Thursday, December 26, 2019

Exposé: Avigdor Liberman's Russian language campaign - Rochel Sylvetsky

by Rochel Sylvetsky

Yisrael Beyteinu's Russian campaign, it has been revealed, is vastly different from the one in Hebrew.

Listening to several Israeli radio station talk shows this week, Kol Chai, Reshet Bet and Galei Yisrael, one heard commentators reacting with shock to an article by Yishai Friedman in Makor Rishon Hebrew weekly this past Friday which revealed Avigdor Liberman's Russian language campaign to the Hebrew speaking Israeli population .

Israelis are familiar with Liberman's Hebrew language campaign, aimed at frightening secular Israelis into thinking that the religious parties are going to force them to keep Shabbat, wear kippot and daven three times a day if they are in the governing coalition or face biblical punishments (His slogan: "Yes to a Jewish State, no to a Halakhic State" is said solemnly– as if that were an imminent danger, when, as is obvious, it is not even a remote possibility). They heard his demands for public transportation on Shabbat, forcing haredi schools to teach secular studies, allowing civil marriage, recognizing no-requirement conversions and above all, his demand to force all yeshiva students to serve in the army (the IDF cannot handle that kind of influx – but this is not the place for an analysis of the complex and explosive issue). 

Popular rightwing (once the darling of the leftwing) broadcaster Irit Linor had the courage to say what people who want the Jewish state to remain Jewish in public places and want people to be allowed to educate their children as they see fit, have been saying to one another for weeks. Israel is facing Avigdor Lieberman's demands to erase the Jewish character of the Jewish State because Israel's government allowed hundreds of thousands of non-halakhically Jewish Russians  to enter the country when it included the father/grandfather clause in Israel's Law of Return in 1970. This allowed grandchildren and children of non-Jewish grandmothers and their families - if a grandfather was Jewish - to become automatic citizens under the Law of Return, the law that was meant to make Israel a place where Jews could always find a haven without worrying about quotas or the need for visas.

The Russian immigrant non-Jews have no desire to convert, she said, exposing the lie behind all the media-encouraged liberal Orthodox and Reform Movement accusations that the Rabbinate placed unnecessary impediments before Russians allegedly begging to convert.  The extensive experience I received running a youth village with hundreds of Russian teens and a user-friendly conversion (but Rabbinate approved) program as well as the information gleaned at meetings with other educators is proof enough that she is right. Most Russian students did not want to convert– and why should they? They came from anti-religious surroundings and they got the same benefits if they stayed non-halakhically Jewish.  Yes, we now have thousands of non-Jewish children in public religious elementary schools, but the answer, sadly. is not their mass conversion – a bad enough answer because both parents are not Jewish and it is hard to imagine a converted child eating in his own home – but because they have no intentions of doing so if there is even a modicum of change in lifestyles involved. And that, by all acounts, is their right. No one made that a condition for coming to Israel. (The Ethiopian aliyah is a totally different story). But that is not the same as trying to change the country's ethos.

Since most non-Jewish immigrants are from Ukraine and Russia, where anti-Semitism is part of the local culture, some are infected with antipathy to anything smacking of Judaism – and sometimes to Jews themselves.

In that vein, two incidents this past week caused the Yisrael Beyteinu Party some uncomfortable moments.  The first was when a campaign video in Russian by party member Dr. Alex Kushner containing undisguised hatred for the haredi community was translated into Hebrew on the web. "Over a million representatives of the Orthodox community live at our expense" railed Kushner, on a backdrop of a photograph of masses of haredi Jews. "The state subsidizes them using our taxes, our labor. Enough." 

The second was when the Makor Rishon website reported that Haifa deputy mayor and member of Yisrael Beyteinu, Lazar Kaploun, posted on the web that the religious are "gluttons and drunkards" who "rape minors."

Religious public figures and politicians reacted furiously to these incidents, and in Haifa there were calls for Kaploun's resignation. Organizations identified with the religious sector sent letters to the Attorney General demanding Kaploun's dismissal for "spreading anti-Semitic writings." Kaploun later apologized for his remarks.

The following weekend, Makor Rishon's magazine section contained an exposé of the hitherto unknown Liberman campaign, the one in Russian  aimed at his core electoral base, non-Jewish and anti-religious (including some halakhically Jewish) Russian immigrants. 

The paper also spoke to a grassroots group of veteran Russian immigrants, many of them refuseniks from the 1990s, some once supporters of the Yisrael Beyteinu party, who are appalled at what they call its "campaign of enmity-arousing anti-Semitism and hatred within the Russian population against the religious and haredi public."  They claim that the level of discourse Yisrael Beyteinu maintains on the Russian web awakens dark evil impulses and breeds anti-Semitism.

In an op-ed on the subject, the group informed the public that Yisrael Beyteinu's Russian campaign is entirely different from its Hebrew one. "The Russian campaign is skewed, one-sided and in essence antisemitic, it incites against religious and haredi Jews, calls the religious sector 'parasites who take advantage of state funds at the expense of the Russian sector."

The Yisrael Beyteinu MKs in the Russian broadcasts, the group wrote, "purposely try to arouse fears of a bullying halakhic State that is in the works, thereby bringing certain parts of the Russian sector to express real anti-Semitism, including calls for violence against the Religious Zionists and haredim  Some accuse the entire haredi sector of pedophilia. They try to give the impression that the haredim intend to rule over and discriminate against the secular." 

Former refusenik Natalie Rotenberg, a secular grandmother of five, has created a website called "Danger from within" – "Sakana miBeyteinu" – a play on the name of Liberman's party. Some of the group's members say that the social media conversation of Yisrael Beyteinu supporters brings them back to the dark days of Jew hatred in Russia. A number of the Hebrew and Russian quotes they have collected call for pogroms, ghettos for haredim, and even violence. 

"Yisrael Beyteinu's campaign awakens the nascent anti-Semitism in part of the Russian population, now aimed at the religious and haredi sectors.  When you see a video showing haredi Jews (in this case, it was of Arye Deri and Shas members, ed.)  dancing as money falls from the sky upon them, it causes irreparable damage to the social fabric of this country. And I am quite sure Avigdor Liberman knows exactly what he is doing and what he is encouraging."

The blatantly anti-Semitic trope used by Liberman's party is the warning that haredi parties are out to "empty the pockets" of Russian speaking immigrants. One video has Deri's face framed by a circle of dollars.  Several official posts claim that the dead vote for Deri en masse (thereby accusing the party of using identity cards of the deceased to add voters, ed.) and show him reciting the Shema and praying for the dead to be resurrected so they can vote for Shas.  There are posts against Religious Zionists, claiming the sector is prejudiced against Russians and harbors insane messianic beliefs. 

The refusenik's website also brings talkbacks that appear under the official party posts. Here is one: "The time has come to take our pitchforks and go out to the streets. Our problem is that we don't get together against the darkness of the dosim (pejorative for religious, ed.) and we will end up like Iran…"  And another: "We have to stop giving the wages of our labor to thieves and parasites in black jackets and smelly hats."  More: "The religious are not descended from the apes, but from moldy fungi."  And this: "We have to destroy entire neighborhoods, starting with Bnai Brak and Kfar Chabad. I wish I could reach Hamas to show them how to direct their rockets." Also, "put my name on the list of pogrom activists." One post reportedly said "HItler was right to destroy Jews."

Talkbacks the world over are a way for deviants to come out of the woodwork, but the horrified refuseniks say, with justification, that these go way beyond the Israeli talkback level –and that in addition, they contain blatant anti-Semitic motifs of a virulence which does not appear on the Israeli web.

Makor Rishon spoke to several of the group members. Mordecai Tomshpolsky, 70, says that he knew people like that in Russia, aggressive "pogromanics" who incited to physical violence. He says that Israelis don't really fathom what is going on, but that he himself is afraid.  "When MK Milinovsky (of Yisrael Beyteinu, ed.) writes that the haredim are a population that endangers the rest because they spread diseases and don't get vaccinations, I remember what they accused the Jews of Europe of doing. When a deputy mayor calls Jews loyal to Torah pedophiles, that is absolutely shocking. He is a public official! I think Yisrael Beyteinu is doing us a service, revealing something the public was not aware of – that we have sleeper cells of anti-Semitism in Israel, which are beginning to hit the streets."

Ilya Levin was once an active member of Yisrael Beyteinu, but left over a year ago because of the attitude of the party to mitzvah observant citizens. "We are a small people. We cannot allow ourselves to fight within our ranks. Liberman has always wanted the votes of those who arrived here because of the Law of Return but are not halakhically Jewish. The non-Jewish vote is worth at least a Knesset seat and since he wants that seat, he is campaigning in a manner that would be called out as anti-Semitic in any other country."

"The anti-Semitism revealed among the Russian sector is shocking," says another activist in the refusenik group who wishes to remain nameless. "The campaign defining an entire sector as the enemy, as money hungry and dominating, is spinning out of control. The quantity of nasty talkbacks is the sign of a trend."

Yisrael Beyteinu's office dismissed the criticism and the entire expose as politically motivated, according to the Makor Rishon article. 

Except that the quotes are real and so are the videos and the talkbacks, so that a better question might be – why is Avigdor Liberman doing this? Liberman is in total control of his party, from choosing the candidates to telling them what to say and there is no way he has not approved of this campaign.  But he is far from stupid and he must know where this is leading.  

Why is he burning every bridge to religious Jewry, when his wife and children are observant Jews? What is making Liberman do this? Why does his party's Russian campaign sound like Louis Farrakhan crossed with Jeremy Wright?  Is it the same phenomenon as today's Black anti-Semitism which ignores the fact that it was Jews who risked their lives marching down South to end segregation, this because it helps the goals of Black Power to define a group of whiteys they can hate? It was religious Jewry who fought the Let My People Go campaign to free Soviet Jewry. Does that make them ripe for hating as well by those who did not join that people?  

And is it really Liberman talking or is there some other force behind him out to pit Israelis against one another in the Jewish state, one that has Liberman under its thumb for whatever reason?  We may never know, but one thing we do know: About that hatred genie. Once it is out of the bottle, it is almost impossible to put it back in.

Rochel Sylvetsky is Senior Consultant and op-ed and Judaism editor of Arutz Sheva's English site


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