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The Ethnic Cleansing Party Outpaces Likud

The Rise of Israel’s Avigdor Lieberman

by SAREE MAKDISI

Everyone is talking about the successful-albeit lackluster-performance of Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party in Tuesday’s Israeli elections. Kadima won a marginal victory, gaining 28 seats in the Knesset, and giving Olmert the opportunity to form a government.

But in a sense the real winner of the elections was Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, which pushed past Likud to become one of Israel’s major parties-turning Lieberman into a potential kingmaker. This is a remarkable development because Lieberman’s party stands for one thing: an Israel finally cleansed of the remainder of the indigenous Palestinian population.

Lieberman was born in Moldova in 1958. In 1978, he moved to Israel. Since he is Jewish, he was eligible for instant citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return.

It was evidently not enough for Lieberman that, as a Russian-speaking immigrant fresh off the plane, he was instantaneously granted rights and privileges denied to Palestinians born in the very country to which he had just moved (not to mention those expelled in during the creation of Israel in 1948). The very presence of an indigenous non-Jewish population in Israel was, in effect, unacceptable to him.

In 1999, he formed a party called Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel our Home"), made up largely of other Russian immigrants for whom the presence of Palestinians is also unacceptable.

Lieberman’s party believes what all Israelis believe: that Israel is a Jewish state. Unlike the more respectable Israeli parties, however, Lieberman’s party is willing to add that since Israel is a Jewish state, non-Jews are not welcome. Even if they were born there.

Since Israel has-somewhat conveniently-never declared its own borders, Lieberman proposes that the state’s borders be drawn in such a way that Jews are placed on one side of it, and as many Arabs as possible on the other. Ethnic purity is the operative ideal. The mainstream Israeli parties, and even right wing politicians like Moshe Arens, denounce what they regard as Lieberman’s racism.

The difference between Lieberman and mainstream Israeli politicians, however, is not that they believe in cultural heterogeneity and he does not: for they are as committed to Israel’s Jewishness as he is.

The difference, rather, is one of degree. Mainstream Israeli politicians agree that a line of concrete and steel ought to be drawn with Jews on one side of it and as many Arabs as possible on the other. But they argue that it is OK to have a few Arabs on the inside, as long as they behave themselves, and don’t contribute too heavily to what Israelis refer to ominously as "the demographic problem."

Contending themselves with the platitude that Israel is a democracy, mainstream Israeli politicians ignore the fact that, in matters of access to land, questions of marriage and family unification, and many of the other normal rights and duties associated with citizenship, Israel’s Palestinian minority faces forms of discrimination not faced by Jewish citizens of the state.

This is hardly surprising. As the state of the Jewish people, Israel is, after all, the only country in the world that expressly claims not to be the state of its actual citizens (one fifth of whom are non-Jews), let alone that of the people whom it governs (half of whom are Palestinian).

Non-Jews have always been, at best, an impediment to Israel’s Jewishness. The only question has been what to do about them. Lieberman’s suggestion is hardly novel. Until he was assassinated, the Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi used to refer to Palestinians as "lice," and compared them to a "cancer" destroying Israel from the inside. He thought that Palestinians should simply be expelled. Lieberman’s solution to "the demographic problem" may seem a little less inhumane, but it is just as racist.

The point, however, is that-as the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy points out-Ze’evi and Lieberman are no more racist than mainstream politicians like Ehud Olmert. The difference is simply one of modalities. "Lieberman wants to distance [Palestinians] from our borders," writes Levy; "Olmert and his ilk want to distance them from our consciousness." Racism, Levy concludes, is the real winner of the 2006 elections.

The question is whether this represents some new development, or merely a sign that Israeli politics are becoming truer to the nature of Israel itself-a reminder that the quest for ethnic purity, no matter how it’s dressed up, is inherently ugly.

SAREE MAKDISI, a professor of English at UCLA, is the author of Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s (University of Chicago Press, 2003). He can be reached through his blog or at: makdisi@humnet.ucla.edu