From Melting Pot to Multicultural Society

Only two members of the Knesset from the Arab parties - United Arab List MK Abdulmalik Dehamshe and Ta'al (Arab Movement for Renewal) MK Ahmed Tibi - attended the special memorial session in the Knesset on October 11 to commemorate the Israeli citizens of Russian background who died a week earlier when a Sibir Airlines plane, hit by a stray Ukrainian missile, crashed into the Black Sea.

Only two members of the Knesset from the Arab parties - United Arab List MK Abdulmalik Dehamshe and Ta'al (Arab Movement for Renewal) MK Ahmed Tibi - attended the special memorial session in the Knesset on October 11 to commemorate the Israeli citizens of Russian background who died a week earlier when a Sibir Airlines plane, hit by a stray Ukrainian missile, crashed into the Black Sea.

Like the other MKs at this session, Dehamshe and Tibi stood for a minute's silence in memory of the Israeli crash victims. However, unlike the other MKs, the two Arab members of parliament left the plenum in anger the moment Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened the session with a verbal attack on Palestinian terrorism.

"I had debated with myself whether I should attend or not," Tibi admitted after his stormy departure from the memorial session at the Knesset. "The reason I attended was my assumption that the session would be of a civic-humanitarian nature; however, within a matter of only a few minutes, it turned into a Zionist, political event, and I was not prepared to remain at such a gathering."

This small episode on the margins of the public debate on the response of Israeli society to the "Russian" disaster graphically illustrates the complex relationship between two communities in Israeli society: Israeli Arabs and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The structural tension between these two communities is the inevitable product of a clash between two different ethoses: the ethos of Jewish immigration to Israel and the Palestinian ethos of a direct link to the soil of the Holy Land, or, in other words, the Israeli Law of Return versus the Palestinian demand for the right of return to their homeland.

This is the background to the public rejection by Israeli Arabs of the mass wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. Both the fact that these immigrants have become supporters of the rightist end of Israel's political spectrum and the anti-Arab racist sentiments that surface in the Russian immigrant community have certainly done nothing to enhance the relations between the two communities.

However, the situation is much more complex than first meets the eye. The eye of the storm of controversy surrounding the disaster of the airliner crash was the issue of Israel's gradual transformation into a multicultural society that, with the loss of the melting-pot concept, has also lost genuine - or perhaps imaginary - bonds of solidarity and has not yet found appropriate tools for dealing with the complexities of its new identity.

In this context, it should be noted that what was perceived as the indifference of Israeli society toward the calamity suffered by the "Russians" (that is, the Russian immigrants to Israel) has disturbed the long-standing members of Israeli society much more than it has disturbed the immigrants. In contrast with so-called "veteran Israelis" (that is, those who were either born here or have been living here for many years) whose expectations are still fueled by the old ethos of Israeli society, the immigrants have a low level of expectations as far as expressions of solidarity are concerned.

The immigrants are quick to question the sincerity of expressions of "collective mourning" and that attitude was strongly displayed when many of the immigrants openly refused to identify with the expressions of national mourning in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. Statements like "This reminds me of the personality cult built around Stalin or the expressions of national mourning imposed on the Soviet public when Brezhnev died" could be heard frequently in the immigrant community at the time.

The immigrant community sees nothing wrong in opposing certain conventions that have become accepted in Israeli society, which stem from the ethos of the country's founding generation. In addition, the members of the immigrant community feel it is their natural right to preserve their own - that is, Russian - culture. These two facts could be viewed as good news for the Israeli Arab community, which has similar expectations.

"We realize that Israeli society has neither the ability nor the desire to really absorb the immigrants," Hadash MK Issam Makhoul said this week, "because they have arrived here with their own unique culture, which they are not prepared to give up. This tension between the immigrants and the veteran Jewish society in Israel could be a strategic asset for us because it could create a new pluralistic identity for Israeli society."

Both Makhoul and his colleagues regard the clearly rightist orientation of the immigrants as a temporary phenomenon, whereas they believe the existence of a "Russian" culture in Israel could open the door to the legitimate existence of different cultures in Israel and ultimately to the emergence of a truly pluralistic, multicultural Israeli society.

However, the expectations of the Israeli Arab community are founded on a confusion of concepts that surrounds the definition of the term "multicultural society" and which is also linked to the contradictory trends that are evident in Israel's Russian immigrant society. This confusion is essentially linked to the conflict, or perhaps the connection between, on the one hand, the belief that a multicultural society could be a suitable solution for the exercising of collective civil rights and, on the other hand, the belief that such a society is the proper context for the exercising of collective nationalist rights. The immigrants' insistence on cultural autonomy can be seen as a fundamentally "civic" demand, while the demand being made by Israeli Arabs, when translated into nationalist terms, is generally perceived by Israeli Jewish society as a threat.

A fascinating, complex finding emerges from a comprehensive study carried out by Professors Elazar Leshem and Majid Al-Haj a decade after the first wave of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union. Although the immigrants are interested in an autonomous existence for their own culture within the context of the multicultural society developing in Israel, they also support the preservation of Israel's present political-national culture, which clearly favors the country's Jewish citizens.

In an important article that will appear in the forthcoming issue of "Theory and Criticism," a periodical published by Dimitry Chomsky, an immigrant doctoral student at the University of Haifa, the author-researcher notes, "We are presently witnessing the unique development of a concept of national identity. In the course of this development, a Russian-Jewish ethnic identity has gradually merged with the State of Israel's self-perception as a Jewish nation-state."

Moreover, Chomsky argues in his article, the "transformation of the ethno-national identity of Russian Israelis, as this identity has developed through a merging of an ethnic Russian-Jewish component with a nationalist-Zionist component, includes the perception of Israel's Arab minority as a natural target for discriminatory practices."

According to Chomsky, this approach bears a strong resemblance to the model of the relationship between ethnicity and citizenship that crystallized in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It is difficult to determine at this stage how the parallel processes in the Russian immigrant and Israeli Arab communities will influence one another, although the mutual references offered in the in-depth discussions taking place in both communities are much more genuine and much more important than the overt political expression of the relationship between the two communities.