The December 4th elections in Russia were so replete with fraud, it was not at all hard to find videos posted online of Russian election officials trying to covertly fill out ballots.  In the days that followed, hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest their country’s backward slide away from democracy.

The current rendition of the classic Russian totalitarian leader, Vladimir Putin, did what all despots do when caught with their proverbial hand in the cookie jar, he blamed the demonstrations on outsiders.  Having diplomatically raised questions about the elections, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became Putin’s target du jour.

After centuries of living under Tsars and then the autocratic Soviet state, we should not be by surprised by Russia’s painful struggles to become a real democracy.  No Russian leader or citizen alive at this moment has lived his or her entire life in an open, democratic society.  By putting a puppet, Dmitry  Medvedev, into the Russian Presidency because he could not serve more than 2 consecutive terms in office and then announcing he would now, 4 years later, run for a third Presidential term, Putin has made it abundantly clear that dangerous tyrants are not yet relics of Russian history.

One of the best things to happen to the Jewish State of Israel in recent history, was the immigration  of well over one million Jews from the former Soviet Union.   While the list of benefits to Israel of this migration is impressive, the fact that many of these former residents of a communist state are strangers to democracy, poses some serious challenges to the vitality of Israel’s democracy.

Totalitarianism is after all, so much easier, neater and convenient than democracy.   In a totalitarian state, citizens don’t have lots of choices of media outlets from which they can get their news; the government decides what is newsworthy.  Such countries don’t have long, drawn out election processes where nimble-minded, egocentric provincials argue such mundane issues as, who is the most patriotic, who hates immigrants and other “undesirable” groups more, who would be more effective in rolling back the social norms of the country by decades, etc.

In totalitarian countries, government leaders don’t have to put up with a free press that seeks the truth, or with opposition parties that offer a different point of view.  Most importantly, totalitarian governments don’t have to concern themselves free speech or free elections. “Don’t like my ideas?  Keep your mouth shut or you will end in up jail or worse.”

Unfortunately, the inability of some Russians  to commit themselves to a real democracy  at home, is also true of some of the Russian Olim (immigrants) in Israel who are finding democracy to be a very messy and  inconvenient process.

No individual or political party better reflects traditional Russian disdain for the hassles of democracy better than Avigdor Lieberman and the Russian immigrant party he started and leads, Yisrael Beiteinu.

In the last Israeli election, Lieberman made it clear in his campaign for Prime Minister where he was coming from on a number of critical issues. He proposed the forced expulsion of Palestinians from Israel proper; he employed bombastic bigoted nationalistic rhetoric that suggested that all Arabs were evil and incapable of living in a civil society; he made it clear that if he were in control, Israel would never cede 1 inch to a new Palestinian State; he suggested that all domestic political organizations and parties that challenge right-wing political positions such as his, were unfaithful to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Sound familiar?  The rhetoric of right-wing extremism is the same in every country; only the proper nouns get changed.

Unfortunately, because of Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system, minority parties with very limited, self-serving agendas inevitably become part of coalition governments.  Much to the regret of reasonable Israelis and Zionists the world over, Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party cut a deal with Beiteinu which ended up making made Avigdor Lieberman the Jewish State’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The result of having to work with someone of Lieberman’s ilk is  for the sake of sanity and world peace, Israel’s foreign policy is now unofficially made in the Prime Minister’s office, and not by the Foreign Ministry.  For example, in September, 2010 in addressing the  General Assembly of the United Nations, Netanyahu laid out his conditions for achieving a desired final settlement with the Palestinians. On the same rostrum days later, in the midst of describing the Palestinians as everything but human trash, Lieberman expressed skepticism that there would ever be a final resolution with the Palestinians.  Netanyahu’s office quickly responded that Lieberman was only speaking for himself.

In recent months, Beiteinu, in cooperation with other right-wing parties in Israel who don’t like being challenged in the press or in by angry citizen protesting in the street, have proposed a number of pieces of legislation that if implemented, will dramatically alter the democratic nature of the Jewish State.

  • One bill subordinates Israel’s democracy to its Jewish identity:  All new citizens of the State of Israel would be required to acknowledge the Jewish character of the country  and swear allegiance to the  “Jewish State of Israel.”  That might not sound unreasonable on face value, but remember that Israel’s founders were committed to it being a full-fledged inclusive democracy that would grant citizenship to non-Jews as well as Jews.  A good example of that objective is the fact that while Jewish men and women in Israel are required to do military service, Arab citizens have never been forced to serve in a military that often violently confronts armed Arabs from other countries, and Arab terrorists from within.

  • Another bill before the Knesset will make it easier for government officials to sue people in general, and the news media in particular, of libel. In the United States, to successfully sue someone for libel, the plaintiff must prove that misinformation was intentionally created to harm an individual or group’s reputation.  If politicians could easily sue people who challenge or satirize their job performance, how might that inhibit the democratic process?

  • There is pending legislation in the Knesset that would bar “outside groups” and foreign governments from funding social service agencies and civil rights groups in Israel.   Lieberman and company apparently believe that everyone in Israel is really as intolerant and conservative as they are and without outside funding, those Jewish groups that defend the rights of Arabs and provide medical and social services to all people in need, will simply disappear.

  • Israel’s right-wing parties are none too happy with the single most important institution in Israel that ensures that the country is ruled by law: the Supreme Court.  A number of efforts are in the works to give the Attorney General and the Knesset a greater say in who gets to sit on the high court and for how long.

Considering his politics, disposition, tribalism, and lack of understanding and respect for fundamental  democratic principles, if Avigdor Lieberman were not born a Jew and were today, a Gentile politician in his native homeland of Moldova, one of the new countries born out of the collapse of the USSR, what kind of politician would he be?  A humanist interested in promoting universal values that protect the rights and interests of all people, including the right to a free elections and a free press?  Or would Lieberman be Moldova’s version of Vladimir Putin?

Putin and Lieberman meeting in the Kremlin this past week.

No one should be surprised that when asked at a press conference last week, what he thought of the Russian elections and the ensuing fall-out, Lieberman responded characteristically: “Maybe there were some errors in several areas in Russia… but that is not different from what happens in Israel in various Arab and Druze villages.”

Lieberman went on to sing the praises of what Vladimir Putin had accomplished in Russia over the past decade.  Despots are each others biggest fans.

At the same press conference, Lieberman spoke about a bill he has introduced in the Knesset that would ban mosques in Israel from utilizing public address systems to call people to prayer.

Hopefully, the same desire for freedom and democracy that is driving Russians to challenge rigged elections will also inform and inspire the vibrant Russian community of Israel as well as all those Israelis whose tribal instincts distrust the fundamental democratic principles. It’s a shame that 63 years after giving birth to the most promising democracy in the post World War world, the citizens of the Jewish State of Israel find themselves again weighing the pro’s and con’s of democracy.