Text size

On the morning after the bombing of the Moment cafe in Jerusalem, some pupils hanging around near the Lifta high school in the capital were talking about the attack. Some had been through bombings. Yair and Ya'acov were on the Ben Yehuda mall the night of the three-bomb attack. Yair went home that night covered in blood. "I'm sorry I was born here," he complains. Eyal, almost angrily, complains that he wasn't even born here. He was born in Brazil and was adopted by an Israeli family and he is sorry that his life has brought him to here of all places. Everyone says they won't let the terrorism stop their lives, but they have a collective dream - of Amsterdam. Maybe despair is more comfortable in Amsterdam.

A lot of sad conversations are taking place in Israel nowadays. That doesn't mean there is a wave of emigration away from the country, but there is a mood in which there are a lot of questions and very few answers. The million or so Russian immigrants who have mostly arrived in the last decade between the Gulf War and the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada, to a country that is the opposite of the safe haven they wanted for their children, are also taking part in that sad conversation.

It's natural to assume that those who only recently arrived would be the "weak link," less committed to life in Israel. But the picture is far more complex and reveals that the immigrants may actually be the "strong link."

A survey conducted in December by Dr. Alex Feldman of the Mutagim Institute, which specializes in public opinion surveys among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, proves just how complex the picture is among the immigrants. Some 78 percent say they feel committed to Israel; only 3 percent said they plan to leave the country in the next six months. Some 19 percent said they plan to leave, but haven't decided when.

"The 3 percent, I call those who already live at the airport," says Feldman, himself an immigrant of the 1990s. The 19 percent, Feldman says, are "living out of their suitcases," but he believes they won't really leave.

In other words, it turns out almost all the new immigrants will stay here. It's possible that is part of the proces of Israelization they go through. Like veteran Israelis, the immigrants ask questions and have doubts about the future. Like Israelis, they mostly talk, and few really leave. But unlike among veteran Israelis, it is hard to find real despair among the immigrants. That surprising discovery can be explained by the fact that the immigrants came from countries out of despair, and don't want to settle into despair in the place they chose to escape it.

A comprehensive survey by the planning and research department at the Ministry of Absorption came up with similar results. Between 80 percent to 90 percent of the immigrants would choose to come here, even now.

It's not about security

"Was it worth it?" The question comes from the mouth of Michael Barkan, 41, almost with disgust. The deputy mayor of Afula, which has seen many a terror attack, arrived in Israel 11 years ago and the very question is an insult to him. "I decided to immigrate when I was seven years old, when we held a quiet celebration at home for the victory in the Six-Day War. We only had to wait until we could leave, thanks to Natan Sharansky's fight. In my eyes, he's the Moses who took us out of Egypt."

In April 1991, the Barkan family received papers to go to the U.S. "Those who want America can go without me," Barkan declared at the time. The family split up. Most came with him to Israel. Some went to the States. He hasn't had a single moment of regret ever since. "You think I waited for war and terrorists near my house?" he asks. "Of course not. But I came to continue building my country, and that's what I'm doing."

Part of that process was joining Sharanksy's Yisrael b'Aliyah party and ending up as deputy mayor of Afula. Barkan is in daily contact the thousands of immigrants who settled in the town. Many have fallen victim to the terror attacks of the past 18 months. Two weeks ago he did the arithmetic: In the last decade, 14,122 immigrants made Afula their home. There are now 12,238 living there. That means only 1,884 left - and most for other Israeli towns: Upper Nazareth, Migdal Ha'emek or the center of the country. An insignificant number left the country.

"I don't know anyone who left because of the security situation," says Barkan. "Only a few people, who left because of promotions or difficulties earning a living."

Barkan's story highlights a surprising element among the immigrants: just as the security situation was not a deterrence to their decision to come to Israel, it is not a factor in their consideration of whether it was "worth it."

"I wonder if it was worth it when nationalism is on the rise, and every Friday when I buy the Russian language papers and am disgusted, wondering why I need this. And there are moments when I fear that fascism will take over here and wonder if it was worth it," says Vera Rider, who arrived in the 1990s from St. Petersburg. She is an odd bird in the immigrant community, a committed "leftist" involved in Ta'ayush, the Israeli-Palestinian joint action committee that visits Palestinians, bringing food and clothes to families in distress.

She makes her living in outgoing tourism, and sometimes writes for Vesti, the Russian language paper, which she says "doesn't print what I write." It's not only the newspaper that rejects her. Because of her political views, she says, she has lost many of her Russian friends. "I'm asked a lot why I don't leave," she says, "and I don't have an unequivocal answer to the question."

It's not the security situation that makes her wonder whether she should stay, but what she calls the "moral" issue. She doesn't think it's right to live in a country where "Death to the Arabs" is spray-painted on the walls. Rider, who is not Jewish, says that in Russia she went to demonstrations against anti-Semitism, and Russians would tell her she just "doesn't understand the Jewish mentality." Here, they tell her she doesn't understand the Arabs.

Before her son was drafted into the army, she suggested he stay in Paris and go to the Sorbonne. "Why do you need to come back to Israel and go to the army when they don't even consider you a Jew?" she asked him during a visit to Paris. Her son replied that while he has the same political views as she does, he wanted to go back to Israel to serve. "I'm a citizen of the state and I want to serve it," he told her.

That astonished her. "It was something totally new to me," she said. "In Russia, nobody thought of themselves as a responsible citizen; if there is enough democracy here to give my son the feeling of civic participation, then maybe there really is something beautiful here. In Russia I was the biggest Zionist in my family, precisely because my marriage to a Jewish husband made me feel the transition from belonging to the majority to belonging to the minority that suffers from anti-Semitism. My Zionism, the conventional Zionism as it is understood here, is gone. But this is still my country and I must contribute to it. Amongst other reasons, because it looks like my children will decide to live here."

Even if Rider is unusual in the Russian community because of her political views, her answer to the question "was it worth it?" is derived form the same sensibility that motivates most of the Russians who are asked the question.

Practically nobody answers that security is an issue. It's almost always the economy and society, whether issues of making a living, the character of Israeli society, the difficulties posed by the Orthodox monopoly, or the attitude toward immigrants and the humiliations many feel here.

`Was it worth it?'

"Was it worth it?" Edward Ramishvilli repeats the question, pondering it. "At the time, it was very much worth it. Up until a few years ago I'd say very much so. Now I simply don't have an answer." Ramishvilli, 25, came to Israel from Baku in Azerbaijan, a decade ago. There was a civil war going on there at the time, and Jews were being victimized. One day he went home with a friend and saw a a Jewish grandmother and her two grandchildren thrown out of the ninth story of the building. From that day on, his parents didn't let him go back to school. A year later, they were here.

The conflict bothering Ramishvilli then was not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the one between the veteran Israelis and the immigrants. It wasn't only the shouting of "stinky Russian, go home," in the schoolyard, but a knife wound he suffered in a brawl. During the past 10 years he finished high school, served in the air force as a helicopter mechanic, and now he's finishing his matriculation exams so he can study computer science. Meanwhile, he works as a guard.

Every night at work, whenever he turns the radio to a Russian station, the Israeli worker comes by and changes the station. "This is Israel, speak Hebrew," commands the Israeli. "What particularly bothers me is the attitude toward the immigrants," says Ramishvilli. "Even though my country is where I was born, Israel is the state that accepted me. I gave it my fullest - the army, on the border with Lebanon, guarding settlements. Sometimes I think that I care more about the country than the Israelis who were born here."

The "state" may have welcomed him happily, but did not treat him well. Angrily, he pulls his identity card out of his pocket and points to the nationality article. "Armenian," it says. He grew up as a Jew, until he came here and some clerk at the Interior Ministry discovered he had an Armenian grandmother. "I'm Jewish, I come from Azerbaijan, I have a Georgian name, and I'm registered as an Armenian. So what am I?" He is both angry and amazed by the situation.

His girlfriend, 21-year-old Ina Ponomarenko took part in the conversation. She's taking a course to become a registered nurse. She arrived from Ukraine 18 months ago, just as the intifada broke out. "It's hard there, it's hard here," she says, summing up her immigration experience.

Her mother is an engineer who cleans floors, her father an electrical engineer, working as an electrician. But in Ukraine there was neither money nor work, so compared to life there, life here is an improvement. Everything else is problematic.

Ponomarenko, who is lucky enough to be a pretty blond, suffers racist remarks calling her a prostitute, and humiliations over her ignorance of Israel. She's going through an identity crisis. The Interior Ministry arbitrarily decided that her mother, who her entire life considered herself a Jew, should be registered as a "Russian." So was Ina. But her sister, on the other hand, was registered as "Ukrainian." Why? There's no explanation. It isn't terror that deters Ponomarenko, it's the attitude.

"There are a lot of people here who don't like immigrants," she says. "If I ask someone a question and pronounce it wrong, they shout at me, `What are you doing here, when you don't know Hebrew!'" When asked if she had known then, when she was getting ready to come, what she knows now, if she would still have come, she answers, "I don't know."

Her hesitant answer fits in with the surveys and research done on the subject. The degree of commitment to the state is in direct correlation to the amount of time the immigrant has been here. The longer they stay, the more committed they become. According to the Absorption Ministry's research, the real crisis comes when their children are about to go to the army. These people came here for their children, and wanted their children to avoid Russian military service. They hesitate before sending their children to the army here, with all its dangers, while their children, who have been socialized in Israeli schools see it as their natural duty. Some of the families that leave - that 3-5 percent - usually do so before their children are drafted. But it's still a small, marginal phenomenon.

Ever increasing numbers of immigrants believe they will stay in Israel, but not their children. But that's also not unique to the immigrants. There are claims that the immigrants stay because of the difficulty of going through the trauma of emigration a second time. On the other hand, there are those in the community who say that the immigrants, who have been proportionately more victimized by the terror than any other group, are buying their place in Israeli society with their blood. And what could be more Israeli than that?