Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Monday, August 12, 2019
Russian Revolutions (Times of Israel featured post)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Ben Gurion airport, June 25, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO/File)
Have you watched what’s being going on in Russia these past few weeks? While Americans and Israelis been justifiably focused on other things, tens of thousands have been taking to the streets of Moscow to demand democracy, precisely at a time when Vladimir Putin is reportedly contemplating moves to make his rule permanent.
Even if the current protests in Moscow do not yet rise to the level of 1917, Russian revolutions are happening wherever we turn.
Take Israel, where once again, the Russians are interfering in an election. Only this time, the mastermind is not named Vladimir Putin, but Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, whose supporters are primarily veterans of the great, late 20th century exodus from the former Soviet Union to Israel — the exodus that American Jews proudly championed. Liberman’s goal is not to divide and conquer, a la Putin, but to bring together a unity government that would revolutionize Israeli politics.
Believing in Liberman is not easy for me. Let’s just say that when I think of him, the words “liberal democracy” aren’t the first that come rolling off my tongue. He and Natan Sharansky are the Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky of the Cyrillic set. While Sharansky has prioritized broader coalition building, Liberman has been the ultra-nationalist, and his vision has prevailed among the million-plus Russian olim (15 percent of the Israeli electorate), whose political muscles are now being fully flexed.
Israel’s Russian-speaking community is both nationalistic and fiercely secular — few had any Jewish education back in the USSR, and many are not halachically Jewish. It is precisely that secularity that has made Liberman a strange but welcome bedfellow to the many Israelis who have become tired of ultra-Orthodox hegemony over their personal lives. His audacious redrawing the Israeli political map along a Haredi–progressive axis, rather than according to the traditional hawk-dove divide, has gained some allies in strange places, like the Upper West Side, Tel Aviv, and other enclaves of Jewish progressivism, where people fear the overreach of rabbinic authorities and the anti-democratic trends that have marked the latter stages of the Netanyahu regime.
Meanwhile, in America, where Vladimir Putin continues to subvert our democracy, Russia also holds the key to Jewish unity. Just as the fight for Soviet Jewry brought American Jews together a half century ago, a crusade to repel Putinism, the greatest danger to democracy everywhere, can bring American Jews together again in a renewed sense of purpose.
This anti-Russia revolution should be bipartisan. Were it not for the reluctance of Senator Mitch McConnell, who recently held back votes designed to protect US elections, bipartisanship would have prevailed, as it did in 2017, when both houses of Congress approved strict sanctions against Moscow with near-unanimity.
So how can Jews come together to fight our common enemy? We wrote the book on how to overturn the 20th century’s Russian Revolution; we just need to open that same playbook to stop Putin’s hegemonic designs now.
We can begin by protesting all things Russian — their embassy, their consulates, even their cultural emissaries, from hockey teams to the Bolshoi Ballet. It is time to get serious. Hey, Americans once showed displeasure to the French by serving “freedom fries” — so how about a boycott of Russian dressing?
Speaking of boycotts, some are talking of avoiding tourism to Poland, given Polish leaders’ stubborn refusal to accept responsibility for the Holocaust. But if Jewish tourists are looking to boycott a country, no other nation has been more responsible than Russia for the swirling hatred that is infecting our world, the suppression of free speech, the corruption of the press and muddling of truth, the murder of innocents, the exaltation of the cult of personality, and the continuing and as yet unchecked attacks on America’s most sacred institution, the unfettered right to vote. I for one will not consider visiting the land of my grandparents as long as Vladimir Putin continues to spread his venom across the globe.
I don’t support some boycotts, like BDS., but let’s not forget that it was the Jackson-Vanik amendment, linking trade directly to the cause of Jewish emigration, that denied Russia its coveted most-favored-nation status and was a key factor in triggering the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse. Imagine how much a united American Jewish community could achieve if we denied Putin our tourism dollars, while championing legislation sanctioning the Evil Empire for their invasion of our democracy.
When Elie Wiesel took up the cause of Soviet Jewry in his 1965 book, Jews of Silence, he challenged Jews to come together to resist autocracy and support the powerless, for when we do, the world listens. When Natan Sharansky was freed from the Gulag in 1986, he drew 300,000 to Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza outside the UN on Solidarity Sunday (an annual day of protest that was like a third High Holiday for Jews). As Gal Beckerman recounts in his history of the Soviet Jewry movement, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, Sharansky pleaded for support not merely for Jews still held captive, but also for other human rights activists. “As a Zionist and a Jew, I support universal justice, the call from Sinai,” he proclaimed.
Now, as then, the stakes could not be higher. Muscovites are taking to the streets to defend democracy in Russia. In Israel, those Russians whom American Jews helped to liberate a generation ago are suddenly poised to save the Jewish state from becoming an illiberal theocracy, what Liberman has dubbed a “halachic state.”
Meanwhile, in America, we are poised for what could be either liberal democracy’s last stand or its finest hour. If we unify against Putinism, we can win. The Jewish community, proud and united, can once again lead the way in the cause of human rights and freedom. And once again, we could become a Russian tyrant’s worst nightmare.