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The Lieberman Question

What are Diaspora Jews to make of Avigdor Lieberman? In his latest outburst before 170 of Israel’s senior diplomats, the pugnacious, rebellious foreign minister called the Palestinian Authority illegitimate, the Turkish prime minister a liar, and ridiculed the central policy of his own government.

This is nothing new, of course. In September, Lieberman delivered such an outlandish and offensive speech before the United Nations that it was quickly disowned by the prime minister’s office, purportedly his boss. Imagine if Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went before the U.N. and advocated, oh, bombing North Korea. Think she’d be in office for very long?

Lieberman’s tenure in such a prominent position has been dismissed as an embarrassing annoyance by most Diaspora leaders, a necessary burden to ensure that his Yisrael Beiteinu party remains in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. Besides, the inner workings of Netanyahu’s government are arguably not our right to influence, no more than Israelis should have a say in who is U.S. Attorney General or mayor of New York.

But if Netanyahu persists in keeping Lieberman, both men should know this: The obligation we assume as Diaspora Jews to support Israel and combat delegitimization becomes much harder, more distasteful and less effective every time the foreign minister opens his mouth. It betrays our Judaic and civic values to stand by while such a man advocates for the transfer of Arab citizens of Israel, for a discriminatory loyalty oath, for an endless postponement of peace negotiations that are the only — the only — way to ensure that Israel remains Jewish and democratic.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an editorial December 28 excoriating the foreign minister, arguing that “Lieberman and his pronouncements only provide vindication to Israel’s adversaries.” For that reason, the paper declared, he must go.

As supporters, and not citizens, we don’t assume the right to call for his resignation. But as supporters, it is our right to distance ourselves from his offensive words and to remind the world that he certainly does not speak for us. American Jewish communal organizations are now spending millions of dollars to combat what is perceived to be a new, aggressive attempt to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state. That is money that could be used at home to feed the hungry, educate our young, care for the sick and elderly and ensure the future of Israel’s most vibrant, important friend. We don’t stop loving Israel because of Avigdor Lieberman. But he makes it damn hard to support his government.

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