Ukraine Conflict Hits Home Among Russian-speaking Israelis

The community in Israel is split down the middle over the conflict and some are beginning to fear for their safety.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Pro-Ukrainian demonstrators gather in Tel Aviv.
Pro-Ukrainian demonstrators gather in Tel Aviv.Credit: Shimon Briman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Friendships have fallen apart, families have split up and workers have lost their jobs for saying the wrong thing. Recently, the rhetoric has become so charged that personal safety has become a concern.

“Nazis,” “Fascists,” “KGB agents,” “Putin puppets” – they lash out, each side accusing the other of pocketing money from shady foreign operators bent on fomenting local dissent.

Unbeknownst to most Israelis (certainly most non-Russian-speaking Israelis), as Ukraine teeters on the brink of civil war, a smaller version of the conflict is playing out in Israel among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the region. Many have spent more than half their lives here, but that does not make them feel any less involved in the bloody clashes overseas.

“In the past 20 years, I can’t remember anything like this in the Russian-speaking community here,” says Shimon Briman, 42, the Ukrainian-born Israel editor for Forum, a New York-based American-Jewish Russian-language newspaper. “It pains my heart because the amount of hatred is really affecting relationships between people.”

In recent months, there have been a handful of solidarity and protest demonstrations organized by activists on each side outside the Russian and Ukrainian embassies. But in Israel the conflict is mainly playing out in the Russian-language press and in social media, particularly Facebook, and not on the street.

“In the past few weeks, I’ve come across dozens, if not hundreds, of cases of people simply un-friending each other on Facebook because of their views on the conflict in Ukraine,” reports Briman, who immigrated to Israel 18 years ago from Kharkiv and now lives in Haifa.

The fracture in the formerly close-knit community has not bypassed his own family. Although Briman sides with the Ukrainian nationalists, his cousin Simon Tsipis, decidedly does not. Tsipis, who hails from Crimea, is in a Facebook group called “For Ukraine – Without Bandera Supporters” (a reference to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist aligned with Nazi Germany in World War II). This does not mean, insists Tsipis, that he supports Russian President Vladimir Putin. “What I oppose is the new regime in Ukraine, which seized power unlawfully. It’s inconceivable to me how Jews could support the descendants of Nazi collaborators.”

Tsipis, 35, is a political science graduate student at Tel Aviv University who writes and blogs for the Russian-language press. Despite their political differences, he says, he and his cousin are still on speaking terms — almost.

“Recently, Shimon stopped publishing my columns, and I understood from that that he didn’t want views like mine in his publication,” Tsipis says.

Briman: “I published five pieces by him. The sixth was unsubstantiated and full of pro-Putin propaganda, so I refused to publish it.”

Russian-born Leonid Rabin, another pro-Russian activist, says he and his friends have received threats on social media sites in Israel. “‘Go back to Russia,’ they tell us. ‘You’re all KGB agents.’ I used to work for a Russian-language news portal, and I was recently fired. I’m sure it’s because of my views.” Rabin is married to a Ukrainian-born woman, “But she supports my thinking,” he volunteers.

Of the million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the early 1990s, about 340,000 came from Ukraine and 320,000 from Russia. But the current split in the local Russian-speaking community is not necessarily along this line. Ukrainian immigrants are just as divided among themselves. Those from eastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians are dominant, are more likely to side with the pro-Russians; those from the west are more sympathetic to the Ukrainian nationalists.

Age is also a significant factor, notes Shaul Reznik, a journalist who immigrated to Israel 20 years ago from the western Ukraine city of Lviv. “In general, those over 50 use the Internet less and tend to rely more on television for information,” he says. “Most of the channels broadcast here on cable and satellite are controlled by the Russian government, so the older immigrants are very much influenced by that.”

Also critical, Reznik says, is when the immigrants came to Israel. “Those who came in the early 1990s didn’t have that much experience with Ukrainian independence, so they tend to feel less strongly about it, whereas those who came in recent years feel more passionately about it.”

Reznik also finds a correlation between the immigrants’ attitudes on the Ukraine conflict and on the Israeli-Arab conflict. “More right-wing Russian-speaking Israelis tend to admire Putin. They like the fact that he goes out and conquers land and he doesn’t bow to pressure from Obama,” says Reznik. He estimates that the community is pretty much split down the middle in the conflict.

Responding to the escalating unrest, hundreds of Jews have fled Ukraine for Israel this year. According to Israeli government figures, 557 Ukraine nationals registered as new immigrants in the first three months of the year, up 43 percent from the same period last year.

Victor Vertsner, 37, is a founder of the anti-Russian Facebook group “Israel Loves Ukraine,” which at last count had 1,700 members. A self-employed photographer, he immigrated to Israel in 1990 from Ukraine but has also lived in Russia. “I happened to be visiting Ukraine when the conflict broke out and was able to witness things close up. It was clear to me that the Russian press was simply distorting things and issuing propaganda. I saw no anti-Semitism there whatsoever. So when I returned to Israel, I felt I had to do something.”

Vertsner has also organized rallies and gathered a team of volunteers to help people wounded in the conflict to receive medical treatment in Israel.

His pro-Russian counterpart is Natalya Belakovsky, founder of “For Ukraine – Without Bandera Supporters.” The page has only 300 followers, but that can be explained in part by the slightly older profile of pro-Russians in Israel. The Russian-born office worker moved to Israel in 1996 with her mother and daughter. Both, she says, have lately been urging her to keep her views on the conflict to herself. “They’re concerned for my safety because I’ve been getting threats,” she reports.

Who does her daughter support? “I really don’t know,” admits Belakovsky. “She was little when she came here, and she’s 100-percent Israeli by now. So I guess she doesn’t really care that much.”

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