Text size

The former world checkers deputy champion, Neta Feingold, 20, lives at the edge of an arid hilltop in the Benjamin region, in the Nofei Nehemia outpost, located between Ariel and Eli. She won the distinguished title five years ago, when she was still known as Natalia and represented her native country, Ukraine, in the European competition.

In the years since, her life has undergone a revolutionary change. Three years ago, she immigrated to Israel as part of the SELA program to bring in students from the former Soviet Union (FSU). She then became religiously observant, changed her first name, married 23-year-old Aharon whose name was once Denis, and together with him set up the outpost. Neta and Aharon belong to a small group of young immigrants from the FSU who have immigrated to Israel as teenagers in the past 10 years as part of the Naaleh project. Some converted to Judaism, all became observant, studied together in the Nir yeshiva in Kiryat Arba and changed their names to Hebrew ones.

A little over a year ago, they went to Amana, Gush Emunim's settlement arm, and with its help set up the small outpost. A short time ago, they were joined by an Israeli-born couple, Moshe and Odelia Aharon. The acceptance committee asked the couple if it would bother them that the local residents occasionally talk to one another in Russian. Moshe said not at all. Since then they have lived contentedly in the mobile homes - or "caravans," as they are called - in the "Russian outpost."

"We are like the first immigrants to Palestine," Feingold says, drawing a direct line between the Russian immigration then and now. "We came to build the country with our own hands. Soon we will be joined by more families of immigrants and another Israeli-born couple that has just gotten married and we get along very nicely."

And indeed, with the exception of what he considers to be the excessive use of mayonnaise in Russian cuisine, the Israeli-born Moshe has only good things to say about the match. The Nofei Nehemia outpost is the first that was entirely conceived and built by young immigrants from the former Soviet Union and joined by Israeli-born settlers. This is clearly an unusual phenomenon. Unlike the situation in the political arena, immigrants from the FSU have not taken positions of leadership among the settlement population.

Moreover, the proportion of immigrants from the FSU among the settlement population is quite small and numbers no more than 20,000 people, or only 2 percent of all immigrants and fewer than 10 percent of the settlers. According to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, a steady flow of about 1,000 immigrants have joined the settlements each year. In 1999, the year Ehud Barak was elected prime minister, the number of immigrants who moved to settlements zoomed to 1,400.

The overall number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who live in the territories is especially low, in light of their tendency to support the right- to extreme right-wing parties. While Russian speakers are greatly supportive of the settlement movement and settlements, they have not exactly moved en masse to the territories. About 9,000 immigrants from the FSU live in the city of Ariel alone (and represent over half of the city's population), and another 5,000 live in Ma'aleh Adumim near Jerusalem (about a quarter of the city's population). This means that out of the huge wave of immigration, only 5,000 immigrants live in all the other settlements. That's all.

The community of Russian speakers strengthened the right-wing parties in the ballot box but did not throng to the settlements, despite the ideological foundation and the financial temptation. One fairly obvious reason is that most of the immigrants come from large cities and are used to an urban lifestyle. That's why those who do move to the settlements choose the cities of Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim rather than the smaller communities. But that is not the whole picture. The phenomenon also has historical roots.

When the large wave of immigration began in late 1989, then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir banned the channeling of immigrants to the settlements lest a political move of that type slam shut the just-opened gates of the Soviet Union. It is notable that this is one of the few prohibitions to which the settlement leadership acceded with almost absolute obedience. Since then, very few have made any real effort to bring immigrants to the settlements.

Afraid of a Russian takeover

The surprising fact is that the immigrants from the FSU were simply not wanted by most of the Jewish communities in the territories. It's that simple. They were wanted by Ariel Mayor Ron Nahman, by successive Kiryat Arba mayors Shalom Vach and Zvi Katzover and in Tekoa - and they got them. Those places, dominated by what MK Yuri Stern calls "the religious-Zionist parochial and isolationist nature of the Yesha Council," did not want them.

Even the demographic war being waged by the "salt-of-the-earth" settlers did not spur them to find natural allies among the immigrants, whom they viewed as foreigners, suspicious and difficult to understand. They were "others" in a place where the local residents sought not only to double their numbers but also to create doubles of themselves. "I tried in a lot of settlements, and not only did they refuse to sell me a house, but they wouldn't even agree to allot me a caravan," recalls MK Yigal Yasinov of Shinui, who immigrated to Israel 10 years ago.

He began his settlement saga seven years ago, when he was a 30-year-old bachelor, still wearing a kippa and small beard. "In Rimonim and Kedumim they told me that I wasn't married and that it wasn't accepted," he says. "In Ma'aleh Michmas they said they weren't sure I belonged to the category they were interested in and they were not even convinced I was a Zionist. For the settlements in Gush Etzion, I wasn't religious enough. While no one took the trouble to tell me what was wrong with me, I think my `Russianness' played a major role. That's what ruined my feelings for the National Religious Party and the knitted kippot. They put me beyond the pale."

Yasinov recently met with the director-general of the Yesha Council, Adi Mintz, and bitterly told him this story. Mintz says he is also angry that Yasinov went to Shinui rather than the National Union because of this. On a more serious note, Mintz admits, "We did not realize the potential among this population in time, partly because its clearly right-wing nature has become evident only in the last five years. It was difficult to tell if they were motivated by right-wing ideology and love of the land of Israel or merely power and hatred for the Arabs. Perhaps we did not make enough of an effort."

This lack of sufficient effort apparently had deeper motives. The opinion one of the leaders of Yesha Council has of Minister Avigdor Leiberman, the most right-wing leader produced by the Russian-speaking community in Israel and a settler in his own right, reflects the deep suspicion about the immigrant community. "I once heard Avigdor Lieberman declare that if settlements were evacuated, there would be a civil revolt," said the leader, "and I said to myself, `Give me a break. If there's an evacuation, he'll go back to Russia for the dolce vita, and we will carry on the revolt.' The truth is that it simply doesn't work together. I was once in Lieberman's office. I felt like I was in a different world. Leather armchairs, intimidating-looking chaps in three-piece suits and blondes who looked like they had just had silicone implants. It is not our type of Israeliness."

From his point of view as well as that of the settlers, he is right. The fact that many of the immigrants are not Jewish according to religious Jewish law, the large number of single-parent families among them and the fear that the immigrants will become a financial burden on the community makes them less than desirable. Or as one of the Yesha Council leaders puts it, "They do not connect with the classic image of the settlers."

Dr. Ze'ev (Velvl) Tshernin, 45, a poet and lecturer in Yiddish literature who wears a kippa and lives in the small settlement of Kfar Eldad not far from Tekoa, is familiar with this reality from personal experience as well as from the observations he gained from writing a book on the Jewish settlement movement in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Tshernin, whose parents were Communists, was born to a non-Jewish father and began to put on tefillin during his army service in Russia.

Before he immigrated to Israel, in January 1990, while still in Russia, he came across a pamphlet published by the then housing minister, David Levy, about the settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and decided to move to Samaria. He attributes this urge to the fact that he grew up in a Communist atmosphere that thought in terms of public welfare, compared to the generation that grew up in the post-Communist age, who were interested only in their own individual benefit.

However, the decision turned out to be quite difficult to carry out. A group of militant secularist Russians, as he calls them, did not want him - a religious Russian - in their community of Barkan. "In Elkana," he recalls, "they wanted to preserve their religious Savyon and were not too excited about my joining them. Nissan Slomiansky (then the mayor of the Elkana Local Council), wanted an exclusive quality of life, and I didn't belong to that, despite that fact that I was a religious, married academic with three children."

Tshernin was helped by MK Roman Bronfman, of all people, who at the time was still a Knesset member for Yisrael b'Aliyah, in his efforts to find a mixed community of immigrants that no settlement wanted to take in. He ultimately moved to Kedumim, a place he describes as very friendly to immigrants. He moved about a year ago to a caravan in Kfar Eldad, a small community of 25 families where the dominant language is Russian, for personal reasons.

"Over the years, I came to understand a lot of things about my fellow settlers and the Yesha Council," says Tshernin. "We tried to join up with a particular group in Israeli society, but we couldn't. To this day, I believe in religious-Zionism and the philosophy of Rabbi Kook, and not because he was born in Russia. But many settlements suffer from an inability to accept the `other.'

"We were the only force that could save the small nonreligious settlements deep in the field, especially in Samaria, but the old-timers were afraid of a Russian takeover. A few token Russians is allright, but the moment they reach critical mass and want to be part of the decision-making process, there's a problem. By the time those settlements remembered the Russians when they needed them, it was too late.

"To tell you the truth, we are the same way. I find it difficult to believe that many North African or Middle Eastern Jews could be accepted here in Kfar Eldad. The Russians that have taken over the secretariat wouldn't let them," says Tshernin.

The movement petered out

It was on this background in 1979 that the Yisrael b'Aliyah party decided to establish the Settlement b'Aliyah movement. With great fanfare, Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein announced the establishment of the immigrant settlement movement at an event in Ma'aleh Shomron, but the movement soon petered out. Tshernin says it comes as no surprise that the only outpost that the Yesha Council agreed to evacuate without protest was Hill 777 near Itamar, which was populated exclusively by Russians.

"I felt betrayed," he says. "I called Sharansky and Lieberman but they didn't do anything. After all, the Russian settlers do not represent a significant electoral force. That's why they succeed where no one needs the politicians, like in Ariel."

Indeed, integration of the Russian-speakers is very successful in Ariel, among other reasons because of Nahman's refusal to accept Shamir's decree that immigrants could not move to the settlements. "I told Shamir right at the beginning of the wave of immigration that it was unacceptable that immigrants could move to the West Coast in America but not to the West Bank in Israel," recalls Mayor Nahman. "I went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe to consult with him and he told me in Yiddish, `Grab them.'" Nahman listened to his advice, and Ariel grew into a city deep in Samaria that must be taken into account in any future agreement with the Palestinians.

"When I travel to the FSU to persuade immigrants to come to Ariel, I tell them that there are many cities in Israel with mixed Jewish-Arab populations - Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem - but that only in Ariel, there are no Arabs at all," says Ariel city councillor Lina Kondertayeb. When she came to Israel 10 years ago, she did not know where Ariel was. An emissary of the Jewish Agency told her in a phone call to her home in the Caucasus about the big city of Ariel, where there is a university, schools and Russian-language television. Kondertayeb thought she was moving to a large metropolis. By the time she realized where she was, both geographically and politically, she had fallen completely in love.

In her real estate office, Marina Rajenko now sells apartments in Ariel's first high-rise buildings. About 70 percent of the apartments have been sold to immigrants from the FSU, almost half of whom have recently moved to Ariel from locations inside the Green Line. "The sale of apartments in Ariel is going very well," Marina says, translating a political issue into a real estate statement.

Tshernin still dreams of a settlement movement for immigrants, although it appears that it is already too late. The Russian group at the Nofei Nehemia outpost will remain a curiosity and Russian-speakers from Ashdod will continue to express their opposition to the evacuation of any illegal outpost in the territories, because after all, territories should not be returned, but then again, nor should one move there. We lost them to Beit Shemesh

Corinne Achache immigrated to Israel from Marseilles four years ago directly to the settlement of Eli. She did not come alone. The Achache family was part of a group organized by the Group Aliyah organization headed by Shalom Vach, formerly the mayor of Kiryat Arba. For the past seven years, Vach has been involved in bringing groups of immigrants from France. The candidates are given preparatory seminars while still in France and come to Israel together, to live in settlements, of course.

Achache's group had 26 families, all observant, who settled in Eli, a settlement that is involved in immigration absorption. "We are idealists," says Achache, who currently works in the office of the head of Eli's council. Some of the families were strongly affected by the recent intifada years and moved to towns inside the Green Line. Most remained. In recent months, they have been joined by another 11 immigrant families from France. Another few dozen French families have come to live in Tekoa, Kokhav Yaakov and Kokhav Hashahar.

French Jewry is now viewed as the principal reservoir of immigrants moving to the settlements. Their profile is quite uniform. Most are religiously observant families of North African extraction, who are now fleeing from anti-Semitism in France. "There are terror attacks here, but this is our country and the army will protect us," says Achache. "In France the situation is only getting worse, and there, there is no one to protect us." The immigrants' political profile is quite varied, with the group that settled in Kokhav Hashahar considered the most radical.

English-speaking immigrants are concentrated mainly in the settlements around Jerusalem - Efrat and Ma'aleh Adumim. But there are fairly large groups in Tekoa and Ginot Shomron too. The English-speaking immigrants made the headlines in 1994 when they founded and led the radical Zo Artzenu movement, which was formed to protest the Oslo agreements. For a short time, it seemed that the immigrants were starting to take positions of leadership in the settlements. However, this turned out to be a short-lived episode.

The immigrants, especially the Americans, brought with them patterns of thought and action that were alien to the settlement establishment and found it difficult to find their place within the closed establishment over the long term. "They are a little childish," says one of the most prominent representatives of this establishment. "They have a built-in extremism," claims another. "Even those who live in Efrat have never attained any real leadership positions." He is referring to Women in Green, a radical right-wing women's movement led mostly by English-speaking women.

At the same time, some in the Yesha Council are now expressing regret that they did not make more of an effort to attract these immigrants to the settlements. "We lost them to Beit Shemesh," they say regretfully.

The really warm feelings are reserved for small groups of immigrants that do not represent a threat to the settlement establishment. Immigrants from Ethiopia have been absorbed very well in Tekoa, and a group of Bnei Menashe from India were recently absorbed in Shavei Shomron. Encouraged by former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, a conversion ulpan was quickly set up in the settlement, and homes equipped with basic furnishings were prepared for the penniless immigrants. Previous groups of Bnei Menashe, who consider themselves descendants of the tribe of Menashe, have settled in Neveh Dekalim and Kiryat Arba too.