A Rare Breed of Israeli Lawmaker: Russian-born, Leftist and Reform

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MK Svetlova. After interviewing famous leaders and covering revolutions in the Arab world, she's taking on Israeli politics.Credit: Moti Milrod

Before even learning the ropes of Knesset life, most newly elected parliamentarians already have designs on higher political office. A cabinet seat perhaps, or maybe even a position in party leadership.

Not Ksenia Svetlova. Ask this first-time Knesset member what her dream job would be, and she doesn’t have to think twice: This 37-year-old former Muscovite and newly installed Zionist Union lawmaker wants to be Israel’s first ambassador to Riyadh.

“Saudi Arabia is the key country in the Middle East,” she explains. “Without it, nothing happens in this region.”

Svetlova is a rare breed on the Israeli political landscape. A single mother of two, she is a former Arab-affairs television journalist who speaks four languages fluently: Russian, Hebrew, Arabic and English. Before giving up her Russian citizenship to enter Israeli political life, she traveled extensively in the Arab world, visiting such countries as Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the Gulf States, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where she has interviewed the likes of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the late Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Among other major news events, she covered the Egyptian revolutions that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and President Mohamed Morsi two years later. And although it may not be in vogue these days in Israel, she proudly identifies herself as both a leftist and a Reform Jew.

In the modest apartment she shares with her mother and twin, 6-year-old daughters in centrally located Modi’in, Svetlova begins her busy day with an update from the BBC Arabic language service – “one of my best sources of information,” she notes.

In a corner of the small TV room, a special play area has been set aside for her daughters. The walls above their small plastic table and chairs are decorated with pictures they’ve drawn, and the shelves are lined with books from their mother's travels to exotic lands.

Svetlova’s transition from journalist to politician was rather sudden, but she already knows where she wants to focus her energies in this new career. “Matters of religion and state are very important to me,” the novice lawmaker explains. “It’s very important for me to use my new position to promote civil marriage for all in Israel.”

She has learned the hard way the downside of getting married through the Israeli rabbinate – still the only legal way to wed in the country.

“Both my ex-husband and I were Jewish, so we didn’t think twice about getting married through the rabbinate,” she recounts. “But when I decided that I wanted a divorce, and he refused to give me one, I was trapped because the rabbinate would not get involved, even though there was absolutely no reason for me to be refused a divorce. It took me several years until I finally got my divorce, and at the time, I often felt there was no hope and as though I was in prison.”

Svetlova says she wants to use her new Knesset platform to fight the Orthodox monopoly over all facets of religious life in the country and to help create equal status for the various streams of Judaism.

“Orthodoxy may be the dominant movement here in Israel, but it’s definitely not in the rest of the world,” she notes. “How are immigrants from countries like the United States and Canada supposed to understand this?”

Although she is not a member of a congregation, Svetlova says that when she does attend prayer services, it is either at the Reform synagogue in Modi’in or at one in Tel Aviv.

“I took my daughters once to an Orthodox synagogue, and they kept asking me why men and women were separated,” she recalls. “I really didn’t know how to explain it to them. For me, it’s important that they see that men and women can pray together.”

No more reckless travel

Svetlova moved to Israel with her mother in 1991, at the height of the mass wave of immigration from the Former Soviet Union. She obtained both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Islamic and Middle East history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her interest in the Middle East began when she was young and became fascinated with ancient Egypt.

“When I got to university, I understood that I wasn’t going to get very far researching ancient Egypt because I can’t really work in Egypt,” she says. “I always wanted to be a journalist, so I figured it would be a good idea for me to study modern Egypt.”

In covering the Egyptian revolutions, she noticed parallels with events that took place many years earlier, in her own birthplace. “People out in the street in Tahrir Square knew what they didn’t want,” she observes. “They just didn’t know what they wanted. This is a classic problem of revolutionaries without experience. It didn’t work in the Soviet Union, and it didn’t work in Egypt.”

For 13 years, Svetlova worked as a full-time correspondent covering Arab affairs on behalf of the Russian-language Channel 9 television station in Israel. At the same time, she contributed reports and analyses to a wide assortment of international media outlets, including the BBC.

It wasn’t as though she was seeking a career change at this stage of her life, but when opportunity knocked at the door, she found it hard to refuse. “I had a feeling that what I do as a journalist is important but maybe not enough,” she says, explaining her move into politics. “The journalists are on the other side. They don’t interfere. They report, they write, and then they move on to the next story. In the current situation, with things getting so desperate in this country, I felt that maybe this is the moment to leave something I love more than anything else in the world and get involved.”

A few months before the last election was called, Svetlova was approached by several parties, mostly from the right side of the political spectrum, offering her slots on their lists. “I rejected most of them out of hand,” she recounts.

But when representatives of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party came to talk to her, Svetlova was happy to listen. Although they had never met previously, Svetlova says she was immediately taken with Livni, whose party merged with Labor to form the Zionist Union. “I always connect to strong women, and Livni is a strong women."

Like many Israelis on the center-left, Svetlova harbored hopes before the election that the right wing could be finally be beaten this time around.

Does she have any regrets now, looking at the results of the election? “No,” she responds, “because in the Knesset you can do worthy things from the opposition benches as well. We built ourselves up well during these elections and have proven that we’re an alternative.”

On the critical issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Svetlova favors a two-state solution though she believes it is becoming increasingly untenable.

“Now there is still a small chance [for it to work], but in a few years it will be too late,” she predicts. “There will be too many settlements, and the Palestinians will simply give up. We won’t have a Jewish state, and we won’t have a democratic state. So what have we accomplished then? My family and I came here from Moscow so that we wouldn’t have to look for another homeland, which is why I beg those in power: Please don’t destroy this country.”

Svetlova has experienced several close calls covering events in the Middle East. Once, while traveling with the Red Cross in Gaza during the second intifada, her convoy was attacked by militants. Another time, while covering Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s funeral in Lebanon, she was almost trampled to death near his grave site.

Still, she admits, she’s going to miss her days of reckless travel in dangerous places. Asked for her top tourist recommendation in the region, she says Beirut, without hesitation: “It is such a fun place that if Israelis could go there, trust me, they would never come back.”