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Avigdor Lieberman’s Rise (And What It Means for Disapora Jewry)

The rise of the Israel Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party in this Israeli election cycle has finally made it to the pages of the New York Times: In 1978, when he was 20, Mr. Lieberman immigrated to Israel from … Read More

By / January 28, 2009

The rise of the Israel Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party in this Israeli election cycle has finally made it to the pages of the New York Times:

In 1978, when he was 20, Mr. Lieberman immigrated to Israel from Moldova, then a Soviet republic, and he lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Popular with the country’s so-called Russian vote, he is vocal about the threat from Iran and advocates swapping areas of Israel that are heavily populated by Arab citizens for parts of the West Bank that are populated by Israeli Jews.

A timely appearance as Lieberman and his colleagues, according to all polls, are now the hottest political commodity in Israel’s politics. But while Lieberman’s policies and their impact on Israel and its relations with its neighbors are now extensively discussed in Israel and beyond, there’s also a "Jewish angle" to be taken into account. That is — Lieberman as the "great alienator". His rise might give even more credence to claims that Israeli Jews and American Jews are growing apart, and might help accelerate trends already in play in these complicated Israel-Diaspora relations.

It is an open secret that liberal American Jews have turned their attention in growing numbers to the plight of Israeli Arabs, and are now contributing more than ever to causes related to the advancement of this minority within Israel. Almost two years ago, I wrote about dilemmas emanating from this strange alliance of American Jews and Israeli Arabs:

Thirty percent of the money the NIF distributes is channeled to activities aimed at promoting the Arabs of Israel, to raise them to an equal status. This is a central part of the important objective of "a Jewish and democratic state." This is also a significant matter for the American Jewish community, which is a minority itself. 

And while there were some setbacks along the way, allocating money to better the relations of Jewish and Muslim citizens of Israel has remained one of the more popular causes for American Jewish funders. It is also an issue many American Jews identify as a moral cause, and has the potential of making them less comfortable with Israel’s society and culture.

Enter Lieberman: if polls are correct, what American Jews will see in Israel is the growing power of a party seen by most of them — rightly or wrongly — as racist toward Arab citizens. Lieberma’s platform, of course, is more nuanced and complicated than just being "racist" (which he claims it isn’t). Nevertheless, I can hardly envision a narrative that will not make Lieberma’s political achievement a nuisance and an embarrassment to the average American Jew. Thus, the stage is set for yet another show of differences:

American Jews will wonder about the nature and the morality of the "Jewish state".

Israeli Jews — if they even notice American reluctance — will look at their American brothers thinking that their simplistic naiveté makes prevents them from understanding Israel’s tough reality.

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