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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Avigdor Lieberman and British revulsion

Did anyone miss the significance of the statement by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, the Movement Rabbi for British Reform Judaism?

On Wednesday, 16th May 2012 The Movement for Reform Judaism released a statement from Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner referring to the presence in the UK of Avigdor Lieberman, Foreign Minister for Israel, as undesirable and inappropriate (my words).  He had been invited to an event organised by JNF UK.

We have a number of issues here. The first is the Foreign Minister’s perceived  right wing extremist views, the second is the perception that he is someone who is outside the consensus of mainstream Israeli society and the third is the perceived wisdom in the learned Rabbis’ statement that advocacy on behalf of Israel is most effective when its case is made rationally and compassionately.

Rabbi Laura has made a series of assumptions but her own voice has not been equally strident in her opposition to views enunciated by our perceived enemies here in the UK, in Israel or overseas.

Leaving aside the provincial, the narrow UK-centric argument that we should only be concerned with the impact of the presence in London of the number three person in the current Israeli government because we are uncomfortable with his perceived views, we first need to address the perceptions to which I referred earlier.

I state here that my views on the Right Honourable Avigdor Lieberman Foreign Minister for the sovereign state of Israel are irrelevant to this article.

What we know about Avigdor is that he has expressed views that will sit comfortably with constituents whose experiences and history is one of minority status and persecution or those to whom experience has been deliverance from catastrophic threat at the price of enormous loss.  Such people will in most cases be suspicious of false prophets and be especially militant in their opposition to concessions without measurable and commensurate reciprocity.

Foreign Minister Lieberman is Russian by birth.  Only a fool would deny the history of Russia in World War 2 between 1941 and 1945 when it lost some 14 million soldiers and civilians, or approximately 13% of its population over a four year period.  And even that figure could be underestimated by as much as 40% i.e. 20 million killed.  By comparison, Israel, in its war for survival in 1948, lost 1% of its population to the Arab aggression over a one year period and Britain lost almost 450,000 people or less than 1% of its total pre-war population in a 6 year period between 1939 and 1945. 

The measurement of death by numbers is an obscene game that denies any equivalence between narratives when in ethical terms even one death should be too many to contemplate. While we should not need to quote numbers, any discussion that fails to internalise the impact of war on society is beyond idiotic.

That kind of trauma creates an inherent fear that will not easily be shaken off.

And as a Jew living in Comrade Stalin’s Russia or living in the shadow of his legacy today, anti-Semitic prejudice has not made a Jewish reliance on the goodwill of third parties a natural response to threat situations. In fact an instinctive will to survive would necessitate the opposite view. 

Similarly, 1400 years of Jewish second class status under Islam and ethnic cleansing under Arab hegemony does not create a natural affinity towards those whose most common trait is aggression and violence towards those with whom they disagree. Jewish history may be bleak and even dystopic however to discount its impact is to renounce empathy as sentimentality and understanding as inconvenience.  This may be a common post-Modern view of society but it disenfranchises Israelis and it denies Jews everywhere their history on the pretext that it is not consistent with a Western trend towards appeasement.

Avigdor Lieberman founded Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home), the political party he leads today. He has a constituency of 1 million Russian immigrants and a significant number of their offspring. His party message resonates with many within the Mizrahi (Near-Eastern Jewish) community, particularly those whose racial memory has been seared by contact with Arab racism and Arab religious persecution.

If we perceive that the party he heads is secularist and supports a two state solution then to not talk to him is short-sighted. It does not encourage pro-Peace deliberations or religious freedom in Israel, something that I would have imagined to be of some importance to Rabbi Laura.

To discount the significance of his constituency is as insolent as it is impertinent. To assume that he lies outside of the mainstream of political consciousness or that attitudes held by a significant number of frightened citizens is of no importance is to display a worryingly fantasist approach to the Near East.

And finally, to state that “Israel advocacy is most effective when its case is made rationally and compassionately” is not born out by Britain’s relationship with Israel or by Israel’s deteriorating relationship with Europe where a burgeoning Muslim population abetted by the fascist left (the “red-green coalition”) has long since sacrificed its Jews to renewed fear and insecurity in the name of appeasement and conditional co-existence.

But arguably the greatest error Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner makes is that she ignores the inconvenient fact that Mr Lieberman is the foreign minister of a sovereign state called Israel. She may disagree with him but to refuse to engage in dialogue with him is to miss an opportunity to influence him. To discount his position within Israeli political life is presumptuous at best; in all probability, it marginalises, if not negates the influence of the Reform Movement both here and in Israel.


  1. You're a good writer! And Avigdor Lieberman is not a right-winger if his party/supporters are for a Palestinian State/2 state solution. All the best,