An Initiative Classed With Toilet Paper

In many Israeli homes, there is a picture of the Baba Sali on the wall; rooms in other homes are still decorated with posters of Che Guevera.

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

In many Israeli homes, there is a picture of the Baba Sali on the wall; rooms in other homes are still decorated with posters of Che Guevera. On the walls of the office of Dr. Sasha Eterman in Jerusalem, there is a photograph of the villa where the Oslo talks took place.

This choice would not have been so surprising were it not for the fact that Eterman, 47, an economist and journalist, in the past a "refusenik," is a "Russian" who is religious and a settler from Beit El.

"Today I wouldn't go to live in Beit El," he admits. "When I arrived in Israel in 1986, I didn't see the problem. That was a different era. My district town was Ramallah. Now we have turned it into a jail, and I'm ashamed.

He says he has "great faith that we are approaching the end of the process, and that Beit El won't last for more than another few years."

"People still don't understand that, but that's natural. In Russia in the mid-1980s people didn't understand what was happening, either, and then everything collapsed. I don't hide my position, either in Beit El or among the Russian community. As a true European liberal, I feel fine with that, even if I'm somewhat persecuted."

Today Eterman will board the special plane that will bring the large Israeli delegation to Geneva, as one of the four representatives of Israel's Russian-speaking community invited to the ceremony by MK Roman Bronfman of Meretz. In this case, it looks as though Bronfman is not bringing a representative delegation with him, but more or less all the members of the Russian immigrant community who support the Geneva Accord.

"That's an exaggeration," protests Bronfman. "I have no surveys, but I talk to people. I'm certain that there's about 20 percent support for the plan in the Russian community. What's true is that there is tremendous social pressure not to identify as a supporter, and even fear of persecution. Some have told me so outright. People left the Soviet Union in order to live in an open society, but they arrived in a divided war zone, and stopped there. The planned journey to liberty has not yet taken place."

The Russian-language media are making a substantial contribution to this halt to the "journey to freedom." Coverage of the Geneva Accord in the Russian press in recent weeks has been characterized by hysteria and by a lack of basic information about the initiative. The Russian-language press, it seems, has chosen for the most part to tell its readers what to think, long before presenting the subject under discussion.

The readers knew that this was an illegitimate, destructive, undemocratic step, or simply a dangerous provocation on the part of a group of "conspirators," long before they knew what the move was and exactly what it entailed.

In one of the articles, the architect of the Geneva Accord, MK Dr. Yossi Beilin (Meretz), was mentioned by his first name only, a supreme expression of disdain when writing in Russian.

Those participants in the initiative were presented for the most part as moonstruck subversives.

An article in one of the newspapers opened, in the best tradition of Soviet-era humor, with a charming anecdote about a psychiatric hospital. A doctor there meets a patient busily writing. "What are you writing?" asks the doctor. "A letter," replies the patient. "To whom?" asks the doctor. "To myself," replies the patient. "And what does it say?" asks the doctor. "I don't know," says the patient. "When I get it, I'll know."

The message is clear, but just for good measure, the writer adds that in most countries "such people" would be declared criminals, with all that implies. Even the cartoons dealt with the Geneva Accord. In one of them toilet paper is used that is stamped "Made in Oslo," and alongside it a new roll of toilet paper, stamped "Made in Geneva."

This excrement image is the central axis of the new forum on the popular Russian-language Web site Megapolis (Web site: The name of the forum is ""A national initiative - wiping with Beilin." The reference is to wiping one's behind with paper on which the Geneva Accord is written. After the fact, the surfers are asked to send the final product, wrapped in a bag, to the address written on the brochure of the Geneva Accord. The tasteless suggestion was well received among young Russians.

"The Israeli political discourse lacks humor," says a young man who is involved in politics. "This at least is a humorous statement about self-styled prophets for whom any means are acceptable. In the Russian community there is zero support for this move, which is portrayed on the axis between stupidity and treason. Even the more moderate writers are speaking in only one voice."

Eterman says that the Russian media, or at least part of it, reminds him of the German media "during the pre-Nazi stage." He says: "Now the leftist writers among the Russian immigrants have gone underground, too. I think that I know how to market Geneva to this public. `In Basel we founded the Jewish state' [a quote from the famous Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl] and in Geneva we established the joint peace camp."

Even if there some exaggeration in Eterman's analogies, the Russian media make statements that would cause an outcry were they written in Hebrew. Recently, Lev Varshenin, a senior commentator in Vesty, the Israeli Russian-language newspaper with the widest circulation, and on the Israel Plus television channel, wrote the following sentence analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "In the use of terms from the treasury of philology, we are making a fatal error: here we cannot avoid the use of `ratology' (the study of rats)." Varshenin even repeated this zoological comparison on the Russian-language television station.

With this vocabulary, and with metaphors of this type, most of the large media are trying to shape and consolidate the awareness and the worldview of masses of people in Israel. Sometimes they consolidate this worldview through what they don't show. Israel Plus, managed by Yulia Berkovich, the former CEO of Vesty, decided not to send a reporter to Geneva. Nobody at the station has any doubt that this decision is entirely political.

"If you declare all the time that you are an Israeli channel in every respect, how is it that you are not present where all the other Israeli channels are present?" wondered aloud one of the channel's staff. "No technical or financial excuse will really apply here."

The meeting between President Moshe Katsav and the architects of Geneva was covered for the Russian-speaking audience in Israel by a Russian satellite station available here, rather than by their Israeli channel.

Those who keep track of the Russian community consider the meeting with the president a possible turning point in the legitimization of the Geneva initiative. Despite the prevailing opinion in their media, the Russian-speaking community should not be considered captives of their ignorance. Alongside the biting criticism in the media, Israel Radio's Russian-language Reka station and local radio stations are giving expression to a wider variety of opinions. Even Vesty has published, only recently, interviews with supporters of the Geneva Accord.

MK Bronfman, who supports the Geneva Accord, has frequently been interviewed recently, although he is almost the only one. In the Russian community, it is hard to find molders of public opinion or people of status who are willing to express open support for the initiative. Even the mythological director of the Gesher Theater, Yevgeny Arye, who was a sought-after guest at the signing of the Oslo Accords, has now rejected an offer by the organizers to join the trip to Geneva.

Russian translation is on the way

The media are not the only factor responsible for the atmosphere among the Russians. Just as responsible are the architects of Geneva in particular and the left in general, who have neglected this community entirely. Whether because of the mistaken view that the olim have already become integrated to the point where there is no need to speak to them directly, or whether out of that same arrogance that has characterized the attitude of the left toward Russian speakers all along, to date no PR activity has taken place among this community. The new immigrants don't deserve to be brainwashed by the right or the left, but they certainly deserve to be treated with respect. One can't exactly claim that important people involved in the move have stormed the Russian media in an attempt to present their wares. Sometimes they have done exactly the opposite.

Only at the end of last week did the first ads appear in the Russian press, decorated with a very kosher Zionist Shield of David, informing the readers that this week the Geneva Accord brochure in Russian will be distributed. Last week, MK Amram Mitzna (Labor) spoke about the Geneva Accord before an audience of 300 people in Haifa, a city that is full of immigrants. When Boris Lazarov, a member of the city council from the Democratic Choice faction, asked what about the Russians, Mitzna replied that the translation is on the way.

"The Russian community is mainly very confused," says one of the participants in the campaign. "There are so many initiatives - that of Ami Ayalon, the one in London, the one by the Labor Party, the one by the Yesha Council [representing the settlers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza]. But all this confusion can help us among the new immigrants, because the multiplicity of initiatives makes the Geneva initiative legitimate as well. If the Yesha Council can propose an initiative, why can't the Geneva people? We want people to read and to think. There is no doubt that for the sake of comparison we will use the Yesha Council plan, with actually proposes a binational state, whereas we want a Jewish state. After all, that's why we came here. We have to work hard, but we can succeed among the new immigrants, too. They supported Oslo. I'm not at all pessimistic."

Dr. Alex (Eliezer) Feldman, who researches public opinion in the Russian-speaking sector, has a different assessment. "I haven't even completed the survey I'm conducting now, but it's clear that all the Russian speakers know so far is that the Geneva initiative is identified with the leftists, and primarily with Beilin. For the most part, they don't even say the `Geneva Accord' but rather `Beilin's Program,' and this identification is very bad for the agreement. I haven't processed the answers of the survey yet, but I can already see that to the question: "What should the government do with the Geneva Accord?" the most common reply is: "Not take it into account."

Nevertheless, on the way to Geneva, Eterman says that he's very optimistic. "I already see the end of the road," he says. "I'm willing to bet that in the end, 70 percent of the new immigrants will support the initiative. We simply have to invest time and money."



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