By Michelle Huberman, Harif creative director
Could there be any Jew more demonised than Avigdor Lieberman? The Israeli foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beytenu party is a taboo subject in London. People who would normally debate any Middle East situation with you, totally seize up when you ask them their views on Avigdor Lieberman. You receive the standard tetchy reply: “He’s a racist thug and he doesn’t represent me”. And in politically-correct Britain, nobody can afford to be linked with any man bearing that label. So much so, that in researching this piece, no British Jew would let me publish their name.
Avigdor Lieberman in London this week. (Photo: M. Huberman)
Even during my recent trip to Israel, I had the same response from Anglo Jews. Shoshana from Tel Aviv (not her real name) told me they couldn’t talk about him in London. She told me that all her friends vote for Lieberman, but when they’re back in the UK they lie to their families so as not to create arguments during their visits. The party was not some lunatic fringe but had behind it a solid swathe of Israeli voters: in the last elections it had gained 15 seats in the Knesset. “They just don’t understand – they’re not in possession of the true facts,” Shoshana told me. When I interviewed other Israelis, whether from wealthy North Tel Aviv or from Ashdod in the South, 2 out of 3 told me that they wished there were more outspoken politicians like ‘Yvette’, an incongruously feminine nickname for a former night-club bouncer. It was only the Ashkenazi elderly that I interviewed who were still supporting Labour.
Alon Grea, an Israeli living in London, explained to me: “Avigdor Lieberman doesn’t fit into the Israeli Leftwing establishment frame. They absolutely hate him. One of the things they despise the most is that he’s from the galut (diaspora). A Russian immigrant who speaks with a thick accent. These leftwing liberals, if they are so liberal, they should accept him even if they don’t agree with him. He is not an extremist. He talks about exchange of land, but the leftwing try to portray him as a racist who is trying to kill and deport Arabs. They look down on the Russians like they used to the Sephardim. “
Yisrael Beytenu’s plan calls for the drawing of Israel’s borders, placing areas like in the eastern Galilee, heavily populated by Arabs, in the future Palestinian state. His party has also, for the first time in Israel''s history, passed a law for civil unions between people of ''no religion'' and ease the currently overly-stringent conversion process. For the first time in Israel’s history, a Yisrael Beytenu-led Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pursuing an active foreign and diplomatic policy on behalf of those Israelis who fled Arab and Muslim lands and their descendants, who make up around half of Israel''s Jewish population as I previously reported here.
So is the Jewish press that demonises him in the UK hiding facts from us?
I first became suspicious of the lack of information two and half years ago in the Jewish Chronicle. In the comments sections of their blogs, a reader was posting parts of the Yisrael Beytenu (YB) manifesto that were relevant to the discussion. Later on in the day the newspaper removed them. In the comments thread, I asked why they were being removed – couldn’t we hear all sides of the argument? Their response was to remove my post. The next day the YB comments were reposted and an hour later removed again. I wrote again to know why JC readers weren’t allowed to read them. Not only did this publication remove my comment, but they actually blocked my IP address, making it impossible to access their site. The Jewish Thought Police are alive and patrolling!
I wanted to find out for myself whether this man fitted the evil, far-right racist description given to him by his many enemies. So I decided to go along to the controversial JNF event in the London Jewish heartland of Hendon that would be hosting him.
The anti-Israel community caught wind of it the night before and arranged for a hasty demonstration in this leafy Jewish suburb in North West London. Over the last 20 years, Hendon has taken on a distinctly Sephardi style, with the old salt beef bars in Brent Street being overtaken by Iraqi and Moroccan-Jewish restaurants. There are a dozen or so small, vibrant Sephardi synagogues in the area. (Readers of my blog will know that I’m writing a book on the subject). These are unpretentious communities that proudly display their love of Israel. Many have close family living in Israeli border towns like Ashdod that have recently been hit by rocket attacks from Gaza.
Hendon is more used to Purim parades in their streets than processions of some 60 keffiyah- wearing yobs carrying Palestinian flags and shouting ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’, an offensive and anti-Semitc slogan.
The British Israel Coalition had arranged a counter demonstration, which started off with a crowd of 50-odd supporters. However, as the residents heard the commotion and word spread amongst the cafés and synagogues in the area, a crowd of 300+ streamed on to the streets to let their voices be heard loud and clear to ‘drive these fascists out of Hendon’. You can read here Richard Millett’s report. But not everyone agrees: Adam Langleben, the vice chair of Hendon Labour Party said of the pro-Israel demonstrators “I found them embarrassing for me as a Jew”. His report as a bystander is here. The British Israel Coalition has officially distanced itself from anyone shouting racist abuse in the pro-Israel crowd.
Anti-Israel Demonstration in Hendon this week. (Photo: M. Huberman)
Once I’d passed through the strict security to enter the venue, I waited in anticipation for Lieberman to arrive. The most demonised Jew in the world. He certainly has a presence around him and his massive build can appear quite thuggish. He’s definitely the sort of person you’d want at the door to keep out undesirables from the party. But when he came to speak, there was none of the fire and brimstone that I’d been imagining. His opponents inside and outside Israel had every right to criticise him: but he expected them to show support for the democratically elected government of Israel. In his thick Russian accent, he said that Jewish minorities in the Diaspora were so loyal to their countries of birth that Jewish soldiers fought each other in WWI (I know this from my own grandfather). The Yisrael Beytenu party was not full of rightwing Russians: it also had a Druze MK. He felt it was quite reasonable to expect all Israeli citizens to show loyalty to their country of birth and fulfill their obligations to it, but there is a disconnect between Israel’s Arab citizens and their rabble-rousing representatives. He talked about moving borders, not transferring people. Iran was not just a danger to Israel - it had violated all standards of international behaviour. It was meddling in Bahrain, Yemen and South America and the international community should not be engaging with it.
I had expected from amongst the mixed audience of over 150 people, the stalwarts of the community and many who have been very critical of him, that there would be those who were going to be contesting his views. But they remained silent. The audience had all felt the hatred outside on the streets of Hendon, and somehow it felt rather good having “Yvette” at Israel’s door.
Michelle Huberman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org