What Bill Clinton Needs to Understand About ‘Russian’ Israelis

Almost nothing was done by the government to provide the Russian immigrants with basic, neutral information about their new turbulent country, which is as necessary as teaching them Hebrew.

Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya

A decade ago, the “one million strong aliyah from Russia” was considered to be the ultimate swing vote in Israel; now, after a few years of to-ing and fro-ing, about two-thirds of “Russian” immigrants are considered to be right-wing, who ally themselves with right-wing parties. This is the point that former U.S. president Bill Clinton was acknowledging Tuesday, albeit in a rather simplistic manner, when he called this sector of Israeli society a barrier to a Mideast peace deal, due to a reluctance to cede any land.

President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 9, 1996. Credit: AP Photo / Wilfredo Lee

It's worth mentioning that Clinton, unlike some prejudiced Israelis, didn’t say "Russians should go back to Russia" or try to undermine the impressive contributions Russians have made to Israeli society, culture, economy and education. Clinton was speaking only of Russian political attitudes.

Clinton has a point about "Russian" intransigence - I would add "intolerance" - and this problem won't go away by fuming over Clinton's "racism."

It took some time for these new Israelis to find their natural political home. Concerned about social issues and averse to any land concessions to the Palestinians – a phenomenon which was dubbed an “imperialistic complex” - the voters from the former Soviet Union once opted for Labor, but then favored Yisrael b’Aliyah, the ethnic “Russian” party of right-winger and former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky.

(Interestingly, the largest chunk of FSU immigration was from Ukraine, and although in some former Soviet republics you can now barely find Russian being taught in schools, they are still called “Russians” in Israel.)

At one point, there were as many as three “Russian” parties: Yisrael b’Aliyah, the Democratic Choice party of avowed leftist Roman Bronfman, and Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu. But the ethnic loyalty did not last long, and in the 2003 elections Yisrael b’Aliyah won just two Knesset seats; Democratic Choice then amalgamated with the left-wing Meretz, and Lieberman positioned himself as an Israeli right-wing voice rather than a “Russian” leader. The big parties adopted “Russian” candidates, making a deliberate effort to court these olim.

Sharansky, currently the head of the Jewish Agency, denied Wednesday that that conversation with Clinton ever took place: “If the reports of President Clinton's comments are accurate, I am particularly disappointed by the president's casual use of inappropriate stereotypes about Israelis, dividing their views on peace based on ethnic origins,” he said. “I must add that these are uncharacteristic comments from a man who has always been a sensitive and thoughtful listener and conversation partner.”

This is a typical Israeli reaction. Among ourselves, we can use the worst stereotypes, we cherish ethnic jokes and the overall discourse in Israel can scarcely be called politically correct.

But there is one critical point Clinton may have missed: the Russian immigrants are the sector of the Israel population which has had almost no contact with the Palestinians, and sometimes even the Arabs who live in Israel. Before the second Intifada erupted, they were busy with finding their place under the Mediterranean sun. The second Intifada brought one of the most traumatic events to the Russian community with the horrifying attack at the Tel Aviv “Dolphinarium” nightclub - 20 kids, most of them children of olim from Russia, were killed.

Terror and the West Bank separation fence have prevented any direct positive contact with the Palestinians. Some of the immigrants lacked the nuanced knowledge about the conflict prior to their coming to Israel, but they were quick to impose the “we need to fight to win” attitude, rather than “we need to talk to solve this.”

“We saw this in Chechnya,” some would say. “We saw this in Afghanistan in 70s. It’s the same mentality. They understand only force.”

While some Israelis remember with nostalgia buying hummus in Arab cities, the “Russians” remember mainly the suicide attacks, and the debate about their place in Israel, when those killed were non-Jews according to Halakha (but still eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return) and were supposed to be buried in separate place in the cemetery.

There are also a variety of “Russian settlers,” from Rabbi Avraham Shmulevich of Hebron, who advocates “hyper-Zionism” and the expansion of Israel pretty much up to Iraq, to olim who live in the settlement of Ariel, who were looking for affordable housing, and had only a vague idea what it means to live on the other side of the Green Line.

True, there have been people who have attempted to change the more biased perceptions of the Russian immigrants. Some left-wing grassroots organizations tried to organize meetings between Russian olim and Arab Israelis. There was a group of professionals from “the Triangle” of Arab communities in northern Israel, who were educated in the Soviet Union universities, spoke fluent Russian and were eager to mend fences with the Russian Jews. They even went as far as to suggest that the Russian artists who could not find place to show their paintings do so in gallery in Umm el-Fahm.

But almost nothing was done by government institutions to provide the Russian immigrants with neutral, basic information about their new turbulent country, which is as necessary as teaching them Hebrew, in particular as some of them landed in Israel during one of the Intifadas, or the disengagement, or the war in Lebanon. There were plenty of Russian-language outlets to provide this information, but, as analysis suggests, the information was not always impartial and the interpretations clearly tended to lean to the right.

But ultimately this sector tends (or at least tended) to be pragmatic, and this sector - despite what President Clinton may believe - should not become an obstacle to peace.



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