Why do they call them Stalinists?: Yisrael Beiteinu and the Soviet experience

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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One has to wonder why people sometimes allude to Avigdor Lieberman, and by extension, his nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, as latter-day Stalinists. Given Stalin’s attitude towards Zionism (against it), perception of Jews (dangerous elements) and plans for them (arrests and relocation to Siberia), it is not a charge that can be made lightly. And whether you think he is an ogre or not, Lieberman is not sending millions of his own people off to die in camps or to be executed in prison basements.

But Lieberman is talking about moving around “suspect” populations. And trying to launch politically motivated inquries into human rights groups such as B’tselem. And on top of being Foreign Minister, he leads the 3rd largest party in the Knesset. So this is not a label that can be ignored. Beyond the somewhat bigoted hyperbole – Eastern European immigrants can have a difficult time assimilating, and Yisrael Beiteinu isn’t the only party the Israeli left can accuse of backing “political inquisitions” – there are other disturbing manifestations of undemocratic, power-seeking attitudes in “the party of Soviet Jewry.”

Under Yisrael Beiteinu, we have seen demands for population transfers, efforts to make loyalty oaths mandatory for all Israeli citizens (but especially Israeli Arabs) and bills in the Knesset to let Yisrael Beiteinu-dominated committees “investigate” human rights groups and curtail the independence of the judiciary.

Partly, these actions are a response to discrimination facing Soviet (and Eastern European) Jewish immigrants. With all of the language barriers One finds disturbing surface parallels with the politics of Stalin and Brezhnev, who defined more than any other Soviet leaders official policy towards Jews and the State of Israel: Stalin, because of his shameless scapegoating of communists with Jewish antecedents and the Soviet suffering of the Holocaust support and Brezhnev because under his rule, the policy of restricting immigration to Israel was codified, while the USSR armed Israel’s Arab opponents.

Under their respective watches occurred population transfers (a specialty of Stalin’s), special scrutiny towards “disloyal” ethnic groups and “investigations” of human rights activists (a specialty of Brezhnev’s) and “suspect” intellectuals. Jewish-Americans spoke of a “spiritual” Holocaust for Soviet Jewry (anti-religious sentiment being a defining characteristic of Soviet life – even today, Yisrael Beiteinu bills itself as “anti-clerical”).

Leonid Brezhnev, who represented the last gasp of Stalinism and was the last Soviet leader to orchestrate a coherent campaign against Jews and Zionist ideologies, solidified Soviet opposition to Jewish immigration to Israel – officially treated as Jewish anti-communist profiteering – and dictated Soviet policy towards Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, the 1970s “War of Attrition” and the 1973 October War.

Antisemitism had long been a feature of Russian life (Jews enduring pogroms and having to live in the “Pale of Settlement”). But the focus on “anti-Zionism” under communism gave the USSR a sheen of progressive commitment that had no basis in reality. Moscow railed against Zionism as a racist ideology, but Moscow ruled its many non-Russian subject peoples through racially-motivated, divide and conquer strategies. Soviet opposition to Zionism also stemmed from the fact that Israel had humiliated the USSR’s allies, Egypt and Syria, in battle (“Zionism is making fools of us,” Brezhnev is said to have quipped). And, as always, a healthy dose of antisemitism (implicit in anti-capitalist propaganda) was infused for maximum effect.

Institutionalized discrimination, picking up from Stalin, who had made “Jewish” a distinct Soviet ethnicity, became the norm. As TIME reported in 1971:

“The Jew is forbidden his own schools, and he cannot learn Hebrew or Yiddish in the public schools; they simply are not taught. Since the 1940s, the Hebrew and Yiddish theater has been almost completely closed down. The only Yiddish periodical that is allowed to be published is a monthly journal edited by a party hack.”


“The Soviet Jew is also handicapped by a strict quota system in universities and higher training schools. Jews may make up only 3% of the total, and while that figure is twice as high as the Jewish percentage of the Soviet population, it is nonetheless impossible for many highly qualified young Jews to receive higher education.”

Upward mobility for Jews was checked by official propaganda and special files detailing one’s Jewish antecedents (a rabbinical antecedent, perhaps?) or alleged Zionist sympathies (that relative now living in Israel?). The Soviet satire “The Fur Hat” by Vladimir Voinovich details the last days of a fictional hack Soviet writer named Yefim Semyonovich Rakhlin. It illustrates the (low) place of the Soviet Jew in the official hierarchy of the final decades of Soviet life.

Rakhlin’s “Jewishness” is one of the things that keeps him on a low-rung of the social ladder (the other main problem is his lack of actual talent – but we see that talent is a rare quality among the members of the writers’ union, since political reliability comes first).

His neighbor thinks that the Jews are plotting to take over the world. He has a black mark on his record because his daughter moved to Israel. And his literary critics sometimes use his Jewish background against him. In a rather apt metaphor for Soviet Jewish life, the writers’ union Rakhlin belongs to gives him a hat made of tomcat fur (the lowest quality possible) to “honor” his years of service – while reserving the expensive sable, rabbit and fox fur hats for the more prestigious (and non-Jewish) members of the union. And finally, his superior tells him that he is a half-hearted Soviet citizen who should accept his low station in life.

This is the insult that leads to his downfall, as in his vanity he tries to force the union to grant him a higher quality hat. But real slights to Soviet Jews also helped create a new sense of Jewish identity in the USSR, even as the authorities tried to stamp it out through their institutionalized discrimination. And after Brezhnev died, Gorbachev’s liberalization program ultimately doomed the Soviet system. As the system collapsed, immigration to Israel exploded – at least one million Soviet Jews have moved to Israel since 1991.

This is the environment that Yisrael Beiteinu’s most devoted voters and core leadership have come from: the older generation endured these ideological campaigns, and the younger generation (of which FM Lieberman is a member) were just old enough when the USSR collapsed to know what institutionalized discrimination . As Liam Hoare, whose perspective was the inspiration for this essay, puts it in Forward, “Yisrael Beiteinu’s stance towards Israeli Arabs — describing them as “likely to serve as terrorist agents on behalf of the Palestinian Authority” and questioning their loyalty — is a case of the bullied becoming the bully.”

Hoare is, however, mainly refering to “the failure of Russian Jews both to successfully assimilate themselves into the wider community and on Israeli society’s refusal to fully embrace fresh migrants whose values differ on matters of piety and philosophy from theirs.” “The ire of these Russian Jews,” he continues, “has turned not towards the majority that have rejected them, but the minority that can’t argue back.”

I do not disagree with this analysis, but I would suggest that “the bullied becoming the bully” also has a lot to do with the discrimination Jews endured in the USSR. Now they constitute part of a country’s political leadership, their voices and votes have to be heard. No one is now talking about a “doctor’s plot,” shuttering their language schools or shipping them off to a cold, windswept border with China.

After years of being held down by a one-party system, it must be a liberating experience to be a key member of government in a multi-party state.

But, coming into this system from a one-party state means that certain tactics picked up in that Soviet environment appear in the Israeli one: pressuring human rights groups through legislative action, for instance, and viewing population transfer arrangements as necessary instruments of control . . . *ahem,* I mean averting a demographic crisis.

These tactics are not unique to Yisrael Beiteinu. But Yistael Beiteinu is often at the forefront of such measures, and FM Lieberman is the forefront of Yisrael Beiteinu.

Lieberman came to Israel from the USSR in 1978 at age 20, an age when he was just old enough to know that being Jewish in the USSR equaled a glass ceiling. His parents had endured Stalinism and WWII, and Lieberman says that he was rejected from Soviet law school because of his heritage (Lieberman: “They said to me, ‘Do not you know it’s Taras Shevchenko University, not Sholom Aleichem?'”).

His early political career saw him working with organizations such as the Zionist Forum for Soviet Jewry, and when the party of his former political rival Natan Sharansky, Yisrael BaAliyah, merged with Likud in 2003, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, founded in 1999, became the new voice of Soviet Jewry (helped along by defectors from Yisrael BaAliyah who opposed territorial concessions that had been made by Likud in the 1990s). Because of Lieberman’s bargain with Likud in 2009, his party wields disproportionate influence in the Knesset through its 15 seats. Netanyahu felt threatened enough by “his” foreign minister’s electoral potency that when he announced his opposition to Yisrael Beiteinu’s “inquisitorial” legislation this past summer, he did so at an FJC event. FJC, of course, is a social welfare/organizing body whose full name is “The Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.”

A life bookended by Soviet discrimination and fears of being rent apart by minority peoples. And a party defined as much by institutional discrimination in the USSR as fears of marginalization in their new homeland from their fellow Israelis and from “the enemy.” But they must also reach out beyond their Soviet constituency to survive – and have done so effectively, as Lieberman’s “kingmaker” status attests.

So how does a politician manage that situation, especially when caught between the Israeli Left and Orthodox establishments on what constitutes “Jewishness”?

Divide and rule.

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