February 25, 2009
In the Age of Lieberman
My trip to Israel last week ended in a community center classroom on a Jaffa hill overlooking the Mediterranean. As their music director accompanied them on piano, a dozen Arab, Jewish and Christian girls sat around me on folding chairs, rehearsing songs for an upcoming concert.
This was the Voices of Peace choir of the Arab Jewish Community Center in Jaffa, the mixed Arab Jewish town in the southern part of Tel Aviv. The center is the only one of its kind in all of Israel, serving more than 2,000 families with a day-to-night schedule of classes, intergroup dialogues, leadership initiatives and an all-girl choir.
They sang a song in Arabic, “Zman es el Salaam” — “Time for Peace” — then launched into Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” effortlessly alternating verses in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
Their voices soared; their enthusiasm was contagious. When they finished — though I was the only audience in the room — I burst into applause.
The center’s co-director, Hadas Kaplan, asked me whether I had any questions, and all I could think of was the one I didn’t dare ruin the moment by asking out loud:
Is this Israel’s future or its past?
I can’t say the question came out of nowhere. The big news in Israel all week, in the aftermath of the Feb. 10 elections, was the rise of Avigdor Lieberman. The 51-year-old immigrant from Moldova received 15 Knesset seats as head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party. It wasn’t enough to make him prime minister, but given Israel’s electoral system, in which governments are constructed not by direct voting but by post-poll horse-trading, the results ensured Lieberman a decisive role in the nation’s next coalition.
Depending on whom you talk to or read in Israel, Lieberman is either a refreshing truth-teller who can get the country back on course or a racist, fascist demagogue who will destroy it from within.
At first, his party represented the thwarted political aspirations of the nation’s recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But in this election, Lieberman’s boldest statements struck home with a broader range of constituencies.
“The young people really turned out for him,” a Tel Aviv friend told me, “even the ones too young to vote love him. You don’t get 15 mandates just from Russians.”
Lieberman’s politics are neither classically right nor left. He supports a Palestinian state, but he also wants all citizens of Israel to sign a loyalty oath, and he’s called for Israel to “trade” the Galilee region, with its 60 percent Arab Israeli population, for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Lieberman sees Israeli Arabs, who account for about 20 percent of Israel’s population, as a fifth column that will destroy the country.
He had an easy target in radical Arab Israeli leaders like former Knesset member Azmi Bishara, founder of the Balad Party, who fled the country after being accused of spying for Hezbollah. Bishara reportedly still receives his 8,000-shekel-a-month pension from the Israeli government.
Two weeks after the election, Lieberman’s campaign slogan, “No loyalty, no citizenship,” still called out from rain-soaked billboards.
The message resonated. I sat down for coffee with a very sophisticated, Ivy League-educated Israeli who voted for Benjamin Netanyahu, but who understood Lieberman’s appeal.
“Why should we pay taxes to support someone who calls us ‘Nazis’ during the war in Gaza?” he said.
The problem, of course, is not every Arab Israeli is like Bishara.
Many people consider Lieberman to be Israel’s equivalent of Jorge Haider or Jean Marie le Pen, European neofascists who rose to power by blaming internal minorities — including Jews — for their country’s ill. They are sickened that such a man has risen to such prominence.
“Lieberman has become the face of ugly Israel,” my friend Yossi Klein Halevy told The Christian Science Monitor. “Lieberman would be an anti-foreign minister because of his reputation. Even if he tones his rhetoric down, the vulgar anti-Arab campaign will continue to haunt him.”
I visited the Arab Jewish Community Center partly because, in a Lieberman-ascendant Israel, I was curious to see how such a place could fare. At the same time that polls showed younger Israelis voting for Lieberman, young Israeli Arabs have been drawn to more extreme anti-Israel rhetoric. The looming tragedy is that not only does the current generation of voters seem to have given up on reconciliation and co-existence, but the next one has, as well.
The center has been around for 15 years, founded by a tireless Israeli Arab named Ibrahim Abu Shindi and run by him and Kaplan, a Jewish Israeli. The center gets most of its barely adequate $400,000 annual operating budget from the municipality of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa, but a lot of its program monies come from donors abroad. Local donors, like The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Osias and Dorothy Goren, Diane and Guilford Glazer and the late Armand Hammer, were crucial to its launch.
The message clearly resonates with Americans — in 2006, the center received the prestigious Victor J. Goldberg Institute of International Education Prize from the International Institute for Education, and the American Embassy funds a room at the center with English-language books and magazines, computers and a state-of-the-art video conference setup.
Last year, the Voices for Peace choir performed in front of President George W. Bush.
Kaplan is loath to talk too much about politics, but she did tell me the work has gotten harder recently.
“People are more extreme,” Kaplan said. “The adults influence the children, and it’s more difficult to convince the parents. Now it’s an especially hard time because of the war and everything that’s happening, but we do it because of that.”
The center’s staff has equal numbers of Jews and Muslim and Christian Arabs. Jaffa itself has gentrified dramatically over the past decade, so the participants are not just ethnically, but also economically, very mixed. Spend a few hours there, and you see a large swath of Israel in a microcosm.
“We’re trying to be open to everybody,” Kaplan explained. “We promote tolerance and living together, not just co-existence, but the opportunity to live together. Our aim is to create this structure for the whole society.”
“Most community centers get to teach judo and ballet and do all the fun stuff,” she added, “but our main aim is to bring people together.”
Inside the classroom, I asked one of the singers, a bubbly 16-year-old Arab Israeli named Iman, why she participates.
“I come here every day, and not just for the singing,” she said. “But we sing songs of peace. We sing for people to come together.”
After my private concert, I left with the kind of feeling I most associate with being in Israel: ebullience tinged with anxiety. In the Age of Lieberman, I couldn’t help being moved by these girls and their center; I also couldn’t help wondering how long it would all last.
“You have to keep doing it,” a visibly tired Kaplan told me as she walked me to my car, “if you want Arabs and Jews to meet. Because they can live in the same country, in the same city, in the same building, and they don’t even know each other.”