Is Avigdor Lieberman a racist? No, but...

Debate deepens as Israel Beiteinu confirmed as third-largest party.

Lieberman talks to his supporters 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Lieberman talks to his supporters 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
He wants to redraw Israel's boundaries to maintain a Jewish majority, and his election campaign centered around the creation of a loyalty oath for the country's citizens. And now that Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party has been confirmed as the third-largest party in the government - not to mention the likely linchpin of any sustainable coalition - debate is deepening: Is Lieberman is a racist? "Is he a racist? No, I don't think so," said Efraim Zuroff, famed Nazi hunter and head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. "But he's certainly a bit of a demagogue. He's offering 'solutions' to problems that are on a lot of people's minds, and he's playing on the fears of Israel's citizens. It's a mixture of politics, ethnic strife - not racism - and how he can increase the number of MKs in the Knesset. "But you can't compare what he's doing to, say, Western Europe, where the minorities in many of those countries aren't trying to overthrow the very state in which they live," Zuroff continued. "I suspect that at least some Israeli Arabs, and surely many of their cousins in neighboring countries, do want to see Israel eliminated. So what he's doing is, he's putting Israeli Arabs on the spot and saying, do you want to be loyal to the state and receive its benefits? And if not, he's saying that they will lose their citizenship. He's playing on the reality that is the Middle East. That's not the classic definition of racism, but it is demagoguery." Taking that sentiment further, Dr. Alex Yakobson, a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University, said that Lieberman's proposed policies were offensive, not racist, although the atmosphere of Lieberman's campaign may have brought the racist beliefs of others to the surface. "Lieberman's loyalty law, for example, does not distinguish between races; in fact, it calls for people of every race and creed to be loyal to the state," Yakobson said. "Now, I don't agree with it, but that's not racism. It's offensive, but I haven't heard anything outwardly discriminatory about Lieberman's positions. "I would say however, that there was an air of racism surrounding Lieberman's campaign," Yakobson continued. "Before the elections, they held mock elections in many schools across the country, and there were reports of high school students voting for Lieberman and yelling out, 'Death to the Arabs.' If I were him, I would have made it clear that I was opposed to such things, but he didn't. So I think that atmosphere led to a lot of doubt as to what his policies really are. But in the formal sense, no, he is not a racist." Others, however, said that Lieberman's attempts to pry loyalty from citizens who don't necessarily identify themselves as Zionists is in fact discriminatory, and because those citizens are resoundingly Arab, it makes the policy racist. "He wants us to say that we're Zionists? We never will be," said Sheikh Abdullah Nameer Darwish, the founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who has identified himself in the past as a "law-abiding citizen of the State of Israel." "We'll never say that we're Zionists, the same way Avigdor Lieberman would never say that he's an Arab," Darwish continued. "It's not realistic, and trying to force that on the Arab population is racist, because they are the ones who would have a conflict with doing so." Darwish also compared Lieberman's rhetoric to anti-Semites in Europe. "If someone in a European country said in the parliament, or even in the street, the kind of things that Lieberman is saying, but instead said them about the Jews, they would immediately be branded an anti-Semite," he said. "In my opinion, you cannot say that Lieberman isn't anti-Arab, and that in itself is racist. But you can ask him yourself, he's not embarrassed to say it." Kadima MK Shlomo Molla, a longtime activist in the country's Ethiopian community, expressed a similar outlook, saying that Lieberman's ideology could easily bleed over and be directed against Ethiopians. "I don't know [Lieberman] on a personal level," Molla said. "But his campaign was certainly racist. The whole idea of citizenship for loyalty is very problematic. I mean, how do you decide what loyalty is? What do you base it on? I don't love what the Arab parties are saying per say, but I do love democracy, and part of democracy is allowing freedom of expression for minorities. Lieberman wants the opposite." Furthermore, Molla continued, "Israel Beiteinu has no Ethiopian candidate on their Knesset list, not even far down the list. They didn't try to get the Ethiopian vote, yet they say that they're a party for immigrants. Ethiopians aren't immigrants? There are 130,000 of them. I think that says something, too, and the same ideology that Lieberman is advocating today could be used against the Ethiopian community tomorrow." Yet Benjamin Pogrund, a long-time South African journalist and the first to objectively confront the policies of apartheid there, said that Lieberman's political stances were a unique strand of politics, and that racism was too simple a word to describe them. "I grew up in a society where racism applied only to skin color," said Pogrund, who founded and currently heads the Yakar Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem. "But I think the definition has changed. Certainly here, the definition does not refer to color, because there are Sephardic Jews who are darker than Arabs, so the context isn't there. I think now, it's about an attitude towards a certain group, and because of that, Israeli-Arabs and the Left are calling Lieberman a racist. Well, he's clearly offensive to Israeli-Arabs, but you need to be careful when you use the word racist." Pogrund pointed out that "Lieberman's loyalty oath would apply to haredi Jews as well. So that already makes it more complex. But overall, I think you can say that his policies are aimed at a particular group, and that's offensive. He's an offensive politician, as [Israeli-Arabs] have a certain history of being discriminated against. They're in this in-between situation, and I personally believe that they need to be embraced and given every possibility to be included. Lieberman's idea is to reject them, because he believes that they are some kind of a fifth column. Is that racism? I don't know, but it's certainly stirring up trouble, and I'm afraid that it will cause us all a great deal of damage."