What the rise of Avigdor Lieberman means for Russians in Israel.

Notes from different corners of the world.
March 13 2009 6:53 AM

Backlash to the Kingmaker

What the rise of Avigdor Lieberman means for Russians in Israel.

Avigdor Lieberman. Click image to expand.
Avigdor Lieberman

TEL AVIV, Israel—In Israel, calling an immigrant from the former Soviet Union "Russian" is an insult; the preferred term is repatriate, someone who has returned home. Russian refers to ethnic Russians, and in Russia, Jews were constantly reminded that they were not Russian. Having experienced institutionalized anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, the 1.2 million Soviet immigrants who flooded Israel in the 1990s were shocked when they were accused of not being Jewish enough by the local population. Whenever I am in Israel, I am constantly corrected by the repatriates themselves when I use the term "Russian immigrant."

Over the last 20 years, the repatriates have integrated into Israeli society; their children serve in the army, speak fluent Hebrew, and watch Big Brother VIP. Repatriates assure me that society has begun to accept the quirks of Russian immigrant culture—drinking vodka on a cold day, eating Russian food, tuning in to Russian-language television and radio—but repatriate Avigdor Lieberman's recent emergence as the kingmaker of Israeli politics comes with a cost. Although it signifies Russian political empowerment in mainstream Israeli politics, it has resurfaced some old Russian stereotypes.

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Peter Mastovoy, an internationally acclaimed documentary director, will be honored with the Yuri Shtern Medal by the Ministry of Absorption for his contribution to Israeli culture and society on March 29. Over a lunch of borsht, seloydka (pickled herring), Russian beet and potato salads, hummus, and pita, he tried to explain the initial attitude toward the enormous wave of Russian immigrants.

"In Russia, Jews had to work twice as hard as Russians; we had to be smarter and faster, otherwise the Soviet masters would not let us do anything. So, we arrived more educated, a head above native-born Israelis. Still, for some reason there was a stigma," he observed. "When I first came to Israel, they asked me, 'Do you know what a refrigerator is?' They thought we all lived in Siberia with wild bears!"

Peter's wife, Marina, a journalist with Channel 9, Israel's first 24-hour-Russian-language TV channel, shared his laughter. Marina and Peter wanted to vote for Lieberman, but instead they chose to cast their ballots for Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud because they worried that supporting Lieberman would harm Bibi's chance of becoming prime minister.

Lieberman's rise made international headlines because of his growing appeal among "mainstream"—that is, non-Russian—voters; however, his main support base has been overlooked. Mark Kotliarsky, the press secretary and spokesman for Lieberman's party, Israel Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home), attributes only four of the party's 15 Knesset seats to non-Russian voters. Still, Kotliarsky maintains that Israel Beitenu is not a Russian party but "an Israeli party with Russian-repatriate-interest priorities."

When we met, the party office was buzzing with activity. Kotliarsky's data suggest that Lieberman received more than 50 percent of the Russian-speaking vote; most of the rest voted for Netanyahu because he had a better chance of becoming prime minister. What would happen if those Russians voted for Lieberman? I wonder. Kotliarsky answered my question in a flash. In the previous election, each mandate was worth about 28,000 votes. If all eligible Russian-speaking voters cast a ballot for Lieberman, their support alone would give him about 20 Knesset seats. If his popularity in the mainstream continues at the expense of other parties, it is possible Lieberman could gain enough mandates to become prime minister. (This chart shows how relatively small shifts in support can affect party standings.)

Lieberman appeals to Russians because he is perceived as an anti-democrat, someone who stands apart from other Israeli politicians who engage in endless, inconclusive dialogue. They see him as a decisive man of action. "Lieberman is the first person to raise his voice against the sacred cow of democracy," Genadiy Nizhnik explains. Nizhnik moved to Israel at 18 and immediately joined the army; he is now in his late 30s. Wrapped in a woolen scarf to keep out the Jerusalem chill, Nizhnik is a giant of a man who looks more like a lumberjack than the tour guide of Jerusalem's holy sites that he is.

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