Immigrant Pol Seen as Backing ‘Putin’ Model

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published October 20, 2006, issue of October 20, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

How, the joke goes, do you say “Putin” in Hebrew?

Answer: “Lieberman.”

That’s one implication emerging from the recent discussion in the Hebrew press of Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal for a change in Israel’s system of government. “Lieberman isn’t dreaming of the American model, but rather, the Putin model,” leading pundit Nahum Barnea wrote recently in Yediot Aharonot. Historian Tom Segev said virtually the same in his regular Ha’aretz column.

Lieberman has faced more than his share of unfair references to his Russian accent and immigrant manner, so some skepticism is in order. Then again, there are grounds to believe that his proposal does have a connection to the political atmosphere in which he — and many of his supporters — grew up in the Soviet Union.

Lieberman, 48, moved to Israel from then-Soviet Moldova in 1978. He quickly got involved in rightwing politics as a student at Hebrew University. By the late 1980s, he was working closely with novice politician Benjamin Netanyahu. When Netanyahu won the 1996 election, he made Lieberman director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, a position equivalent to chief of staff.

The partnership broke up the very next year. Lieberman then formed his own Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Is Our Home”) party, positioning himself to the right of the Likud and building his base among the former Soviet immigrants who had poured into Israel during the 1990s. In this year’s election he appeared to break out of the immigrant community, winning 11 Knesset seats — just one fewer than the Likud, led once again by Netanyahu.

But Lieberman is an unusual right-winger. The rest of the right tends either to be religious or to lean toward tradition. A major plank of Lieberman’s platform is legislation creating civil unions, breaking the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage. That meets the need of Russian-speaking immigrants, perhaps a quarter of whom are not Jewish under Orthodox law — regardless of their own view of themselves as Jews.

Lieberman lives in the small West Bank settlement of Nokdim, but in 2004 he dropped the right’s classic demand that Israel keep the West Bank and Gaza. Instead he proposed drawing a border that would keep major settlements while putting some Israeli Arab towns in a Palestinian state. Nonetheless, he opposed Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, along with Ehud Olmert’s plan for a unilateral pullback in the West Bank, and any move to evacuate illegal settlement outposts. Such moves, his party argues, project weakness.

So rather than biblically promised territory, Lieberman’s leitmotif is the clash between Jews, ethnically defined, and Arabs, and the need to project strength in that conflict.

That message reflects the experience of Jews in the Soviet Union, says Dimitry Shumsky, a lecturer in Jewish history at Hebrew University. Despite communist ideology, the Soviet reality “subordinated citizenship to ethno-national identity,” he said. The country was divided into national republics, and a person’s nationality defined “one’s rights and range of opportunities.”

Shumsky stressed that Israel’s immigrant community is far from monolithic. Still, he said, immigrants have brought with them the sense that citizenship and ethnicity are linked. In a subtle way, he said, many relate to Israel as the “16th republic” of the former Soviet Union — and it, like the others, is suffering an ethnic conflict. Lieberman addressed those feelings, Shumsky said; but at the same time the message strongly resonates for many other Israelis.

To a large measure, he said, the same is true of Lieberman’s call for changing the system of government. “The feeling that the central problem is a lack of political stability exists in general Israeli society,” Shumsky said. But at the same time, a strong presidential system has a particularl appeal to those raised in the former Soviet Union.

“If we talk of ‘Israeliness’ and ‘Russianness,’” Shumsky said, Lieberman’s message “is a striking meld.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.