How to understand Yisrael Beiteinu

By Liam Hoare, July 14, 2011
Follow The JC on Twitter

Yisrael Beiteinu - the party of Russian Jewry - has in the 12 years since its founding become the third largest party in the Knesset, with its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, now Foreign Minister and the kingmaker in Israeli politics.

To understand Yisrael Beiteinu, it is necessary to examine the experience of Russian immigrants who came to Israel during the 1990s, and the Soviet experiment from which they emerged. Yisrael Beiteinu is in essence a Sovietised institution.

The influx of a million new Russian incomers in such a concentrated period of time placed a tremendous strain
on the
existing infrastructure. Unable to quickly integrate, Russians became ghettoised, retaining their language and customs. Many were also under-employed, spawning an attitude of resentment towards the rest of Israeli society. "Nobody here cares about your professional skills," Irena, a Russian expatriate, told the BBC in 2004. "Israelis just see Russians as people who have come over to clean their houses, look after old people or sweep the streets".

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. The ire of these Russian Jews towards a society which refused to fully embrace them has turned not towards the majority that have rejected them, but the minority that cannot argue back.

Yisrael Beiteinu also has a strikingly Soviet response to the question of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Soviet historian David Shearer asserts that the Soviet Union was governed as a succession of "special areas" which required careful management. As such, in borderland regions judged to be more vulnerable to non-socialist influences, so-deemed untrustworthy national groups were transported en masse to "safer" parts of the union.

The Lieberman Plan for conflict resolution sees the Levant through this lens. His thesis is that the current "disturbing disparity" in Israel of "a Jewish state with a minority group comprising over 20 per cent of the population" is an existential threat. To counter this perceived demographic imbalance, Yisrael Beiteinu propose annexing all settlements which rest along the Green Line and, in return, areas of Arab concentration in the Galilee would be transferred without consent to an autonomous Palestine.

Sovietised Jews are also defined by their secularism and loose affinity to Judaism, having come from an aggressively atheistic culture where Jewishness was classed not as a faith but rather a nationality. Of the 1.3 million Russians currently living in Israel, as many as 500,000 are not considered to be Jewish based upon Orthodox law.

Yisrael Beiteinu, then, if not a secular party, is certainly an anti-clerical one. Lieberman has gone to war with Shas over his proposal that "all Israeli citizens have to either enlist for the army or National Service" in order to "affirm their loyalty to the state" and "be eligible for any state benefits." The party also proposes "easing the conversion process for those who wish to join the Jewish people", with the aim of weakening the Charedim's influence in Israeli politics.

Reprinted with permission of the Forward. Liam Hoare is a freelance writer

    Last updated: 12:59pm, July 14 2011