Saturday, February 24, 2007


Israeli Russians and the Israeli Left - Vera Reider

Vera Reider, February 2007
Translated by Agatha Haun and revised by Vera Reider

Everyone knows that the absolute majority of immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union, beginning in the 1970s, declare themselves advocates of right-wing and ultra-right views. «Why so? » -- nearly every new acquaintance from the Israeli «left» camp asks me that. I even ask myself this question – both as an «Israeli Russian», and as a person who finds herself within the «left camp». In this essay I set out my reflections....

The «Russians» weren't born as rightists. Of course, the totalitarianism of the Soviet system left its imprint on their mentality, especially among the older generation – a dichotomous division of the world into the «good» and the «bad», a conception of their state as the bearer of some kind of special mission, turning it into an isolated bastion of the Truth, surrounded by enemies – all of this was instilled by Soviet upbringing from childhood. However, Russian and Soviet Jews, most of whom had received higher education and belonged to the upper strata of the Soviet intelligentsia, imagined themselves to be precisely the liberally inclined layer of society. Their attitude toward the authorities was rather ironic; they were accustomed to perceive reality critically and to ridicule ideological cliches.

And now these people turn up in Israel. It would seem that the liberal tendencies of their thinking should have been further developed here: here the border is not closed, society is more open, here there is a multi-party system, pluralism in the press, freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Didn't they dream of this under the red stars? And what then? As soon as the discussion turns to talk of politics, of the «situation» (and can you imagine life in Israel without the constant discussion, like the noise of a superhighway, on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?) – the impression is created that liberal values are rejected, individualism gives way to unprecedented rallying (that didn’t exist in the “old homeland”) for the «old homeland» – and this rallying happens on an extreme-right, ultra-nationalist basis.

Of course, the background is important here. They speak of the «imperial consciousness» which has not been eliminated among former citizens of the Soviet empire, and of the «victim's complex», which demands compensation, as soon as the former victim starts to sense that s/he is the master of the situation. This has its own truth, but there are also other aspects. As paradoxical as this may sound, in my view the change among the «Russians» is caused precisely by their desire to merge into the mainstream of Israeli society, while they lack sufficient knowledge of this society's history and current problems.

And, investigating the reason for the unpopularity of the «leftists» on the «Russian» street in Israel, one must ask him/ herself two questions. First, «how consciously do the «Russians» gravitate toward the right camp?» And second – «and does the «left» camp do enough to attract the «Russians» (or new people in general)?»

«Right, left, which side?»

That's a passage from a letter that I received a few months ago from Mikhail K. from Jerusalem. Mikhail is 46, he arrived in Israel 5 years ago from Ukraine, has two university degrees, and was a theatre critic in his home country. He writes:

«It's simply scandalous, the way people in this country treat Arabs. I think that to a great extent, they're without rights and they're being injured, and that's wrong. However, by conviction, I'm an extreme right-winger. Sometimes I ask myself: and where am I anyway? In a country which ought to be Jewish, or in some Arab country? But they live here and you have to do something with that. But if they were given citizenship, then they must be citizens with full rights. You can't humiliate them on the streets with unceremonious searches, making them form up in a line, as though they were in a camp or a prison. You can't force them to get off a bus, in the rain, for a check, just because somebody doesn't like the way they look, and so on.»

It sounds contradictory, doesn't it? And all the same, time and again I've been convinced that people who call themselves «extreme right-wingers», believe, even if just in theory, in the necessity of full civic equality and don't see a contradiction in that. Why does it happen that way?

In my opinion, one of the reasons is that the post-Soviet discourse develops not on the plane of «rightists-leftists», but on the plane of «totalitarianism-democracy». The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state. A «left» totalitarian state. Going out into the «free» world, emigrants continued to associate «leftishness» with totalitarianism. Democrats and liberals in Russia are «right-wingers»; in this context it would be worthwhile for the Israelis to listen, for example, to the opinions of Irina Khakhamada, president of the party Union of Right Forces, on the national question. She would certainly be driven out of MERETZ (1) for excessive «leftishness».

Among former Soviet people, «leftishness» and socialism are associated with the suppression of personal initiative, disrespect for the individual, a lack of democratic freedoms, while in Israel these freedoms are the aspirations of the «left». But at the same time, the entire political spectrum in Israel is moving sharply to the right! So it turns out that purely liberal values, which represent the mainstream in Europe, are located in the centre and on the right in post-Soviet Russia, and in Israel they're located on the left, far from the centre.

It's difficult to understand this, but that's still not everything. There's still the national (In Russian, the words «nationality, national» are sometimes used in approximately the same way that «ethnic, racial» are used in English, especially American English in discussions of «race relations» and similar problems – translator's note) question, after all. And I think that the «Russians» also perceive this differently from the Israelis.

Racism and xenophobia have always existed in Russia at the everyday level. And all the same, notice that from the time of the Jewish pogroms of 1906 to the post-Soviet carnage in Chechnya – almost 100 years! – there was no violence in the country based on nationality (ethnicity, race). Inter-ethnic (inter-racial) marriages were and still are a common phenomenon. All children studied in one and the same schools. Of course, national (ethnic) feelings, artificially suppressed by Soviet ideology, smouldered somewhere in the depths and at times broke through in the form of disputes in a tram-car. But – when one was in polite company and in sober form, to behave toward someone in a certain way because of his nationality (ethnicity) was considered indecent. What happened to the immigrants in Israel?

«And what's on the left in our country?»

In the early 1990s a district of detached houses for «Russian» immigrants was built in the town of Lod (2) – «Shkhunat Akademaim». Some «shikunim» (inexpensive multiple-flat buildings – V.R.) were located alongside them, whose population gradually gave place almost entirely to an Arab one. As is well known, the municipality is inclined to neglect such neighbourhoods – in particular, the sewer system there broke down, and the odor, recognising no boundaries, spread to the prestigious «Russian» neighbourhood.

One evening, a couple years ago, I came out of my friends' house in «Shkhunat Akademaim» and went to my car. An elderly man was tinkering with a car parked next door. When I greeted him, I learned that he was a resident of the neighbourhood, who had come from Moscow. «What's that smell here in your area?» I asked him. «Oh, don't ask, that's all because of the Arabs», he answered me. «Arabs live over there, their sewers don't work». «Why don't you do something about it?»I asked. «After all, you built yourselves these expensive houses, and now you can't even sit in the garden? You ought to demand that the municipality fix the sewers for your Arab neighbours!» «Oh, come on», he replied indulgently. «Here they won't do anything for Arabs. They should simply leave! If they leave here, Jews will move in to take their place, and then the sewers will be fixed. Kakha ze ba-arets!» («That's the custom in this country!» - Israeli expression)

The idea of «transfer», in this way, appeared here in a perfectly ordinary aspect, as though flowing out of the most banal daily life that is lived by the country. Any immigrant strives to get himself settled into a better position in his new country. In order to do that, he'll endeavour to merge into the «mainstream». But in their striving to become loyal citizens, the «Russians» unavoidably sensed racism and national (ethnic) chauvinism, which characterised both the society and the ideology of all Israeli governments – both right-wing and «left». If the entire political spectrum, from «Moledet» to Beilin, are more concerned about «preserving the Jewish character of the state» than about solving the social problems even of the country's Jewish citizens, not to mention the Arabs - then, in the end, what difference does it make to the «Russians» whom they join? «The right-wingers, at least, don't lie», one of them told me. «In fact the left-wingers hate and fear the Arabs just as much as the right-wingers do – they simply shelter themselves behind fine words, so as not to lose the subsidies from the European Union». And that's to say, you remember the pre-election rhetoric. As a «solution» to the conflict we are offered the choice: transfer, the Wall, unilateral separation. One is the invention of the right-wingers, the other – of the «left», but what's the difference, really? The idea is the same: «We promise you», say the right and «left» candidates, each in his own way, «that you won't see any more Arabs». The right-wingers simply talk about this more boldly and resolutely and who's going to vote for “left” hypocrites?

In fact what is there so special that the «Zionist left» can offer to the «Russian» immigrant? Yes, the «right-wingers» have many opportunities to influence the «olim khadashim» through purely material factors. For example, in the ulpans (state-run courses in Hebrew for new immigrants – V.R.) there is agitation for the construction of housing in the settlements. And how, laying your hand on your heart, can you judge a person who receives minimum wage for qualified work, if he is enticed by a detached house «right next to the green line (former -until 1967 - demarcation between Jewish and Palestinian areas – translator's note), 20 minutes' drive from the centre of the country», instead of living in a shabby little flat in an outlying district? In addition to a whole bouquet of settlers' benefits and «special conditions»?

So then what's the reason for the «rightishness» of the «Russians» – is it simply that they're mercenary? – asks the reader. If only it were so simple! Did the «Zionist left» really try to oppose this in any way? Weren't settlements really built under Barak and Peres? Did the Avoda (Labor Party) and MERETZ government really invest sufficient funds in poor and outlying districts or undertake any sorts of steps to build low-cost housing as an alternative to the settlements? Precisely the opposite – the construction of social housing was discontinued by the Rabin administration, from the first days of its existence – and after all, it was to no small extent thanks to the «Russian» votes that it had come to power. Moreover – where is there the least degree of difference at all between the rightishness of Likud and the «leftishness» of Avoda in the issue of the settlements? In any case, it is so slight that a person who arrived in the country only yesterday, and has not yet defined himself on its political map, is hardly in a position to differentiate between them. And with all this – plus the ceaseless, constant right-wing propaganda in the «Russian» press – one must only be surprised at what a small percent of the «Russians» go to the settlements. Which once more indicates the striving to move into the «mainstream»... only the «mainstream» in Israel is thoroughly nationalist and right-wing.

Alas, it is hard to make any response to arguments about the hypocrisy of the Israeli «leftists». A person might call him/ herself a socialist, who struggles for the inculcation of social-democratic values, and be in the Socialist International, but as soon as it's a question of putting into practice the most banal of these values – equal rights – in his/ her own country, s/he is seized with an insurmountable feeling of tribal kinship. «A state for all the citizens? Not for anything in the world! » It is clear that the rhetoric of this statement is aimed mainly against Arabs. But already in the next stage it directly affects the Russian-language community. Almost a third of it consists of non-Jews – and what does the «Zionist left» have to offer them, once it is again in power? On the one hand they will continue to import them into the country – after all, they need cannon fodder and hands to hold the machine guns. On the other hand, nobody is planning to grant full equal rights to these people – at best they promise them that they can obtain (!) "a facilitated variant of giyur "(procedure for conversion to Judaism – V.R.). But this sudden readiness of the «leftists» to go cap in hand to the religious is capable only of arousing antagonism...

(I foresee the objections: it will be said that the majority of non-Jews, arriving in Israel as members of Jewish families, are fully in solidarity with the Jewish population of Israel and do not want to struggle for any rights, in any case, nothing at all is heard from them. This is true at first glance – but even if the problem is not evident, that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Already the next generation, who grew up in Israel, inevitably is discovering their legal disenfranchisement and it's hard for me to believe that they will resign themselves to being treated as a «demographic problem».)

Of course, I don't have a chance to conduct serious research on this topic, but from conversations with people, the impression emerges that the «Russians» feel much more comfortable in the right-wing camp than in the «left» camp. There they are treated as like-minded people, who are valued as such, and not only as purveyors of «goods» - the votes of the electorate. But if it's worthwhile for any «left» politician to consider whether it isn't time to start «work with the Russians», the most important question for him/ her will be «And how many votes will it bring me in the elections? » In this sense, the «Zionist left» takes the same attitude toward all «outsiders» - Arabs, «Mizrakhim» (Jews who arrived in Israel from Arabic countries – V.R.), and Russian speakers. And in the final analysis those who go to work for the right-wingers can have no illusions – there capitalism, tough competition, and profit are declared to be above everything. «Man is a wolf to man», therefore you can't make any claims on anyone. But what if the «left» lady, a defender of human rights, humiliates and chronically cheats her «Russian» domestic worker, time and again strives to avoid paying her too much? If the «left» professor asks permission of his «Russian» colleague to make use of his writings and then «forgets» to cite the sources? If the «left» party hires a «Russian» specialist copywriter and pays him/ her the minimum salary, and doesn't pay over that, so that afterward s/he is compelled to recover the earned money by going to court? No, ladies and gentlemen, «noblesse oblige» - if you call yourselves defenders of human rights, be pleased to tidy up your personal qualities further and observe the rights of ALL people – remember that you aren't alone, and that your unscrupulous conduct discredits the entire ideology and whole movements...

The «leftists» in Israel have not found a way to bring «Russians» (and not only «Russians») into full-fledged cooperation... and did they even want this? The «left Zionists» have a firm place in the sun, and after all to invite a co-worker on an equal basis means making room for others... And again to ask for comparison with Arab citizens. After all, the «leftists» prefer to see both «Russians» and Arabs as clients – or, at best, as business intermediaries, suppliers of votes – and not as fellow workers. «Let them be «poor», and when we get into power, we'll do them favours». Only neither the «Russians» nor the Arabs want to be unfortunate. They don't want to receive favours, but to work, not to be dependent, but to participate. Therefore as long as there are no «Russian» (and Arab!) «decision-makers» among the «leftists», as long as there are no «Russian» (and Arab!) ministers from the «left» parties, the left movement in Israel will remain unattractive for 40% of the population... perhaps a prestigious «ivory tower», but in no way a popular movement.

And again about the «Russian» press

But let us suppose that I'm exaggerating in the extreme. Let's suppose that the «leftists» have something to say to the «Russians», and they're full of resolution to try to win the «Russian» street. Their Bolshevik predecessors in this case, as is well known, first of all seized the post office, telephone, and telegraph, that is, the means of information and communication. The «leftists» in Israel should have first of all «won» the Russian press. The «Russian» press in Israel, as everyone knows, has a rightist, even extreme rightist, tendency.

Earlier it was thought that the «Russian» press in Israel was a temporary phenomenon which would disappear by itself when the immigrants learned Hebrew and started to read the local press. However, time has shown that it doesn't happen so simply. A person might work or study in a Hebrew-language environment and not experience linguistic difficulties, but in the evening at home s/he wants to relax and open up a newspaper in his/ her native language. S/he wants to continue receiving information about life in the country s/he left behind – and s/he watches Russian television channels. The Russian Internet offers an ocean of information on any subject and at the same time connects the user with the Russian-speaking diaspora not only in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also in the United States, Germany, Canada, Australia, and other countries and regions. Therefore they will be reading Russian here for a long time still.

The local Israeli Russian-language press is the most powerful factor influencing the country's Russian-speaking citizens. The strength of its influence is explained by two principal points.

First, for people who recently arrived in the country, and in recent years for those who are merely thinking about migrating here from the CIS, this press is the first and sole source of information. Possibly this is hard for an Israeli to understand: when you are born and grow up in a small country, where everyone knows about each other, information that comes from the press is supplemented, «diluted», and complicated, or on the contrary, it is explained, by personal impressions, rumors, acquaintance with the arrangement of forces, and so on. But for a person who is unacquainted with the life of the country, the press in a language accessible to him/ her is the sole representation of the new world. What is read in the newspaper in the first days remains in the memory for a long time and defines one's aims.

Second, in the Soviet Union there was no independent press which could express private opinions that did not correspond to the state ideology. It came to be that everything which was written in the newspaper was written with the knowledge and approval of «higher instances». The racism, xenophobia, and incitement against ideological opponents – «leftists», pouring from the pages of «Russian» newspapers in Israel are perceived therefore as something permitted and acceptable. All the more so since this incitement is very rarely stopped – the «leftists», it seems, decided simply not to pay attention to it. It is more probable that the «leftists» simply aren't interested in the «Russian» press. «They taught me to ignore that (Russian-speaking) public», a young correspondent of one of the leading Israeli papers told me not long ago in a private conversation, «there's nothing for you to do here, they're all rightists».

All of the «Russian» newspapers are owned by Israelis; I'm sure that not one of them defines himself as «right of centre». There are very few regular staff journalists on the «Russian» papers and those that there are receive miserable pay. The salary of an editor of a supplement, working on the basis of a personal contract, doesn't amount to the average Israeli salary. One of the famous journalists told me that, working on the staff of the «Vesti» – the most «solid» Russian-language newspaper in Israel – she was regarded as a half-time worker and received... 2,000 shekels [364 € or 478 US$]. The newspaper «Vesti» belongs to the «Yediot Ahronot» concern.

Of course, in such a situation a journalist must earn additional pay by various work on the side. But it's not only a question of money. Let us not forget that Russian-language journalists in most cases came to Israel at the same time as their readers and have approximately the same baggage of knowledge. In such conditions a journalist doesn't have time to study and expand and deepen his/ her knowledge of the society in which s/he lives.

The reportage of Russian-language journalists concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bears an almost exclusively theoretical character and abounds in abstract thoughts on general themes such as «the clash of civilisations» - and this in a country where conflict is developing a half-hour's journey from the newspaper's editorial office! But the «Russian» papers don't have the money to send a reporter to scene of the events. How are these articles written? It seems that the Israeli owners of Russian papers don't ask themselves such a question. Do they know at all what's written in them? Hardly likely...

Of course, the Israeli press is full of articles with a «rightist» bias and by no means are the events always reflected objectively. But all the same, the Israel press offers the reader a certain spectrum of opinions, it does conduct research on the events, calls on the reader to think things over, raises doubts, as is incumbent on a living press in a living country. Instead of all that, the «Russian» reader is offered pure, pseudo-patriotic, nationalistic propaganda. Is anyone from the Israeli «leftists» interested in this situation in the press, which is the source of information about the country for 20% of the population? It would seem not.

In the meantime, there are also left and liberal journalists on the «Russian» street. It's just that the way to the press is practically closed to them. And even so, they write and strive to make their opinion heard, in spite of the fact that they often have to pay a high price, both personally and in the context of their status. The paradox is that even making rare attempts at work with the Russian press, the «leftists» don't take the trouble to seek out like-minded people, but turn to all the same right-wing journalists or public-relations agencies, supposing, with the strange naivete of the «leftists», that devotion to an ideology can be purchased for money.

In 1999, when Barak came to power, replacing Netanyahu, a whole array of groups and individual citizens from among the «Russian-language» undertook, without reaching an arrangement among themselves, attempts to create a «left», or liberal, or really independent Israeli newspaper in Russian. They were not businessmen or politicians, they were simple citizens, worried about the state of minds on the «Russian» street, and they sought support among like-minded Israelis. The idea was simple – «Haaretz» (3) appears in English – why couldn't it also be published in Russian? Even if not every day, what about once a week? Even if not a whole newspaper, maybe just selected articles? Even if not only «Haaretz», what about a digest of the Hebrew press – if only to «take out» the Russian-language reader from this insufferable one-sided and rightist commitment of the «Russian» press! One of these people managed to get through to the chief editor of «Haaretz», someone tried to talk with politicians and prominent public figures. As we all know, to this day «Haaretz» has not appeared in Russian. None of the «left» Israelis supported this idea, in any case, no one wanted to lift a finger to translate the idea into action.

The main argument was the uncertainty about the «profitability» of such an enterprise. I don't know whether they conducted any real research about the potential profitability of such a publication – it's clear that it should have been done, taking into account the Russian-language diaspora in Russia and all around the world, especially in the USA, Canada, and Germany. But there's still one question – why the only factor which interested all these «leftist» actors was the aspect of «profitability», profits? Clearly, the establishment of a newspaper demands the investment of money, which is terrible to lose. But in Israel there are several «left» parties and organizations, and they could have at least have made an effort all together! Isn't the acquisition of like-minded people really «capital» of itself, and does everything (among «these «leftists»»!) really come down only to money? After all, ultimately, apart from concern about the «profitability», one would like to think that the «leftists» do still have an ideology, confidence in their convictions, the desire to change the existing state of things for the better.

Alas, all these are not sufficiently driving forces... The «leftists» lost the struggle in the field of information and propaganda seriously and for a long time. But after all, the way to victory here is quite simple. After all, you have experience in human rights work, don't you? – So struggle for the rights of the Russian-language journalists, let them receive pay equal to Israeli salaries! Are you prepared to allocate funding? – Forget about the fact that convictions can be bought, don't employ advertising agencies – take the «Russians» who came to you with their convictions, promote them, make them into copywriters, speakers, commentators! Found a «left» Russian newspaper, you will find journalists for it, and your ideas will finally have a proper mouthpiece on the Russian street...

Instead of a conclusion – a few words «from within» about the «radical left»

Alas, here the picture is not at all cheerful. I can't avoid citing the cry from the heart of one of my friends. «I'm a «Russian»», she said, «and I'm in a «radical left» organization. There I feel comfortable to the highest degree, they love me, respect me, promote me, take me into account... And all the time I'm thinking: the hell with this, if everything is so good, why I am the only «Russian» there?!”

Yes, we – the so-called «radical leftists» in Israel also don't draw the «Russians» to us, and not just the «Russians»... There are, of course, objective reasons for this, and even universally-objective. One of them is that whole lack of information: in the Russian press, MERETZ and Shalom Ahshav-Peace Now (4) are called «ultra-left» - but there are also reasons, so to speak, of a local character...

The point is that whether we want this or not – we're part of Israeli society and we're susceptible to its diseases. One of these diseases, in my view, is continuing «ghettoisation» from within. We call ourselves «radicals», but we can call ourselves radical leftists only according to the rules of an internal Israeli game. Beyond the walls of the ghetto there are other proportions and criteria, and if we want others to listen to us and understand us, especially those who came from outside, we should probably either start to speak in their language or acquire a new language in which the words will be equivalent to their meaning... After all, what's happening? If we agree that we're radicals then it turns out that the «centre», the «moderates» are in power in the country! Again I want to remind you that the «blasphemous», «extremist» idea of «a state of all the citizens» represents the most banal mainstream in the civilized world, and it's already time to start talking about this out loud... The impression arises that we are afraid to frighten fellow citizens with our «radicalism» and we seek ways to seem «pragmatic»... but after all, man does not live by bread alone, and our opponents successfully operate with such abstractions as «being the chosen ones», «tradition», «justice», «love for the homeland»... But after all, we too have a tradition – humanistic, universal human values, which are older than national values and which will remain, even when their national states have become obsolete...

I think that along with the concrete struggle against distorting phenomena of our reality, we need to busy ourselves with formulating an ideology in order to understand ourselves and show people not only what we want to move away from but also where we plan to arrive and bring the society. And, of course, we must be on the alert and struggle against the manifestations of racism and dehumanisation of the “other” in his/ her own milieu, to get out of the dichotomy of «Jews and Arabs», become aware of the diversity of nuances within and outside ourselves and create from them a unified picture of an open world, a world without walls... only then will we able to think that our comrades-in-arms will come to us unimpeded.


(1) MERETZ – liberal-national party which is considered «left» in Israel
(2) Lod (Lydda) – city in the central area of Israel, where both Jews and Arabs live
(3) Haaretz – left-liberal Israeli newspaper
(4) Shalom Ahshav – Peace Now – Zionist «left» organisation

This article was published originally in Hebrew in the journal Mi Tsad Sheni (From the Other Side), issued by the
Alternative Information Center

Translated from Russian by Agatha Haun and revised by Vera Reider, members of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation is copyleft. It can be freely reproduced provided its author, translator, reviser, and site of origin are cited.URL of this article :



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