The decrepitude and old-world shabbiness of the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach made it a curious choice to host Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s meeting with South Brooklyn’s numerous Soviet émigrés last night. The only beautiful thing about the interior of the musty synagogue were the blue stained glass windows, which filtered light over the faded red cloth seats and scuzzy dark red carpet. Large chunks of paint peeled from the ceiling. “What, they couldn’t find a nicer synagogue?” a community grandee complained to me.
But it was a comfortable place to the older, mostly secular crowd of Jews from across the Soviet Union’s 15 republics who streamed into the hall accompanied by their successful looking grandchildren and a smattering of yeshiva students. The crowd’s median age was about 65. Had these Jews immigrated to Haifa instead of Brooklyn, most would been have been natural partisans of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, and there was a perceptible frisson of excitement in the air as they waited for him to arrive.
The rally was co-sponsored by Russian American youth organization RAJE—Russian American Jewish Experience—and the American Forum of Russian Jewry, run by Dmitri Shiglik. Youth, and youthful renewal were the rally’s paramount tropes. There were dozens of muscular young Russian guys in their mid-twenties bustling about in bright orange RAJE t-shirts; I ran into half a dozen people I had not seen in a decade or since high school.
Lieberman arrived at the rally directly from a Jerusalem Post conference in Manhattan, where an hour before he had caused political pandemonium with his statement that he would prefer calling early elections to releasing the next tranche of imprisoned Palestinians under the U.S.-led negotiating framework agreed to by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In Manhattan, Lieberman spoke English—”It’s impossible to go back to the package deal and release the terrorists,” he said—but in Brooklyn, he returned to his natural idiom. “Good day to you all, and I do believe we can speak Russian here!” he began. His own brisk Russian patter was certainly native but also a bit odd: The intonations were slightly off. “I just came from the Jerusalem Post Conference, and it is so good to be here with my own, here in Brighton beach, with my former zemlyaki”—or countrymen. He spoke about the natural commonalities of Israeli Russian and American Russian Jewish communities, with nothing more than an “ocean dividing us.”
Repeatedly, Lieberman used the phrase “Israel is more American than America.” He told the story of a party member, a Moldovan-born woman who went to work as a chambermaid in a hotel when she had first moved to Israel and who has now been elected mayor of the town of Arad. The rest of the speech was a medley of the usual campaign rhetoric interspersed with pride in the many accomplishments of Israel in the fields of high-tech and military development, as well as that of the many prominent Russian Jews in Israeli diplomacy and politics. “We hope this tendency continues and that we will have Russian-speaking presidents and premiers,” he said, with a deadpan grin.
Afterward, questions were fielded. Most pertained to the official Israeli position on the situation in Ukraine. “Israel is allied with both Russia and Ukraine, but paramount interest is the security of Ukraine’s Jewish communities,” Lieberman insisted. “Good work was being done quietly.” Tensions between Russia and the U.S., he added, are against Israeli interests. There was a written question about whether it was time to repatriate the body of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov to Israel from his Ukrainian slumbers; it was “a very good question,” Lieberman observed, entirely non-committal.
The last question went to a 9-year-old boy who was far too adorable not to have been a plant. “Do Israeli children have an Israeli dream in the same way that American children have an American dream?” he inquired in English, after politely asking permission to do so in Russian. It was an opening that no politician in his right mind could bypass or squander. First, Lieberman bantered with the audience knowingly about his own hardships in getting his three kids to speak Russian around the house instead of answering him in Hebrew, the near universal problem of Soviet Jewish parents. Then came the grandiose and misty answer. “Israeli kids,” Lieberman replied, “wonder when Israel might spend more on their development than on defense?”