Progressive Revival

Matthew Weiner is the Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about interfaith and civil society. 


What does it take to get a secular Israeli Harvard Mathematician who has never engaged in public politics to jump full force into the current election in his country, and create a grassroots campaign amongst academics? The answer is simple: it is prospects of a government shared by Avigdor Lieberman, leader of ultra nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.  


Lieberman is a Russian Israeli, garners much of his support from this community, and has called for a very controversial oath of loyalty to be taken by all Arab Israeli’s if he were to gain power. Dennis Gaitsgory, who has one of the most brilliant minds in his field, having been tenured at University of Chicago in the Math department in his twenties, now resides at Harvard. He was also raised in Russia before immigrating to Israel. What’s more both Gaitsgory and Lieberman are from the Soviet Republic of Moldova.


Gaitsgory has always been loosely on the left when it comes to politics, but he is also a Zionist, and respects his nation’s democratic principles. Yet when he saw the way the votes were going during the recent election, and realized that for either Likud or Kadima to form a government they would likely bring in Lieberman, he knew he had to do act.


“I actually could not sleep that night. I was compelled to do something.” Gaitsgory contacted his friend Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of cognitive science at MIT, and they wrote a statement. They sent it to several peace based organizations that were uninterested in promoting it, so they promoted it themselves.


“We wrote it, our wives edited it, and we sent it to all of our colleagues.” Soon friend of friends were signing it. Then Haaretz picked it up, as well as several other new sources. An ad in Haaretz appears on Friday, with well over 500 signatories, but the list has grown since.


When it comes to the Middle East, the left and right will continue to battle it out. But when new constituencies respond to the state of affairs, we as a public must take note and ask why.  


For Gaitsgory, the issue is not only about human rights abuse, but also about citizenship and democracy. “I think our nation is at a crossroads, and that the concept of democracy itself is in danger. When the Arabs are required to take an oath, how can we know then what they think? How can we have a real conversation with our fellow citizens? And who will next have to take an oath? Which Jews will lose their civil rights if they decent from the governments opinion?”


Is Gaitsgory compelled to do this work as a Jew, or from an understanding of Judaism? No, he says. He is “pretty secular.” What about the Jewish sense of Justice, a common theme used by the left to argue for a humane peace? “First of all, I don’t like the word justice. Whose justice, anyway? I like compromise. And I don’t like to see religion and ethnicity as determining the whole way people think about the conflict.”


Instead is it perhaps his sensibility as a Russian. Gaitsgory sadly notes that it is the Russian community, having suffered so much, that “understands the language of force” and is therefore so supportive of Lieberman. But yes, for him, his own family experience in Russia is significant. “It is not that I feel I understand the Arabs because of my background,” he says, wishing to insure that he knows he cannot speak for them, “but I do feel the fragility of democracy. I know democracy cannot be taken for granted.” 


But the freedom to speak and to have a distinct voice is not only part of democracy; it is a compelling reason for his actions. “What I finally realized is that this guy will be representing me. He is Jewish, and I am Jewish. He is a Russian Jew, and so am I. He and I are from the same place in Russia.” Gaitsgory pauses. “We are both secular Jews. He will be seen as me. And this idea, I cannot take. 

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