Avigdor Lieberman's Chutzpah
The right to return cannot confer the right to expel.
A reliable friend and colleague swears that he saw the following incident in the Israeli-occupied territories a couple of years ago. A Palestinian physician, in urgent need of permission to travel, was trying to persuade a soldier at a roadblock to allow him to hurry on to the next town. He first tried the stone-faced guard in Hebrew, in which many Arabs are fluent, but he received no response. He then made an attempt in English, which is something of a local lingua franca, yet he fared no better. After an unpleasant interval of mutual noncommunication, it transpired that the only word the Israeli soldier knew was no, and the only language in which he could speak it was Russian.
The words occupation and dispossession are flung around pretty freely, but I invite you to picture a life under occupation in which your unfriendly neighborhood cop did not even speak the language of the state that he served, let alone any tongue known to you. There is, by the way, a fair likelihood that the soldier was not even Jewish; it's an open secret in Israel that tens of thousands of Russian immigrants used forged papers as a means of exiting their country of birth, pretending to exercise the "right of return." So here is yet another insult to heap on those whose great-great-grandparents were born in Palestine yet are treated as if they live there only on sufferance.
Yet if you are a former bouncer born in former Soviet Moldova, like Avigdor Lieberman, you can come to live in the Holy Land as of right and become the leader of a party that proposes to institute a "loyalty oath" not just to the Arab citizens of the state of Israel but to all Jewish members of religious Orthodox sects that do not declare themselves Zionist. And this grotesque party, named Israel Beiteinu or "Israel Is Our Home," is now the power broker, and its leader is the kingmaker in the Israeli electoral process.
In his early days as an immigrant in Israel, Lieberman was briefly a member of Kach, the hysterical group led by Rabbi Meir Kahane that was morbidly obsessed with the sex lives of Arabs and that yelled for their mass expulsion or—to employ the common euphemism—"transfer." He has now somewhat refined his position, calling for an exchange of territories and people that would more nearly approximate partition or even a two-state solution. But as with every such proposal, this still leaves a large number of Arabs under Israeli sovereignty, either on the West Bank or in Israel "proper." I doubt that Lieberman is really serious about any "land for peace" negotiations—he quarreled even with Ariel Sharon about disengagement from Gaza, so if it were up to him, there would presumably still be Israeli settlers in the strip. He has changed the whole tone of the argument by deciding to question the presence of Israeli Arabs who, unlike their cousins under occupation, enjoy the right of citizenship and voting as well as the privilege of living under the Israeli flag.
The best book about this highly interesting and neglected community was written by the Israeli novelist David Grossman in 1993 and is called Sleeping on a Wire. It contains micro-flashes of illumination (such as the probability that more Israeli Arabs than American Jews speak Hebrew) and also some memorable reflections on language and its relationship to literature and culture. We all remember that Maimonides wrote in fluent Arabic, but it's perhaps less well-known that:
The everyday conversation of Palestinian Israelis sparkles with expressions from the Bible and the Talmud, from Bialik and Rabbi Yehuda Halevy and Agnon. Poet Naim Araideh effuses: "Do you know what it means for me to write in Hebrew? Do you know what it's like to write in the language in which the world was created?"
One might not wish to go that far, but it remains the case that the Israeli-Arab Marxist Emile Habibi, author of the classic novel The Pessoptimist (sometimes calledThe Opsimist) was once awarded the annual Israeli prize for best Hebrew writing.
One might add that the rockets of Hamas and Hezbollah fall upon these people, too, in Jaffa and other towns, just as they fall upon the Israeli Druze and Armenians. The threads and imbrications that bind and layer the discrepant claimants to the land of Palestine are strong as well as subtle, ancient as well as modern. This is why Grossman was so depressed to discover, at the end of his book, that the memory of 1948 was still vivid among even the most successful and prosperous Israeli Arabs and that all of them felt unsafe and secretly feared a renewal of the demand for their expulsion. In 1993, he felt able to some extent to reassure them about this.
Now we have to watch the rise of a thug and a demagogue who has called with relish for the execution of elected Arab members of Israel's parliament if they meet with Hamas, who has demanded the drowning of Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea, whose supporters chant "Death to the Arabs" at their rallies, and who has materialized the worst fears of those Arabs who have made the longest-lasting accommodation with the Jewish state. Avigdor Lieberman's essentially totalitarian and Inquisitionist style, though, may be even more manifest in his insistence that non-Zionist haredim, or pious Jews, also either take an oath of loyalty or forfeit their citizenship. This takes the ax to the root of the idea that Jews have a presence in Jerusalem from time immemorial and that their resulting rights are not derived from, or dependent on, any state or any ideology. Shame on Benjamin Netanyahu if he makes even a temporary alliance with Lieberman. As questionable as the "right to return" may already be, it certainly cannot confer the right to expel.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Avigdor Lieberman by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.