Knesset: Lieberman’s organizer

For almost 10 years, Faina Kirschenbaum has worked behind the scenes to build Israel Beiteinu from a niche party into a force on the right.

Faina Kirschenbaum  311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Faina Kirschenbaum 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Faina Kirschenbaum might not be the first name that most people associate with Israel Beiteinu. It might not even be the second. But she doesn’t seem to mind. She describes herself first and foremost as an administrator – and that is exactly what she does. Kirschenbaum runs the organized apparatus behind the legislative and electoral successes of the country’s third largest party.
Kirschenbaum’s positions tend to be technical – she is the secretary-general of Israel Beiteinu, the chairwoman of a little known but active Knesset subcommittee on insurance and the party’s point woman in its expanding municipal network.
The 55-year-old resident of Nili, in Binyamin, has spent most of her almost 25- year political career working in the background of the system. For almost 10 years now, she has worked closely with chairman Avigdor Lieberman, building Israel Beiteinu from a tiny niche party to a movement that some believe could threaten the Likud for dominance of the right-wing.
The party bared its legislative muscles during the recent Knesset session, with victories – and some notable defeats within the coalition – further cementing its reputation as a formidable force on the right.
Kirschenbaum took an unaccustomed front seat in those efforts, sponsoring a highly controversial attempt to establish parliamentary committees of inquiry into funding for left-wing nongovernmental organizations.
Although her attempt fell short due to the opposition of key Likud representatives, the emotions and drama surrounding the bid further emphasized the reputation that Israel Beiteinu hoped to create – a viable alternative on the right.
You were one of two sponsors of the attempts to establish parliamentary committees of inquiry into the activities of nongovernmental organizations, a dominant issue in this past Knesset session. At first they seemed as if they were going to pass easily, but then they hit the rocks. Do you think that they will still be established?
I still hope that we will put it to the plenum, and we will try to enlist and put pressure for it to pass the plenum. Unfortunately, I fear that it will have difficulty, but I really want it to pass. I think it is a very important topic.
I spoke with a number of MKs who said that they were afraid that we were going to investigate them, because they see themselves associated with some of these organizations.
I want to emphasize the directions of these probes, because many people have interpreted them in different ways, but I prefer to provide my own interpretation.
I wanted to check funding sources for all organizations that try to harm the legitimacy of the IDF and its soldiers for instance, by submitting indictments against the IDF in international courts. To those groups that wander around schools – I say wander around. Before we focused on these organizations, some, like Ir Amim and Profile 21, would go into the schools and explain to students that the IDF isn’t moral, that they don’t have to enlist and there is a way to lower draft profiles. I think these activities cause direct damage to Israel’s sovereignty as well as to the IDF.
It is true that there are already financial reports that are submitted to the Corporations Authority. The reports that are presented are very superficial; they talk about funds from which the NGOs receive money, like the New Israel Fund or, of course, European states. I don’t understand why the intervention of European states in the Israeli public dialogue is legitimate, but I mostly fear the activities of these bigger funds.
These funds have billions, and the sources of the money aren’t reported. The money comes from multiple sources, including Arab states, and it is clear that the money dictates policy to the funds that receive the money. It is exactly because of this that I wanted to check where the money comes from. What are the criteria for the donations and what activities does this money fund within Israel? If the probe doesn’t pass, we have legislation in the works that will address some of the concerns, but it will be by what we feel should be addressed, rather than as the result of an in-depth examination which was the goal of the committees.
Where did the committees of inquiry get stuck in the Knesset?
In the Likud. In the first vote, there was wide support and even some people in Kadima understood this was a topic that needed to be checked. But at the moment Kadima placed faction discipline on its MKs, forcing them to oppose the probes and the Likud gave its MKs freedom of conscience. As Lieberman said, all of the sanctimonious people went to vote however they wanted.
In our head count we realized that it was a question of each vote, and that is why we’re trying to enlist maximum support. [Likud faction chairman Ze’ev] Elkin supports the probes, but there are other MKs in his faction who do not. I am sure that the right-wing of the Likud, including [Danny] Danon, [Miri] Regev and [Tzipi] Hotovely, supports the probes, but there are those who do not. I don’t want to interfere in internal Likud issues, but I ask myself if they are in the right party if they don’t see this sort of thing as appropriate.
I am naturally optimistic, and I hope that ultimately we will pass the probes. To force a vote and let them fail is the easiest, but then we wouldn’t be able to raise the probes again. Because of this, we need to wait to hold the vote at a more appropriate time.
You serve prominently in the internal mechanisms of Israel Beiteinu, perhaps one of the strongest figures in the party after Lieberman. There seems to be a general lack of knowledge about what happens in the party, beyond the dominance of the chairman.
Its not just readers of The Jerusalem Post who don’t understand Israel Beiteinu. There are many more people who don’t know or understand what happens inside, because we are much less covered by the media in terms of party activities. Some would say that there is no real party activity; that would be a big mistake. Ours, is a very organized party and run very methodically. In terms of our internal party bodies, the highest body is the convention, which meets once every four years and will meet soon, on April 13.
Between conventions, the representatives from the convention constitute the party’s central committee. They meet at least twice a year, and if it is in advance of elections, it meets more frequently because it elects party courts and the party steering committee.
That steering committee presents the party list to the central committee, which is charged with approving it.
Although it seems that Avigdor decides, and everyone else follows, that is not the way it works. We just don’t reveal everything to the press. In the last convention, there were arguments, but once the committee votes, everybody stands behind the decision.
We don’t continue our internal arguments through the media because we believe this is how it should be in a democracy. The majority decides and that decision is what is implemented.
I see the municipal level as the base of the party structure. We now have more than 100 local council representatives and four mayors.
The work between the municipal field and the Knesset is a true partnership, and a large part of our legislation comes via requests from representatives in the field. In addition, the MKs are all divided into areas; each one knows what region is theirs, and the people in each area know who their MK is.
There is also a party secretariat that meets once a month, which includes deputy mayors, MKs and regional directors, as well as a policy committee that functions as a small parliament. For instance, it debates any decision to join or leave the coalition. It is a very dominant body that meets once every two months and discusses all of the issues. The decision to go forward on the investigative probes was made in the policy committee.
We presented the problematic nature of the situation but it decided to go in the direction of the probes and we supported it at the Knesset level.
We are active all the time. As secretary-general, I go on trips to meet with activists and all of the MKs have house meetings with activists. We don’t go into the field solely during primaries or the elections; we work all the time with our electorate and our activists.
It seems that Israel Beiteinu has recently moved into niches abandoned by the two larger parties – Kadima has been criticized for being weak in the periphery, while the Likud seems to have done little to maintain the Russian immigrant vote.
It is true that most of our votes come from the periphery. When we garner the same percentage of support in the center that we have in the periphery, we will be the leading party in the country.
On the subject of immigration – it is not just that Lieberman speaks Russian. In fact, seven of our 15 MKs aren’t Russian speakers.
But we are popular because the party places on its agenda topics pertaining to immigrants.
We speak to that demographic.
I just had a conversation with someone who accused us of not having English-speakers in the party, but I think that, for instance, [Deputy Foreign Minister] Danny [Ayalon] does a good job of understanding Anglo culture.
The problems facing an immigrant from Russia or an immigrant from America may seem different, but I see that the same problems are faced by everybody: absorption, housing and conversions. We are trying to solve the problems that face most immigrants.
In the last elections, we had both Dannys – Ayalon and Herschtal in realistic positions on the list. I have a great sense for the field, but I didn’t sense a large movement of support from English speakers in the last elections, even though we had an Anglo immigrant on the list. Now, we have a large group of French speakers that has joined. In the last election, I didn’t see their support in large numbers but rather as a few individuals.
Why not? Israel Beiteinu is a right-wing, religiously pluralistic party. One might think that it would be more attractive than it has proven to be among English-speaking immigrants.
It could be that there are mentality gaps that I can’t explain. Maybe right-wing English- speaking immigrants instinctively support larger parties, because they are used to a two-party system like in America. But I am certain that as they are here longer and learn the political field, they will understand that only Israel Beiteinu will be able to represent their interests. And I really think that, I’m not just saying it.
You have a number of bills that seem like they would be very attractive to some English-speaking voters – electoral reform and other topics – but other subjects are more controversial, such as conversion and civil union.
On the subject of conversion, I feel that the problem is a lack of understanding of the topic and a lack of desire to understand.
I am not Reform. I am somewhere between secular and traditional – you know, in Israel, everybody can pick his own direction. You can light Sabbath candles and say the blessings, and then get in a car and go to a restaurant on Saturday morning. But when I went to Argentina and I was in a Reform synagogue, for the first five minutes it was very strange, because I am used to a women’s section, a synagogue where people don’t play instruments during the services and so on.
But when I saw their experience, I decided that as far as I was concerned I didn’t care what they did, as long as it prevents assimilation, maintains Jewish identity and strengthens the Jewish community in the area. It is more important that the synagogue draws in the youth, helps them find partners and keeps them in the community.
On the topic of conversion, I think that the legislation wouldn’t have hurt what happened overseas, but would actually have helped those who had converted Reform there to come here and be recognized. I know of many people who come here and then don’t find themselves afterward.
To return to the party in general, it is a fact that since 1999, Israel Beiteinu has gained strength in each election – we went from 4 mandates to 7 to 11 and now to 15. It is the result of intensive work by the MKs and by Lieberman to reinforce the fact that our word is our word and that we invest 100% effort to uphold our promises, although we can’t always get 100% results.
When I see our polls, I see that people in the street appreciate and value that we don’t just appear before elections, fire off promises and then disappear for four years. People believe in us and understand the force that we bring. I hope that English speakers will understand the power of Israel Beiteinu, and will find their home in our party.
Apropos Lieberman, you are one of the strong figures in the party, after Lieberman himself. Some have pointed to you as one of the few people with the potential of holding the party’s electorate together in the event that criminal proceedings advance against him.
I am a person who usually says what she thinks. I cannot say things without believing in them. Regarding Avigdor, I believe that it will end with nothing. This thing has been going on for 13 years. Avigdor lives with it, but we are living it alongside him. This story leads nowhere. They keep saying that a decision is about to come over and over - but it doesn’t. They talked of bribery charges and now they say there is no bribery. I have a feeling that they don’t know how to get out of this story, and if it weren’t so attractive to the media, it would have vanished ages ago.
Look at all the cases that began with a bang and ended with a whisper. Nevertheless, I can also give a few examples of similar cases that ended up with nothing, but still ruined political careers, like in the case of Avigdor Kahalani.
I very much hope that this will end in a whisper. I hope that Avigdor will stay at the head of the party – which he will do in any case – but will also remain foreign minister and an MK, and that this period will pass. I just want it to end. They consistently extend the investigation quietly, and then when we get to elections, all of a sudden there is an announcement.
Do you think that is intentional?
I have my own conspiracy theories – many things are determined by the press, and unfortunately, now, also by the State Attorney’s Office. When Avigdor began to be a leading figure on the political scene, there were apparently people who felt that we were threatening them. It could well be that there is some kind of pressure being applied to bring him down.
In the last elections, we had almost 20 mandates and [Shas spiritual leader Rabbi] Ovadia Yosef came out against us and said we are a such-and-such party. It had an effect and brought us down. The campaign against us had a result. And then both Tzipi [Livni] and Bibi said that a vote for Lieberman constituted a vote for their opponent.
I hope that the investigation will end before the next elections, but the party is, in any case, organized and run well. In other factions, you see that there are three MKs who all jump on one topic. Here, it is very well-defined who does what, and each one tries very hard not to step on others’ toes and so our work is well-timed and very effective.
I hope that we will continue to grow and not just be in the government, but eventually hold the premiership.
To do so, Israel Beiteinu has to surpass Likud in electoral strength. How can you do that?
We are very open and we work hard in the field, working intensively daily to maintain the connection with our people and trying to expand. We are turning to new demographics as well; we are working very hard to create a youth forum. We are thinking a lot about our youth movement while also focusing on English-speakers, French-speakers and Ethiopians. We hope that the agendas that we raise answer people’s needs.
I am not in competition with any other party. I am in competition with myself to be better, because if we are good, then I don’t need to compete with anybody over agendas.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to see that many of the topics that we pick up and are popular with voters are then reflected in decisions by the Likud and Kadima.
When Kadima was in power, and we supported governmental reform and conversion, it was Kadima that defeated it.
Today when Kadima is in the opposition, they can yell and scream and say that they want these things, but if Kadima had been willing to enter a coalition with us and the Likud, do you know how many changes we would have been able to make? But what can you do when ambition and people’s personal interest influences the outcome?