identify the natural place most of them occupied on the local political map – deep inside the nationalist right-wing camp. Thus, this public, whose newspapers at the beginning of the Oslo process expressed regret for having supported Israel’s Labor Party in 1992, made the anticipated (in its own eyes) “correction” in 1996, becoming a tie-breaker that helped those opposing the peace process. Later, at the end of the first decade of immigration, the first significant “Russian” party, Yisrael B’Aliyah, preceded the National Religious Party in leaving the government of Ehud Barak following the Camp David talks, thereby dispelling first impressions regarding a supposed ideological neutrality in the identity politics of Russian Israelis.

However, the most convincing testimony showing the inherent affinity between the community of Russian speakers and the established, racist right came in the form of the establishment of Yisrael Beiteinu in 1999. This was an unusual sociological phenomenon, apparently unprecedented in the annals of modern migrations: a party of immigrants, whose foremost declared objective was to protect the sectorial interests of a unique and newly arrived lingual-cultural group, was not only successfully integrated into an ideological-political right-wing camp that crossed lines of identity within the absorbing community, but also became a touchstone for veteran right-wing politicians who were not part of this immigrant sector but became part of this party.

In this, the phenomenon of Yisrael Beiteinu reflected a fascinating cultural-political trend, which at the time escaped the eyes of Kimmerling and other critical sociologists: The commitment to the right’s basic principles, such as the ethno-national superiority of Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and the resolute negation of many of the values espoused by the left, were integral and essential components of what is called the cultural Russian-Israeli “identity.”

And now, two decades after the founding of Yisrael Beiteinu, it seems that the conceptual blindness which afflicted the approach of some critical researchers of Israeli society in viewing the politics of “Russian” Israelis has stuck again. It only took a declaration by Avigdor Lieberman, the founder and uncontested leader of this right-wing, racist Russian-Israeli party, in which he touted concepts such as “secularism” and “a liberal unity government,” to immediately reward him with applause – some cautious, some enthusiastic – not only from the hollow “center,” but from the vestiges of the Israeli left as well. Thus, two weeks ago, Haaretz published two opinion pieces by prominent academicians who represent different shades of the left – Prof. Yuli Tamir and Prof. Shlomo Sand. Both of them marked Lieberman as the left’s new hope.

According to Tamir and Sand, whose views were remarkably similar, the hope-inspiring appeal by Lieberman for a secular discourse is a reflection of the social-cultural and ideological changes that have taken place among immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the last generation. Whereas at first, due to their lack of confidence in their new country, this sector found itself in a Russian “ghetto” that was part of the right-wing camp, by now, and with the addition of members of the younger, Israeli-born generation to its ranks, this public has started searching for ways of reaching the wider Israeli public. Since they have greatly suffered at the hands of the rabbinate, which refused to recognized their Jewishness, many of these “Russians” have found a common language with progressive and enlightened elements of Israeli society (according to Tamir). They may yet connect with Palestinian-Israelis, working together against the Jewish ethnocentric character of the state (according to Sand).

I’m sorry to disappoint Tamir and Sand, but their optimistic interpretation regarding the latest developments among these “Russians” and the interface between “Russian” politics and Israeli society reflects their wishful thinking rather than things as they really are. The extreme rightist tendencies of many former Soviet Union citizens in Israel, the U.S. and Germany are not a result of circumstances or difficulties in integrating into their new societies, but a clear result of the post-Soviet conceptual, cultural baggage they bring, which continues to determine their attitudes to civic and national issues.

The main components of this baggage are dual: one was a moral delegitimization of leftist ideas due to the enormous gap between the humanist rhetoric of leftist values in Soviet propaganda and its distorted realization in daily life; the second component was the embrace and internalization of the principle of a complete dominion of an ethnic entity in its eternal “historic homeland,” which became institutionalized and was fostered in practice by Soviet policies regarding the Soviet Union’s component nations, despite its empty rhetoric about the “fraternity of nations.”

Obviously, human consciousness is not static, but a dynamic one which changes frequently according to transitions in concrete life experiences, especially in the context of migrants and their descendants in a new country. The cultural-social and political reality in Israel over the last two decades was favorable for the continuation of racist patterns of thinking, based on Soviet models, among the Russian-Israeli community.

There were two reasons for this. First, the incessant call of identity politics that gave extra legitimization to the pining of various identity groups for their origins and past, encouraged the preservation of a “Russian” identity in Israel. Secondly, and more important: in the wake of the Netanyahu-led campaign of delegitimization against the left, in which Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu play a central role, ultranational rightist views, including unbridled hatred towards Palestinian citizens of this country (the calling card of Liebermanism), have been embraced by increasing numbers of people in more veteran Israeli society. This ensures that the “Russian” component of Israeli racism remains intact even a generation and a half after immigration.

Herein lies the basic flaw in the analysis by Tamir and Sand, also shared by other optimistic, naïve people on the left who hurry to cheer Lieberman’s latest moves. It’s not Lieberman and his party who are moving towards the “center” of society. The racist beliefs of Lieberman and his “Russian” base, which have taken center stage over the last two decades, have recently been attracting increasing numbers of veteran Israelis, including secular ones and self-proclaimed liberals. These Israelis are very similar to many “Russian” supporters of Lieberman. They don’t need God to deny Palestinians their civil and national rights. They detest Miri Regev’s Mizrahi character, and they obviously loathe the ultra-Orthodox. To ensure the support of these Israelis, Lieberman has lately embraced a secular rhetoric. They are now his new “Russians.”