As parties go, this was not exactly a classic. There was not much in the way of food or drink — just a few plates loaded with those crumbly kosher biscuits that are a staple of the shul Kiddush — and not much of an atmosphere. Indeed, the host was among the last to arrive. Still, the victory party of Yisrael Beiteinu in Jerusalem was a night to remember.
For it was a chance to see up close the man who is on course to shape Israeli politics, not only in the coming weeks, as the attempts to assemble a governing coalition gather pace, but perhaps beyond. The entire evening was about Avigdor Lieberman, crowned that night as the kingmaker who now heads the third largest party in the Knesset.
The good news is that he is not nearly the rhetorical powerhouse I had feared. True, he explained that he had left his text at home and had to improvise a speech. But those who have watched him testify that he is indeed no great speechmaker: the delivery is flat, even monotonous. I had dreaded a reincarnation of Meir Kahane, the racist firebrand who was the last Israeli politician of such prominence to turn his rage on Israel’s Arab minority. (Significantly, Lieberman was once a member of the youth wing of Kahane’s Kach party.) But Lieberman lacks his predecessor’s power to mesmerise.
Nevertheless, he has much in common with the late, unlamented Kahane. His winning election slogan was “No citizenship without loyalty”, his key proposal a demand that every Israeli citizen swear an oath of allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state or else lose their fundamental rights, including the right to vote. Yisrael Beiteinu luminaries I spoke to promise that everyone will have to take the oath, Jew or Arab — but Israel’s non-Jewish citizens are the clear target.
Just consider the implications of this for a moment. Imagine that a Jewish minority in — I don’t know — Spain or Britain were required to swear an oath of allegiance to Spain or Britain as a Christian country, on pain of being stripped of their — our — citizenship. We would be asked to affirm that the country we lived in belonged to a group of which we could never be a part, short of changing fundamentally who we are. We may recognise Britain or Spain’s Christian origins as a matter of fact — but that is a world away from having to bow down to the Christian character of the state in an oath, or else lose our citizenship in the land of our birth.
At the party at the Crowne Plaza in Jerusalem, I asked several Yisrael Beiteinu MKs to name a single democracy anywhere that had ever made such a move. One cited the citizenship tests imposed by the United States on new immigrants. But we’re not talking about immigrants, I said: these people are already citizens, born in the country they live in.
I heard Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Danny Ayalon, number seven on the Lieberman list, choose a particularly unfortunate example, one that a psychologist might regard as a tellingly Freudian choice: “If Germany has the right to be a German state, why can’t Israel be a Jewish state?” Meanwhile, the party’s hotshot US-born strategist, George Birnbaum, admitted that there were indeed no precedents for Lieberman’s oath — but that was OK because “Israel is a unique country.”
There was some comfort in returning to Britain to see that many of our communal leaders understand just how pernicious this kind of talk is. The president of the United Synagogue, Simon Hochhauser, branded Lieberman’s views “appalling”, while the Masorti movement’s senior rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, said they were “horrifying”.
Sadly, too little of the political establishment in Israel shares their revulsion. Labour’s Ehud Barak refused to rule out serving alongside Lieberman. Bibi Netanyahu says he agrees with Lieberman’s oath plan, while one Kadima strategist I spoke to shrugged at the mention of it: “Once the election’s over, the billboards come down,” he said.
All of them are betraying the very founding document of the state, the Declaration of Independence, which explicitly guarantees equality for all Israel’s citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
But Lieberman represents an even greater betrayal. For what struck me in the choking atmosphere at that victory party was a deep irony. The warriors of Yisrael Beiteinu boast that they are great Jewish nationalists, fierce defenders of the Jewishness of the state. Yet they have forgotten a key Jewish lesson, learned over many bitter centuries: they have forgotten how it feels to be a small, hated minority facing the wagging, threatening finger of the majority, demanding they fall to their knees and swear their allegiance. They have forgotten, in short, how it feels to be Jewish.