Confronting Our Demagogue

Opinion

By Eric Yoffie

Published February 17, 2009, issue of February 27, 2009.
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The apologists and the excuse-makers in the American Jewish community have begun their work. No need for concern, they say. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Israel’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, is not really an extremist. He may have some unconventional ideas and have said some unfortunate things, but he is basically a mainstream politician who poses no threat to U.S.-Israel relations or to relations between Israel and American Jews.

Avigdor Lieberman
Getty Images
Avigdor Lieberman

Much of the debate until now has focused on whether or not Lieberman can be accurately classified as a racist or a fascist. But this debate is largely beside the point. A far-right politician on the European model, he has risen to prominence at a time of uncertainty and fear by alleging that Israel faces a threat from within. Like other demagogues of this type, he has been sly in his rhetoric so that allegations of racism cannot be established with certainty.

Nonetheless, the thrust of his campaign was anything but ambiguous. His intention was to inflame hatred of Arab Israelis among the Jewish Israeli public. His major policy proposal was a loyalty oath clearly intended to disenfranchise Israel’s Arab citizens and turn them into residents without rights. It was an outrageous, abominable, hate-filled campaign, brimming with incitement that, if left unchecked, could lead Israel to the gates of hell.

The challenges posed by the relationship between the Jewish state and its Arab citizens are certainly real. Demagogues thrive by focusing on real issues. It is legitimate to be concerned about the distancing of Arab Israelis from the Jewish state and about ensuring a Jewish majority in Israel. But no one in his or her right mind believes that these problems will be solved by rescinding the Israeli citizenship of more than a million Arabs.

American Jews — the vast majority of whom are strong supporters of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state — are dismayed by Lieberman, mostly because he represents values that we abhor. Furthermore, we know that America’s commitment to Israel rests far more on shared values than on strategic interests, and thus we see him as a threat to the U.S.-Israel alliance. In addition, there is reason to worry that he will blacken Israel’s name among the democratic nations of the world.

It would, of course, be a mistake to obsess about Lieberman and to grant him greater importance than he deserves. Remember that he received only about 12% of the vote, much of it a protest against the perceived weakness of the other major-party leaders. And, it’s safe to say, most Israelis find his views utterly unacceptable. Still, Israel’s bizarre parliamentary politics could elevate him to a position of real power. What is important, therefore, is for all concerned to do what is necessary to limit his influence and visibility.

If the party forming the next government can keep Lieberman out of the coalition, it should; if not, he should be exiled to the margins of the government, and it should be made clear at every opportunity that he does not speak for Israel.

But American Jewish leaders, too, face a significant test. For all those who claim to speak and lobby on our behalf, who fight antisemitism whenever it appears, and who champion Jewish rights everywhere, this is a moment of truth. If we are silent or speak the language of equivocation, we will weaken rather than strengthen Israel’s cause. We will also undermine our credibility with our government and with American Jews, who are looking to us for leadership. We do not make excuses for the haters, the bigots and the demagogues who incite against Jews and other minorities around the world, and we must not make excuses when the inciter is one of our own.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.


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