About two months ago, a father who emigrated from the Commonwealth of Independent States participated in the swearing-in ceremony of his son, at a secondary school that is a preparatory military academy. The proud father mingled with the other parents listening to their conversations. "Everyone here is Russian," he told his son. The youth, who emigrated to Israel when he was three, disputed the statement. "That is not accurate," he said. "There are some Israelis here."
This sums up the situation as that generation's wave of immigration completes its 20th anniversary, in the country that will soon be 60 years old. In other words, for a third of its existence, Israel has dealt with the immigration that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Most of the immigrants, who arrived during the early 1990s, have been in Israel for a quarter of its existence. And still they are "Russian," as opposed to "Israelis." But this fact does not necessarily point to a failure. It mostly reflects a unique situation of mass immigration which nearly makes the absorbing society redundant, an immigration sector that independently facilitates the absorption of its own.
At the same time, that immigration has changed the face of Israeli society - from significant cultural contributions to the establishment of a damaging secular nationalism that was brought here by individuals.
The conversation at the school points to another paradox: Despite the many years that have past, a natural linguistic use of "Russians" and "Israelis" still exists. At the same time, the second generation of immigrants has become the largest group contributing future soldiers of Israel.
While the terminology suggests a certain degree of alienation, routine life actually draws toward the center of society. Being included in the army is not merely a way of becoming Israeli, but also the creation of a group that will fill the roles of the elite in the future. There is no contradiction between these two phenomena, only an innovation: This is a different way of absorbing immigrants.
A superficial view of the situation sometimes leads to the conclusion that there is a "Russian ghetto." Such a thing does not exist, as Israel is much too small and demanding to create such extreme separatism. Nonetheless, there is a form of alienation between two groups in the population. The very size of the immigrant group, nearly 20 percent of the Jewish community in Israel, allows it a degree of independence from the absorbing society. This absence of dependence strips the veteran Israelis of the right to behave as enlightened patrons and contributes to the alienation, to the point of hostility.
Due to the size and its characteristics, the immigration of the 1990s was absorbed to a great extent through dependence on the state, but not nearly by society itself. It had sufficient strength to meet its unique needs from within - pubs, schools for its young, medicine that is not sold in Israel, all the way to pillow cases that fit the size common in Russia - there is no longer a need to replace the pillow that was brought from Russia, you can find cases for them here.
Nonetheless, it is clear that there is a mutual influence. On the socioeconomic level, the unique hardships experienced by immigrants evaporate, not only because time moves on, but also because of the economic deterioration experienced by Israeli society. There is nothing like poverty throughout the society in order to create equality.
On the political level, immigrant parties contributed to the legitimacy of sectorial politics which, until their arrival, were normally linked to the ultra-Orthodox and Mizrahim. If before their arrival Israeli politics was characterized by the politics of identity, "Russian politics" only made this phenomenon more prominent.
However, the biggest and most questionable contribution of them all, in altering the face of Israeli society, is the secularization of nationalism. During the years prior to the immigration from the CIS, nationalism in Israel was mostly identified with its religious stream, and was perceived as emanating from it. It relied on divine promise, a claim that one does not find among the Russian speakers.
Nationalism, as always, is accompanied also by racism. Of course this is not the case with everyone, but when found in a sufficiently large group, it affects public life in the country. The gap is closing, as racism and its manifestations have in recent years also made broad inroads among the veteran community. In the shared space, immigrants and veterans meet, influencing each other even though they may not realize it.
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