Meeting the Changing Needs of Immigrants

In the general and prime ministerial elections of 1999, six years after he immigrated to Israel, Slava Gerber voted for Ehud Barak and for Yisrael b'Aliyah.

In the general and prime ministerial elections of 1999, six years after he immigrated to Israel, Slava Gerber voted for Ehud Barak and for Yisrael b'Aliyah. "I was still a new immigrant then," he says, "and I believed that the immigrant party would best represent my interests. That's over now."

On January 28, Gerber, a 25-year-old economics and accounting student at the Hebrew University, intends to vote for Shinui. "I'm exactly their target audience," he explains. "They are interested in secularism and supporting the middle classes. Maybe I'm not a member of the middle class yet, but I hope to be one day. That's why Shinui is the most suitable party for me today."

Indeed, Gerber is a perfect representative of young, Russian-speaking voters, who are currently split mainly between the Likud, which is still the party with the greatest support among immigrants, and Shinui, which, according to recent polls, can expect to gain an extra three seats just from the immigrant vote. During a round table discussion with several immigrant university students who mirror this polarization, several mentioned that some of their friends from Tel Aviv University plan to vote for Meretz. The merger between Roman Bronfman's Democratic Choice party and Meretz has increased Meretz's support among immigrants to almost two seats. Most of these new Meretz voters are, in fact, supporters of the Democratic Choice. The good news for Meretz is that more immigrants support them than support Labor, which has been in a constant state of decline among the immigrant community for several years. The bad news, however, is that Shinui is breathing down Meretz's neck.

Meretz and Shinui are competing directly for the same pool of potential immigrant voters. Shinui, in the words of chairman Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, is aiming for the immigrants who have already joined the middle classes; Bronfman's target audience are those immigrants who still need state support when it comes to housing and employment. But despite the nuances, both parties focus their campaigns on secularism and the separation of state and religion as the sine qua non of the immigrant community.

Right approach

At first glance, this would appear to be the right approach. Immigrants are perceived, after all, as being the main victims of religious coercion, the stringent definition of "Who is a Jew?" and of the institutional restrictions on their lifestyles. But the reality of the Russian-speaking community is far more complex than this simplistic approach.

Polls taken in August 2000, around the time of Ehud Barak's `civilian revolution,' revealed a highly complex world: surprisingly, only 40 percent of the immigrants supported the separation of state and religion. Of the remainder, 40 percent said that they would support the idea "as some time in the future, when circumstances permitted it." Despite the widespread support (60 to 70 percent) of the various components of the civil revolution - civil marriages and burials, public transport on Saturday and so on - the immigrants were more circumspect when it came to making sweeping changes to the character of the country.

"I would estimate that this trend has not changed," says Dr. Alex Feldman, a researcher into public opinion among Israel's Russian-speaking community, from the Mutagim Institute. "Today, more than two years ago, many immigrants talk of the importance of safeguarding national unity. They realize that the people and the country are in danger and they certainly do not want to be those who challenge that unity. In times like these," he adds, "Jewish motivation increases."

From conversations with other immigrants, it is also clear that they have no desire to alter the Jewish nature of the state. On the contrary - most fear that the eradication of Israel's Jewish identity will change it into `just another country,' thereby negating the main reason that many of them chose to come here. Feldman says that, while querying Russian-speaking immigrants over a proposal to drop the nationality clause from identity cards, most expressed their opposition, but wanted to be able to define for themselves the nature of their Jewish identity.

Complex times

In these complex circumstances, Meretz and Shinui are treading tightrope when they target immigrants. Not only are these elections being run on a political-security platform, relegating the civil agenda, but the immigrants' civil agenda is somewhat confusing. In general, one can point to the distinction between the collective, more conservative approach, and the personal interests of the individual within the community. In the last two years, nationalist sentiments - expressed as a lurch to the right - have grown stronger among the immigrant communities, but, at the same time, there is increasing anger at the perceived damage to their civil rights.

From conversations with many member of the immigrant community, which has suffered disproportionately from terrorism, another surprising picture arises: the security threat has only served to strengthen the feeling of patriotic affinity, but simultaneously acerbated the feeling of insult at the way "the Russians" are treated.

"Terror attacks? That's not the problem at all," is an increasing common sentiment among immigrants. They have a long list of complaints - ranging from the treatment of `mixed' families to the forced conversion of people who already consider themselves to be fully Jewish. "This is exactly the audience I'm targeting," says Bronfman. "it may well be that the answer we are providing does not reflect the will of the Russian-speaking immigrants as a whole, but is in the interests of a sub-group of the collective. For me, that's enough."

At least one component is missing from Meretz's dialog with the immigrants: the civil-secular changes are no longer portrayed as being aimed solely at the immigrants - an approach that infuriated the community in the past, which feared that it would be turned into to the battleground of Israeli society. Now, immigrants are being looked upon as part of the society, just as they want to see themselves.