Since Roman Bronfman traded his cramped Knesset quarters for a spacious suite overlooking the sea in Tel Aviv's Azrieli Towers, his view has definitely improved but his perspective has not changed. The Ukrainian-born Bronfman, who founded the only (now defunct) left-wing political party for Russian-speaking immigrants, is still, as he puts it, "a minority within a minority."
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“It is my personal tragedy,” says the former Member of Knesset-turned-businessman, describing the impact the massive wave of immigration has had on Israel’s political map.
In a new book, Bronfman looks at why most of his fellow olim from the former Soviet Union have adopted positions that are not merely rightwing but what he calls "a recipe for fascism."
“A Million Who Changed the Middle East: The Soviet Aliyah and Israel,” co-written with former Haaretz journalist Lily Galili and published (in Hebrew) by Matar Publishing this month, examines the effects of the immigration on Israeli society and Israeli society’s impact on the olim.
“Once my views were unusual among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, now they're increasingly unpopular among veteran Israelis too,” says the articulate parliamentarian-turned-author, who comes across as distant and cool -- more of an intellectual than a rabble-rouser.
Indeed Bronfman, who has a Ph.D. in Slavic studies, speaks of another, more earthy immigrant politician whose views and methods he loathes, with grudging admiration. “You can’t argue with Avigdor Lieberman’s political talent,” he says of the founder of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, who was foreign minister until last month. “I never thought he would go so far.”
After a stint as a Haifa City councilman, devoting much of his time to solving immigrants' problems, Bronfman entered national politics in 1996 as an MK in Natan Sharansky's Yisrael B’aliya party. He then formed the breakaway left-wing immigrant party, Democratic Choice, which eventually merged with Meretz. In all, he spent a decade in politics, resigning from political life in 2006 after failing to make it into the Knesset.
The book, which he researched for three years, addresses, among other issues, what has become a hotly debated question: Are the immigrants from the Former Soviet Union racist?
The short answer, argues Bronfman, is yes -- absolutely.
He blames 70 years of Soviet rule for creating a “totalitarian mentality” among its people and insists on referring to the olim as “Soviet immigrants” rather than “Russian” ones. “This is not a cosmetic or semantic difference,” he stresses, because Russian culture incorporated a wealth of elements that were quashed during the Soviet reign. “The Soviet Empire has crumbled, but not the imperial mentality, which lives on and even flourishes among the Soviet immigrants,” he says.
“What characterizes the Soviet aliyah is its belief in the use of force to expand territory and a xenophobic way of seeing our neighbors. It's a mentality that divides the world into them and us."
Many immigrants, who had little knowledge of Jewish religion, acquired another trait in Israel. “When they encountered the concept of the ‘chosen people,’ they interpreted it simplistically – not as a description of the Jews’ connection to the Torah – but as a kind of national superiority” that easily morphs into racism, asserts Bronfman.
He sums up the toxic impact of a Soviet mentality and a warped view of Judaism succintly: “When Lenin meets Moses the result is a recipe for fascism,” says Bronfman.
He attributes his own unconventional political views to his “cosmopolitan upbringing” in Chernivtsi, a town with a large Jewish population that was less influenced by the Soviet mentality because it was under Soviet rule for only 44 years.
Today he says his concern is not so much the ascendancy of the right over the left, but rather the erosion of democratic values in Israel in favor of fascist ones – a process that has been accelerated by the arrival of the massive wave of immigrants with a “Soviet mentality.”
"This is not the country I knew when I first came here," says Bronfman, who immigrated in 1980, served in the Israeli Air Force and obtained his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A father of two (and a new grandfather), he sees hope in the younger generation of Russian-speaking immigrants who came to Israel when they were children or teens. “They are more culturally Israeli, less ‘Soviet’; they think more independently. Surveys show they are much more liberal in their views than their parents are,” he notes.
For the first time since he left politics, Bronfman was asked to return and run in the upcoming election.
"Since Avigdor Lieberman merged his Yisrael Beitenu party with Likud, many immigrants feel they’ve lost a representative in the Knesset – not on ideological matters, but community ones," he says, noting that such voters constitute about a third of Yisrael Beitenu's support. (Another third are nationalistic Soviet olim, and the remaining third, nationalistic native Israelis.) Bronfman offered to help these immigrants organize, but won’t return to politics himself.
Sitting in his Tel Aviv suite, where he runs two firms – one that invests in Israeli high-tech, the other, in real estate – Bronfman has gotten used to his post-Knesset life. But, he adds, with a small, hopeful smile: “We haven’t heard the last of the Russian voice in Israeli politics.”