The 'Immigrants’ Who Became 'Olim’

The million Russian-speakers who arrived in the 1990s changed this country, but they also were changed by it. Lily Galili, co-author of a new book about their aliyah, experienced something similar, some 30 years earlier.

Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman
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Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman

On a summer night back in 1999, at a political rally at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, journalist Lily Galili encountered a girl of about 8 who had immigrated to Israel as a baby. She was wandering around between thousands of adult Russian speakers from political groups associated with Avigdor Lieberman, who had just been elected to the Knesset as leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

“What are you doing here?” Galili asked her.

The child replied disdainfully: “I have two cultures, Israeli and Russian. I have an advantage.”

This answer surprised Galili, who had herself immigrated to Israel from Poland at age 8. “I said to myself that I wasted so many years not understanding that I too could have two cultures, and here an 8-year-old child threw it right in my face. When I came, it wasn’t possible to experience this process. The melting pot and this compulsive Zionist ethos, that within a minute you had to be in love with the homeland and be willing to die for it − did not let me go on being Polish.

“The way the children were treated as immigrants wasn’t simple either ... I came with a strong affinity for the system and culture in Poland, and Israel was utterly alien to me. I fell in love only later. To this day I am haunted by the smells of the guavas and the sight of the sand on the way from the airport. In Krakow there was no sand and no guavas.”

So in a single moment you lost your Polish identity?

“Yes, and it remained a secret that I was Polish; only those who had to know, knew. I didn’t speak with anyone for a year, until I lost my accent. I thought that was my entrance ticket. I wanted terribly to be Israeli.”

And did you succeed?

“Yes, but it came at a cost.”

Which was?

“The erasure of the previous identity, including the memories. It isn’t supposed to be like that. It turns your life into a collection of unconnected segments. It is a bad feeling. Shortly after I arrived, I had a school assignment, to help make a 10th-anniversary album for the state. I hated every moment. I still pined for Stalin then. I was raised on him, I wanted to be him.

“And suddenly, more than 40 years later, this brazen, arrogant girl comes along with two cultures − it was a blow. But she opened a window for me into my own psyche. I did some rethinking and realized there were advantages as well in being an immigrant, that there’s a broad perspective and greater understanding of people, because you have to constantly decipher the new surroundings. It is an inherent advantage.”

Earlier this year, a book by Galili about Soviet immigration to Israel, “A Million Who Changed the Middle East,” co-written with Roman Bronfman, was published in Hebrew by Matar Publishing.

Sixty-five years after the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which spoke of equality, freedom and justice, and after looking back at the 20 years since the big wave of Russian aliyah, in the 1990s − it is possible to say that Israeli society has never seemed so racist.   

In your book you show there is no lack of racism among some of Russian speakers.

“After the terror attacks of 9/11, I met Jews from Russia who went to America instead of Israel. In terms of their political profiles, they were exactly the same as those who came here. They spoke
exactly like Lieberman ... I knew how every sentence they spoke would end: ‘The Americans are weaklings, they don’t understand how to deal with Muslims,
Afghanistan should have been turned into one big parking lot,’ they said, in
statements reminiscent of the ones made here about the Arabs.

“I suppose Israeli society would have in any case undergone the processes that are chipping away at democracy and strengthening racism, but it is likely that the olim [immigrants to Israel] accelerated them. Today, by every measure of democracy, the differences between veteran and new Israelis have become blurred. Whereas the olim go through a process of Israelization, veteran Israel undergoes Russification.”

What bearing does Russian immigrants being “white” have on their integration into Israeli society?

“This undoubtedly gave them an advantage over the Ethiopians and Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern and North
African origin]. The Russians managed to get around closed doors, for example in academia. You can’t say this happened 100 percent of the time. They’ve succeeded in high-tech, but with the civil service, for example, they are gaining entrance too slowly. Wherever possible they are closing gaps, but the process is not complete. There is competition and economic crises, but without a doubt, it is easier for them than for others.

“It is true that with the Mizrahim, there was disdain for their abilities and skills, and that perpetuated the discrimination for decades. But here too there were attempts to undermine them, and they took their fate into their hands. Many members of the Russian middle class are still employed in Russian-speaking frameworks. There are also jobs that are supposedly ‘Russian’: at Superpharm the saleswomen speak Russian, in hospitals the nurses are Russians. Even though change has occurred in this area as well, there is a generation and a half that hasn’t found its place. It is a frustrated generation: They don’t have the safety net or network of connections Israelis have from the army, from the neighborhood, from university, from the parents’ workplace, and so on, and it’s tougher going.”

Mirror before the myth

In her book, Galili places a mirror in front of the Israeli myth about post-Soviet immigration, a myth that in the 20 years since the massive wave began turned out to be false. This is the myth that both sides, the state and the immigrants, sought for decades to reconnect. On the one hand, the state was supposedly “waiting for its sons,” while on the other hand, the “sons” behind the Iron Curtain were asking “Let my people go” and praying for “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

“It wasn’t true on either side, and a deep frustration was created,” Galili says. “On the part of the olim as well, because many wanted to immigrate to America and we didn’t let them. Israel was not their first choice. Suddenly it was like the state said to them: ‘Why did you have to come now? I’m busy, I have peace to make, I have a war to deal with, there are no apartments, there’s a financial crisis, and in general, it’s very inconvenient that you came now.’”

They were unwanted?

“Initially the establishment wanted them because it had a demographic consideration vis-a-vis the Arabs. But even from the beginning, there was a large part of the public that would have preferred that they not come. The Haredim, who questioned their Jewishness; the Arabs, who were afraid of losing jobs and having land expropriated; and the Mizrahim, who said, ‘We still haven’t been absorbed, wait awhile,’ because they realized that it would displace them.”

By the next stage, the establishment also began turning its back on them.

“Yes, I mean absorbing new immigrants is [a matter of] marketing. You have to praise the ‘brand’ and say, ‘It’s worth your while, it’ll be a bit difficult but they are top-quality merchandise,’ and so on. And indeed that was the first message, but when difficulties arose, the establishment began destroying that initial image and suddenly everything they brought was not good. Suddenly there was talk of mafia and hookers and fake diplomas, and it connected up with a natural popular resentment.”

Did the Russians really displace the Mizrahim?

“To a certain extent, yes. People got ejected from their apartments because housing prices skyrocketed in that period ... In the beginning there was tremendous tension associated with traditions, religion and ethnicity. Heads of municipalities were also afraid to lose their power bases. Suddenly, there were new shops selling pork. But overall, tying the Russian speakers to outlying towns worked well, in places where the municipal establishment was astute at leveraging that − based on interests, of course.”

What about the Ashkenazim and the Israeli elite? How did they receive the immigrants from Russia?

“They actually were waiting for them, because they thought the newcomers would counter-balance what they termed the ‘Levantinizing’ of the country.”

But instead of enthusiasm, this met with resistance on their part?

“Yes. I didn’t understand why, but the late [MK] Marina Solodkin told me: ‘We will not be the cannon fodder in your battles.’ The Ashkenazi elite and the left, which had expected to find in the olim natural allies, thanks to their being ‘white, secular and educated,’ were offended when the olim declined to deliver themselves to them immediately upon arrival, and so they gave up on them. The left always takes offense after all, whereas the right goes on courting and also succeeds.”

Not only Ehud Barak. Yitzhak Rabin failed with them too.

“Rabin came to power thanks largely to the Russians, but later on they were opposed to the Oslo Accords, the Russian-language media were hysterical, full of hate, loathing and fury against the left. The left came out looking bad also because it was involved in what [the immigrants] perceived as persecuting the right. There was a joke going around about a guy who asks a dentist friend how things are going at work, and the dentist replies, ‘The situation is catastrophic, people are scared to open their mouths.’ And this was a joke about Israel, not Russia! It accelerated the immigrants’ disengagement from the left and [Natan] Sharansky’s alliance with [Benjamin] Netanyahu. Not by chance is Yigal Amir’s wife named Larisa Trembovler.”

Is the Russians’ conflict with the Arabs the most significant?

“With the Arabs, there is an unavoidable structural problem, because the wave of aliyah − particularly of the 300,000 immigrants who are not Jews according to Jewish law − brings to the surface in the sharpest way possible the unresolved conflict between the Law of Return and the [Palestinian] right of return. Many times, in conversations with Arabs, they tell me, ‘We’ve come to terms with the Law of Return, but how do you explain the beneficial terms those same 300,000 non-Jews get? What about us?’ You see it mainly in the mixed towns to which the Russians were directed, Ramle and Lod, for example. It is a fight over ownership of this country.”

Were the Russians mobilized to Judaize the mixed cities?

“Yes, absolutely. It’s true this is less blatant than what they did with the Mizrahim in the 1950s, but this aliyah was directed there thanks to cheap housing and exploitation of their lack of knowledge. They had no idea where they were going; they didn’t know these were mixed communities. At first they didn’t even know there were Arabs in Israel.

‘Elite migration’

According to Galili, the collective self-definition of Russian immigrants here relates to “olim” and to “aliyah,” which is seen as “an elite type of migration.”

“Yaacov Tzur, who was the minister of immigrant absorption in the early stages of the immigration from Russia, recounted that at the transit station in Vienna he encountered ‘emigrants,’ and after three months in Israel he met those same people, who had instantly become ‘olim,’ with everything that entailed: the expectations, the demands, the immediate affinity − and also the disappointments.”

I presume that “olim” have a different impact on their surroundings than “immigrants.”

“Definitely. First of all, ‘aliyah’ embodies rights and ambitions to influence the country − things that migration does not entail. Aliyah is a personal experience that by virtue of the critical mass of a million people, became a national experience, which changed not only the country but also the entire Middle East. Behind every significant move of the last 20 years − from the peace process to going to war, and also economic and political processes − and at every stage of decision making by the political system, you will find the decisive impact of these million people, for better or worse.”

Give me an example.

“The first to recognize the political implications of this human tidal wave was actually [Yasser] Arafat. Yisrael Hasson, deputy chief of the Shin Bet security
service at the time, related that Arafat went wild and made efforts to stop the immigration wave by turning to [Mikhail] Gorbachev [the last leader of the USSR, who allowed the aliyah to begin]. The assumption that the olim would alter Israel’s demographic balance and domestic political balance spurred him to hurry and enter the Oslo process. History’s joke: The olim who by their very arrival expedited the Oslo Accords, contributed to its death later, through blunt opposition and bringing the right to power.”

What about a more immediate impact on the political system in Israel?

“Danny Danon, now deputy defense minister, told me back then that the olim taught the Likud to rule: ‘We were in power but didn’t know how to govern.’ The olim expanded the secular national camp and brought a different view of legitimacy for use of force, a different approach to democracy as a supreme value. Danon offered that analysis while on a sailing excursion to mark the day that the Altalena was sunk [in 1948], a tradition a group of olim in the Likud revived. They deliberately assumed the role of ‘We will teach you to remember.’”

Are these positive or negative processes in your view?

“First of all, it’s a fact. The state of migration is a set state. Even when a person puts down deep roots in the new soil, there are these transient moments in which the immigrant wonders what might have been. What would have happened if I had remained there? Who would I have become? On the other hand, one can exploit the advantage in this existential situation. Even when the roots are already deep, the immigrant sees things with a little detachment, as though hovering slightly above. At low altitude, too, the field of view is wider, and therefore the veteran and self-enclosed Israeli society would also do well to open up to the points of view the olim bring with them and to examine them.”

It’s a little funny you are saying all of this in the context of Danny Danon [an extreme right winger in Likud].

“The problem is that until today, mainly the right has been astute at doing this. The Israeli left and the small, liberal camp society have not figured out how to find a common language with Russian speakers or to forge a partnership with them.”

What about their social bond?

“The editor of a Russian-language newspaper once spoke about a concept of ‘visibility in immigration.’ In other words, the physical appearance that gives you away: apparel, hairdo, hair color, body language, makeup − gaps that cause people great difficulty in every migration. He wrote: ‘I know that at first we looked somewhat different − the men walked around in sandals with socks − but today both sides have learned. We removed the socks and the sandals, and changed the ties, but Israeli women lost husbands to the Russians, so they put on higher heels.’”

So there is competition in the romance department.

“Yes, but competition has led to the unification of appearance.”

Are you suggesting that the melting pot works?

“That is impossible. Maybe something on the level of ethos, but along came a million people who said: ‘F*** you − we’re going to do this at our own pace, because we can.’ That is the term that best characterizes this aliyah.”

They actually succeeded faster.

“Quantity becomes essence, and they came with higher education. The number of degree holders among them is incalculably greater than in the veteran population, and they have insane diligence. They do not balk at anything and are very ambitious. They came from a system where they had to strive. Excelling is a value for them. An educator friend of mine asked me what matters most for children in school. I told him, ‘that they be happy.’ And he said, ‘You are so Israeli, there isn’t a single Russian parent who would say that.’ To the Russian parent, what matters most is that the child study. That didn’t even occur to me. They brought with them values that are worth contemplating.”

‘Dramatic encounter’

Galili, who was a reporter for Haaretz for 29 years, covered the immigration wave from its inception. “I saw the masses and the difference, and understood there would be a dramatic encounter here and that their critical mass would alter society. Today 15 percent of the general public is olim and their offspring. That is great, because as a journalist you deal with everything − from personal stories of a lone individual, for example about elderly people who entered a hotel for two years and are still languishing to this very day, to politics and international relations.”

Galili retired from journalism while writing the book. Today she lectures at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, is active in the New Israel Fund and its empowerment and training center Shatil, and works with migrant workers from Eritrea, helping them to put out a newspaper and also writing a column for it in Hebrew, that’s translated into their language, Tigrinya.

What kind of reactions did you get to the book?

“The Russian speakers received it with understanding and respect. And still, many think my analysis is wrong.”

Why do you call them “Russian speakers”? Is it racist to say “Russians”?

“There is sensitivity to that. They themselves say ‘Russians.’ Those from Ukraine and the Caucasus also call themselves Russians. They have simply internalized that the public has a hard time dealing with the terminology, so they are all Russians. It’s a shortcut to awareness.”

The Russians’ involvement in local politics is impressive. Galili points out, for example, that many of Israel’s representatives abroad are Russian speakers − the former/designated foreign minister (Lieberman), deputy foreign minister (Zeev Elkin), Knesset speaker (Yuli Edelstein, who was public diplomacy minister in the last government), chairman of the Jewish Agency (Natan Sharansky). The last government also had a Russian-speaking tourism minister (Stas Misezhnikov).

From what does their immense influence derive?

“They had the right infrastructure, and the size and a desire to lead − ambition, industriousness, mobility. What took the Russians 20 years, took the Mizrahim 50 years. The Russians changed the face of society in Israel. They realized they could easily translate their numbers into power.”

Do they want to lead the country?

“Yes, they haven’t been looking for integration. In 1996 I interviewed the late Yuri Stern, one of the two olim I liked the best − the other was Marina Solodkin. I said to him, ‘You keep trying to solve the problems of the olim and the elderly and all that, but it seems as if you want more than that, that just making do isn’t like you.’
He told me, ‘You’re right. We’ve come to lead the country.’ And added: ‘Look, we Russians built the country, then there was a short hiatus (the insinuation was − you blew it), and now we have come to fix things.’

“Lieberman’s campaign slogan in 1999 in Russian was something like ‘We live here, and we’ll decide.’ Naturally he didn’t translate that into
Hebrew. He was new and it went unnoticed, but the Russian-speaking public took it in. Today it’s clear, and there is already talk about Lieberman taking over Likud.

“When there was a “threat” of peace with Syria, the olim spearheaded the war against leaving the Golan Heights. Lieberman would send busloads of olim to show them the dangers, and one day a bus arrived with people from Hadera who had been in Israel maybe two weeks. I asked someone how after a mere two weeks here, he already knew what had to be done, and told me: ‘In the matter of information, we know everything and we have strength to do everything. You are tired already, you went through many wars and many hardships. Let us lead.’ It is very deeply embedded.”

How do you view Edelstein’s appointment as Knesset speaker?

“From Prisoner of Zion to Knesset speaker in 25 years − that is a fascinating historic maneuver. Obviously it also stems from Netanyahu’s practical wish not to lose the votes of Russian speakers. [Ariel] Sharon was very beloved by them, also because of his general’s ‘halo,’ and they even let him carry out the disengagement [from Gaza], despite objecting to it. His plan was to tie the Russians to Likud for generations to come, the way [Menachem] Begin did with the Mizrahim. When he went to Kadima, 10 Knesset seats went with him. With [Ehud] Olmert, who was neither known nor popular, it didn’t work − and the olim went back to Lieberman. If Sharon hadn’t become sick, he would have turned into the Russians’ leader. Today Bibi identifies that potential.”

Is that why Netanyahu joined forces with Lieberman?

“Among other reasons. On the other hand, Lieberman paid a certain electoral price in the last election for realizing the objective of becoming a nationwide leader. There were voters on the margins who saw in this a betrayal, because their independent interests were forfeited. But with Lieberman, the yearning to become an ‘Israeli’ leader trumps everything. It also explains the makeup of his lists, which will always include so-called princes like Uzi Landau and Yair Shamir, or representatives of the proud Mizrahi generation like Orly Levi-Abekasis. He knows that to realize his future objectives, he needs respectability and roots, which the immigrant lacks.”

Most olim voted for Lieberman.

“They had no alternative, which is why 11 of the Russian’s 18 Knesset seats went to Likud Beiteinu. [Yair] Lapid also got some votes, but not like the Shinui party in the days of his father, Tommy, which did a lot better. In the future, Lapid will be able to win more of their votes, because the Russian middle class is large. In the election, the Russians’ representation in the Knesset actually shrank; for the first time there is not a single Russian-speaking member in the opposition.”

The Russians’ alliance with the national-religious camp and the right is strong.

“All the polls show that they do not want to undermine the Jewish character of the state. Today the two Russian representatives of the Likud party are yarmulke-wearing settlers [Elkin and Edelstein], and both have support among settlers and religious Zionists. Elkin told me that he intends to run for prime minister, but in the meantime his goal is to be minister of education. When he came under fire for the anti-democratic legislation he led and for his Russian-ness, he said: ‘I don’t get worked up about these things. We are not alone on this journey. This train has two engines − us and religious Zionism.’

“I asked him whether Israel was really ready for a Russian-born prime minister. He told me that was doubtful, but that we still must pay attention to demographic changes. He said: ‘The yarmulke on my head is an asset and the Russian language is likewise an asset, and with this combination in the future it not only will not be an obstacle, but an advantage.’”

And the left is not in the least attractive?

“The Russians’ social arena is gradually opening up. The direction is not entirely clear to me, but I think there will also be development to the left. It isn’t an upheaval, but they are more willing to hear.”

About two states, for example?

“Yes, about other solutions. Another generation has reached maturity. In sociology, there is a concept called a generation and a half − the olim who came to Israel as children are now, after 20 years, adults. The assumption, which so far appears to be accurate, is that in many respects they will remain Russians to the end of their lives. But that is in the cultural sense; the affinity for the language and culture is very deep. On the other hand, a process of rethinking is beginning; there is individualist thought and other ways of looking at the state and society.
Processes of civil society are deepening.”

They changed us and we changed them?

“Sure, they are influenced. These people didn’t come with unchangeable DNA. People come with a history, but something happens in the encounter with Israeli society. Israeli society was influenced by them as well. It became more right wing, the perception of democracy is changing and more closely resembles the perceptions from ‘over there.’ The younger generation as a whole is more right wing and racist.
But the opinions of young Russians about the human rights of Arabs are even more liberal than the opinions of the veteran Israeli-born, younger generation. That actually comes from their history. They have immense sensitivity for human rights, because they have been victims − there and here.

“They came under the auspices of the secular Zionist Law of Return, and were absorbed according to the rules of Jewish law, and no one prepared them for this collision. Today this gets translated into the language of human and civil rights. They are very sensitive to the fact there is no constitution in Israel. I sat with a group of young people who said: ‘The Israelis begin from the assumption that until they are told otherwise, everything is permissible, and for the Russians, until they are told that something is permissible, all is forbidden.’ It is a different basic worldview. We benefit from this mess; it allows for manipulations because nothing is clear, although they may have no connections and are less able to effect manipulations. ‘We need to know what is allowed and what is forbidden,’ they say.

All in all, it’s a success story.

“Yes, with loads of failures, and the big failing can actually be seen today: in the people who fell along the way into the margins. The process is still incomplete as well. Both in the political arena and in the cultural and social arena, we are experiencing aftershocks. Everything is still evolving, nothing is settled − from Lieberman’s fate to the future of the Gesher Theater [which was founded by Russians].

“Somebody told me: ‘Two generations from now we’ll be Middle Easterners who take everything easy.’ They are contemptuous of [native-born]
Middle Easterners − in literature, in culture, in conduct, in manners. Someone once asked what culture could be made to grow in a country where you can’t wear a suit and tie for nine months out of the year.

“But in my experience, when both sides open up, the encounter generates sparks. At the moment, that is not really happening. However, there’s no harassment, and a soldier is no longer murdered for speaking Russian. There are no phenomena like that, but nor is there acceptance. There is still an aura of foreignness.”

Russian immigrants arriving in Israel.Credit: Pavel Wohlberg
A Likud gathering for Russian speakers. There are none at all in the opposition today.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
A Russian-language bookstore in Ramat Gan.Credit: David Bachar

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