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Why isn't Lieberman capitalising on the women's rights issue?

Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beitenu, owes much of its clout to flying the secularist banner and opposing the growing religious influence over Israeli public life. So why aren’t they standing up against gender segregation? Put simply, they now have much bigger fish to fry. 

Israeli Foreign Minister and chairman of Israel Beitenu, Avigdor Lieberman (photo: Israel IMFA / flickr)

The subject of segregation between men and women in Israeli public spaces continues to dominate the news. Tanya Rosenblit, the student already dubbed the Israeli Rosa Parks for refusing to move to the back of a “kosher” bus, has met yesterday with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and became the target of a smear campaign. Utra-Orthodox journalist and commentators accuse her of staging a provocation (well duh: any challenge to a despicable status quo is a provocation, in the best sense of the word), of threatening to strip her clothes and/or to sing (!), and, somehow, of perpetuating negative imagery of ultra-Orthodox in the media and thus being to blame for the brother of one of the commentators not being able to find a job. Meanwhile, scarcely a day passes without a news item about yet another  public space or event going gender-segregated – be it a university gym or a municipality-sponsored lecture. But one voice is conspicuously meek and quiet in that debate: that of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beitenu.

At first glance, it is surprising, because Yisrael Beitenu fought all of its election campaigns on a hardcore secularist-nationalist platform, championing the cause of civil marriage – a vital issue for Lieberman’s power-base of over 1 million Russian-speaking Israelis, about 300,000 of whom are barred from wedding in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox controlled rabbinate. Wouldn’t the gross violation of the already skewed “status quo” between church and state form an ideal opportunity for Lieberman to boost his secularist credentials? Well, no: Lieberman only spoke out on the culture war as late as this morning, on the occasion of the pulling of Energy Minister Uzi Landau’s bizarre bill providing for omnipotent Kashrut inspectors at power stations, complete the authority to cut off Israel’s electricity if they deemed it not kosher enough. But Landau is Lieberman’s man and a senior party member; it’s hardly conceivable he’d have launched such an ambitious legislative project without the knowledge of his boss. So what gives?

The simple answer is that Lieberman has long since transcended his original electorate. He is no longer “that Russian politician,” he’s as Israeli as they get. He doesn’t think about the preferences of a minority group – Israel’s second largest cultural minority though it may be. This is partly because he is quite sure most of them will vote for him for lack of alternatives, but it’s mostly Lieberman is aiming for the top and is thinking big. This is why, on the international stage, he could afford to profoundly offend his own electorate by endorsing the results of the parliamentary elections in Russia – an endorsement ultra-right Russian-Israeli Channel 9 describes as “an infuriating, indolent lie”. And this is why, on the home front, he avoids raising a ruckus around women’s rights: Lieberman wants to be prime minister – he has a very good chance if, say, Likud and Kadima sink into the already simmering infighting ahead of the next elections – and it’s quite obvious that the ultra-Orthodox parties will form the backbone of any coalition he is likely to construct. No reason to alienate them so early on. Moreover, it is extremely unlikely voters will punish Yisrael Beitenu on failing to stand up for women – they’ll vote for it as a proponent of stability and/or determined nationalism, where few Israeli politicians can compete with the foreign minister.

Lieberman is paying the advance for his future cabinet. As is often the case in many a party, when the stakes are so high, women’s rights can go hang.


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    1. Piotr Berman

      accused of “of threatening to strip her clothes and/or to sing (!), ”

      Lorelai of Egged?

      On the topic: clearly, Lieberman risks loosing a part of his own sector. “Russians” should be in large part secular (and perhaps economically populist, but almost entire right wing is apart from some economically liberal parts of Likud and Kadima), so a natural pickup for either Labor or a more specialized party. But single sector appeal would nix Lieberman’s chances to head a coalition with religious nuts. Lieberman is shrewd, but his problem is that it is all or nothing to him.

      Either he gets Berlusconi status, with the ability to change laws to his liking, or he may have some period in prison ahead of him, and even with good behavior etc. it is not easy to revive the carrier. Of course, he should have some little stash to avoid starving in his declining year, but that is surely not satisfactory for a man of his ambitions.

      All of it is a bit strange. Secularist right wing parties could easily make majority, Kadima, Likud, Israeli Beitenu, and it is not that Kadima is so enormously “Zionist liberal”, or that Israeli Beitenu and Likud are religiously committed to Eretz Israel. These parties have contrasting rhetorical posture, and they would conduct foreign policy differently, but differ little in actual “acts on the ground”.

      But there is some flaw in Zionist secularist mind set that deprives it of political effectiveness. Perhaps Zionist state has to be Jewish (rather than “Hebrew republic”), and Jewish, alas, is defined through religion so secular Zionist Jews feel that in actuality they are inferior to the more genuine religious cousins.

      But how it come to pass that Israel lost chance to have kosher electricity? Once you have electrons in the grid that touched milk products and other electrons that touched meat, the entire electric output so hopelessly compromised. On Arutz Sheva web site commenters were very, very irritated. How can duplicitous Netanyahu stroll around the world pretending that he protects Jewish character of Israel if he does not even secure electricity with Jewish character. Basically, Israeli religious parties are not easy partners. They will remember this electric betrayal for years,

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben Israel

      There is one reason and one reason alone that Ha’aretz and various politicians are making a big deal out of this (before going on please note: I oppose insistence on separate seating for men and women)…
      and that is cynical political posturing.
      No one believes that “if they get away with this then tomorrow all buses in the country will have separate seating” or any such nonsense. The whole hullaballoo is due to the fact that the Likud has the Haredim in the coalition with them, and as part of Left’s election campaign, which has already started, they will endlessly, day after day repeat…”THE LIKUD HAS SOLD THE COUNTRY OUT TO THE HAREDIM”. This worked in the 1992 and 1999 elections, and I think it will work again.
      Then if the Left wins, and Tzippi or Sheli or Mofaz are Prime Minister, they will include the SHAS and United Torah Judaism in their coalition and they will give them MORE than the Likud does and they will order the Leftist journalists to IGNORE all such incidents….and the excuse will be……
      Welcome to the real world.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Sol

      Yes, Ben Israel, it is all the fault of the left.

      Avigdor Lieberman, Price Tag, Yisrael Beitenu, and the Orthodox rabbis are completely without blame.

      Oh, almost forgot, it’s all a plan of the Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, Barack Obama, and the New York Times against Israel. That about sums up your views, no?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Gali

      ” Yes, Ben Israel, it is all the fault of the left.

      Avigdor Lieberman, Price Tag, Yisrael Beitenu, and the Orthodox rabbis are completely without blame.

      Oh, almost forgot, it’s all a plan of the Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, Barack Obama, and the New York Times against Israel. That about sums up your views, no? ”

      Yup .

      Funny how he thinks Kadima is Left .

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mitchell Cohen

      Not to generalize, but one of my first jobs here was working in land surveying. I worked on a crew with two olim from the FSU (former Soviet Union). Now these guys were not religious in any size shape or form. They would eat anything that didn’t walk and Yom Kippur was just another day to them. Yet, while they were nice guys, they were two of the biggest male chauvinists I ever met. One of them said he didn’t let his wife get a driver’s license because “a woman doesn’t belong behind the wheel, but somewhere else….” I’ll give you three guesses as to who these guys vote/d for.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben Israel

      Olmert offered to divide Jerusalem, give up the Western Wall to an “international body”, withdraw almost all the way to the Green Line, knock down most of the settlements and, in principle at least, recognize the “Right of Return” of the refugees. What’s not “LEFT” about that? Isn’t that MERETZ’s and HADASH’s position?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Gali

      Ben Israel , Kadima is not Left it is Centre leaning Right , Arik Sharon was not a Leftist either .
      When Sharon and Olmert decided the dream of Greater Israel was done it had nothing to do with us .

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben Israel

      I am confused. Olmert and KADIMAH (what Sharon was thinking is no longer relevant) are offering the Palestinians what MERETZ and HADASH have been insisting on for years. The LIKUD seems to be resisting a settlement along those lines. Does’t that put KADIMAH on the Left? Okay, it may be that whereas MERETZ and HADASH may claim that they are pushing their position out of love and concern for the Palestinians whereas KADIMAH may say “let’s draw a border with them on the other side so we don’t have to see them any more”, but it amounts to the same thing. Also, don’t forget that Olmert wrote a bill of divorce with the Judea/Samaria Jewish settlement movement when he ordered the police to bash teenage girls heads in at AMONA, so KADIMAH is no longer viewed as being friendly to them. This puts KADIMAH on the Left as I see it.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Gali

      Ben Israel, you can see it any way you wish to but Kadima is not Left .
      I would not worry about it to much for I’m sure the next bill this Gov is about to push through is to cancel the next elections , and the next and the next 😉

      Reply to Comment
    10. Y.

      It’s really quite simple why Lieberman isn’t attacking the Orthodox over this.
      Russians are not “secular” in the way people think they are. They are secular at a personal sense, but don’t have the anti-clericalism existent of a certain other group. One should also recall Russia has for all practical purposes a state religion, and that the typical leaders are more religious than the typical Russian (e.g. look at L.’s wife and daughter).
      It follows they support attacking Shas etc. only for so long as it’s in their interests (e.g. marriage laws). Apparently the recent shenanigans do not seem all that relevant to them. Ergo, no Lieberman attack on the Orthodox.
      P.S. Likud and Kadima are unlikely to have internal rifts this time. Kadima’s constitution all but makes the leader an elected dictator, and the other members have no chance in other parties or independently. Expect some fighting around primaries, and that’s it. In Likud, Nethanyahu preempted well by deciding for early primaries, and has no serious opposition this time. I don’t see an open way for Lieberman to be PM. At least not yet.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Y.

      On whether Kadima is Left or not, well, it depends on how one defines “Left”.
      It’s economic program is as Right as it comes, but it’s political/medinit program is Zionist-Left (circa Meretz whose economic program isn’t that Left either). Since this site strongly emphasizes political programs and ignores economics (empty paeans to the J14 non-revolution aside), since the political/foreign policy/ dominates discussion and since it accepts the Zionist Left as “Left”, we have to define it as Left here.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Sol

      “Funny how he thinks Kadima is Left .”


      My apologies. No doubt the term anti-Lieberman would be more appropriate.

      Or perhaps you personally favor anti-Semite, anti-Israel, and/or self-hating Jew?

      In hasbara, one must remember that the slur is far more important than any appropriate fact.

      I eagerly (well, not really) await your next bitter reply.

      Happy Hanukkah. (Or perhaps you find oy vey! more befitting?)

      Reply to Comment