Why do I really dislike Avigdor Lieberman? Because he’s forcing me to write about politics. When Gershom and I started this blog, I thought he’d take the political beat and leave me free to write about my country’s diverse and exciting culture and literature. But who can concentrate on books when the wolves are howling at the door?
A couple days before the election I had a long conversation with a young Palestinian-Israeli woman I often see at my favorite South Jerusalem café, The Coffee Mill. Like me, she was in despair over the likely results of the impending election, although unlike me, she wasn’t planning to vote.
I told her something that I’m afraid may shock some of SoJo’s readers, those who seem to measure us by the extent to which we conform to left-wing clichés. I told her that the Israelis who voted for Lieberman and his party aren’t evil people.
She was taken aback, too. After all, we’d just agreed that Lieberman spouted totalitarian rhetoric and racism. Isn’t that enough to make him a fascist? And aren’t people who support fascists themselves fascists. And aren’t we, excuse me, supposed to hate fascists? Aren’t we supposed to execrate them, bare their true faces to the world, and defeat them?
I respectfully disagreed both with her analysis and her strategy.
The great majority of people who voted for Lieberman are not ideologues. They voted him not because of his political philosophy, but because he knows how to appeal to their most basic fears. Lieberman’s voters are scared stiff—they fear war and terror, they fear Muslims and Arabs, and they have felt horribly insecure under a government that has talked a lot about peace agreements but which has actually led the country into two wars.
If we rational, peace-loving lefties stage lots of demonstrations where we shout “Fascists! Fascists!” at Lieberman’s voters, we’re going to scare them even more and ensure that Avigdor the Terrible gets even more votes in the next election.
On the contrary, we’ve got to accept that their fears are real. And, Israel being a democracy (yes! despite it all!), we need to present a convincing case to Lieberman’s voters. We need to find ways to explain to them that some of their fears are justified, but that some are overblown. We need to persuade them that accommodation with the Arabs and an open society at home are better guarantors of their long-term personal security welfare than is the leadership of a belligerent and benighted strong man.
The best friends of totalitarianism, whether of the right or the left, are fear and instability. When people fear for their lives and don’t know whether they’ll have a job tomorrow, they grasp at what straws they can, and a glib populist can exploit them. If we simply dismiss these voters as evil, we’ll never engage them. And unless we engage them, we’ll never have a chance of changing the way they think.
It’s not going to be easy, because we live in a dangerous and instable region and face problems so difficult that any possible solution necessarily involves great risk. But if we want, some day, to be able to ignore politics and relax with a good book, we can’t just condemn Lieberman’s voters. We must understand them.