The Israeli Left Has Given Up on This Key Demographic. Here's Why That's a Mistake

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Avigdor Lieberman.
Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Tell me a little about yourself.

I made aliyah from Ukraine when I was 12 [in 1992]. We lived in Bat Yam. As an only child of immigrant parents, financial pressure directed my choices for many years: I worked in high-tech as a programmer. It was only after my family’s economic situation stabilized that I felt I had the courage to study something that wasn’t related to the exact sciences: I got a master’s degree in sociology and clinical psychology. My thesis deals with migration.

Which seems only natural.

I felt a need to explore that subject – migration, identity. After I decided to leave high-tech, I went on a trip to South America, where I became acquainted for the first time with the Jewish communities in Brazil and Argentina. It was so different from the way I’d experienced my Jewishness. Having grown up in Ukraine, my inferiority was built into the language: In Ukraine, “Jew” is a pejorative.


'No one in Ukraine rejected me because I was a Jew, but here in Israel I was rejected for being a Russian.'

Right. It’s a synonym for “traitor.” Even writers like Dostoevsky use it as a pejorative. In the culture in which I grew up, the Jew is the embodiment of evil. Something to be afraid of. At home, our Jewishness was not hidden; on the contrary, we were proud of it. At school, at the start of the year, each student would stand up and talk about his parents’ origins – some were Russian, some were Ukrainian. And I would say mine were Jewish. And each year anew, after I said that, girls would come over to me and say, “Are you sure you’re Jewish – because, you don’t smell bad, you don’t steal?”

What were you told at home about the decision to immigrate to Israel?

My parents were enthralled by the thought of democracy, by the concept of the rule of law in Israel. They didn’t want to be ‘kikes’ anymore. To be second-class.

What did you know about Israel? What did you envision?

I imagined Israel as a paradise, as the most orderly place in the world. Of course, my expectations were shattered against the ground of reality. I was quite lost.

Vicki Idzinski.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Bat Yam, where you lived, is a city with a very large concentration of immigrants. Wasn’t there a community there?

Years later, my mother told me she had looked for a school for me where there were only sabras, so that I would integrate as speedily as possible. That wasn’t a smart choice. According to one theory in sociology, the faster a migrant integrates into the target population, the more his situation will improve. But that’s valid only for migration into a white, middle-class population, not into ghettos of previous migrations.

When we’re talking about a scenario of migration to the periphery – social or geographic – it’s smarter to rely on the resources of the community of origin. Besides, I was 12, an age at which your value is no longer determined by the approach and the love you get at home but by the gaze of society – what society thinks, what your peer group thinks of you.

I knew very well what they thought of me, about my accent, my cheap clothes. I experienced my environment as hostile. There were a lot of disgusting remarks, and some of them have stayed with me ever since. For example, “Russian girls are okay, but to get married, you [i.e., an Israeli man] should only marry a good Moroccan girl.” Our food was perceived as revolting. In many senses, it was simply easier for me in Ukraine, because at least I was part of society there. The Jewishness didn’t really interfere. No one in Ukraine rejected me because I was a Jew, but here in Israel I was rejected for being a Russian.

So you decided to pick at the scab, but with academic tools.

I decided to study the integration scenarios of young people like me, the so-called Generation 1.5 – those who immigrated [from the former USSR] between the age of 5 and 12 – and effectively experienced migration along with the formation of their social self-esteem. I wanted to talk to people like me and understand what they experienced.

What did you discover?

A few things. First of all, Russian speakers who arrived in the big wave of immigration [in the 1990s] were absorbed by the Mizrahim [Jews with Middle Eastern and North African origins]. That had a tremendous impact on the way they integrated here. More than 80 percent of them settled in the country’s social or geographical periphery – where they lived, worked and went to school with members of the Mizrahi community. It’s exactly like in the paintings of [Russian-born Israeli artist] Zoya Cherkassky: elderly Russian speakers foraging for food discarded from market stalls run by Mizrahim; young people whose Jewishness was being examined and being circumcised at a late age by Mizrahi rabbis; Russian-speaking women working at falafel stands owned by Mizrahim.

In the Israeli periphery, to be a Russian-speaker is considered inferior. These were poor people. Their Jewishness was an object of skepticism. They had no social ties or support systems. If someone said, “I am a secular person,” he would be told, “Go back to Russia.” Russian-speaking women have to cope with a stigma: They constantly hear, “Ah, she’s a Russian,” uttered in a derogatory way. Obviously there were amazing acts of pure empathy, but a stigma is something concrete. Even if some people have enough self-confidence to rise above it, the majority will suffer from it.

The victim becomes the aggressor. People who experienced a difficult integration process – discrimination, alienation – will display the same approach toward more recent newcomers.

'Russian speakers brought Rabin to power, for example. I think we’re seeing a big missed opportunity by the Israeli left.'

I heard a strong echo of the pain of the Mizrahi public. It’s unbelievable how many inferiority complexes were foisted upon them over the generations here. In a certain sense, the young Russian speakers here didn’t understand why the Mizrahim, who seemed to them to be the lords of the land, felt inferior. Why they are so charmed by white skin and blond hair. They didn’t understand the depth of Israeli racism, and what actually happened was that they learned the Israeli form of racism – the inferiority of the black and the supremacy of the white.

The bottom line of my study, what I really learned from it, is that to be a minority that grew up among an oppressed minority is very painful. An oppressed minority will not be nice to the other minorities living among it. Absolutely not. The Jews from Europe, the state’s founders, were not nice to the newcomers – the Mizrahi immigrants – and they, in turn, were not nice to those who arrived after them. On the one hand, that’s to be expected because it’s human nature, after all, and if people were intolerant of you, you will behave likewise. But it’s also very sad, because there was potential here. A large group of migrants arrived who could have been imbued with a more humane perception of the society to which they wanted so much to belong, and maybe could have had the racism within them eradicated – but that opportunity was missed: The Russian speakers became racists just like all the rest.

‘Blond is good’

But where did the Russians encounter the “whites”? On what was that internalization based?

In effect, the Russian-speakers’ acquaintance with Ashkenazim occurred only through the wounds of the Mizrahim. Not until I was deep into my study did I suddenly grasp that, with the exception of two interviewees, one of whom lived in a kibbutz and the other in Tel Aviv – none had actually met [veteran] Ashkenazim. They weren’t even completely sure what an Ashkenazi was. I had a conversation with the guy who lived on kibbutz, who told me that after he left and moved to Petah Tikva, he was beaten every day. Who was to blame? “The Ashkenazim.” I pointed out that on kibbutz he was also with Ashkenazim. He said, “No, no, they are not Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim live only in north Tel Aviv.”

In other words, “Ashkenazi” is a code word for socioeconomic status – not necessarily a matter of origin.

Yes. They didn’t even understand what “Ashkenazi” means, but they were very quick to internalize the stereotypes of what “Mizrahi” means – warm, forthright, dumb. And of what Ashkenazi means – namely, the exact opposite. By the way, they spoke about themselves in terms of stigmas more typical of Mizrahim: “I’m a straight shooter,” “I’m fire,” “I’m not two-faced like Ashkenazim.”

They identified with the discrimination.

I’m not talking about my study here in order to end up with a headline declaring, “The Mizrahim are bad.” On the contrary: I think that in large measure this is the story of the two groups, and that it is important for everyone involved in the issue to turn their attention to the periphery. Responsibility for it lies with the state. Israel as a state and Israelis as individuals almost always approach newcomers with an attitude of exploitation: “You’re the newest? Pay a price. Make an adjustment, convert to Judaism, hide your cultural world.” The establishment sent the immigrants to the periphery, and the people who lived there were the ones who assimilated them, and in effect simply chose what they liked and what they didn’t like about them. Blond is good, secularity is not. Knowing how to work hard is good, eating and dressing differently is not good.

I can see that it’s still painful for you – you have tears in your eyes.

It’s important for me to have people understand: The Mizrahim did not abuse the Russians. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s up to the state to transform the Russian-speaking public into figures that are more complex than the stereotype – to break it, to introduce their customs and history into the textbooks. The Jews of the Soviet Union experienced an insane trauma in World War II. Stalin stopped the Nazi forces with the soldiers’ bodies. They were sent to the front with nothing. Twenty million civilians died. Our history is not present and not talked about, just as the history of the Mizrahi public [is ignored]. And again, the fact that we are talking about the young generation is of overwhelming importance: There is a convergence of migration and the shaping and coalescence of identity – the experience of a persistent clash between the values of the integrating society and the norms of your parents’ home. In such conditions it’s hard to forge an identity, hard to understand what you’re aspiring to. The experience is one of loneliness, anxiety, confusion.

Ultimately, many members of that generation lost twice: They don’t belong either to Russian society or to Israeli society. Add to that the fact that many come from broken, single-parent or indigent families; there is no one to protect the child from the difficulties of integration. On the contrary: The child has to look after the parents and help them.

Members of the security forces detaining a protester during a demonstration against police brutality against Ethiopian Israelis, Tel Aviv, July 3, 2019.Credit: AFP

What did you think when you saw the recent protest of the Ethiopian community?

I identified very much with it, even though they of course have encountered a far worse approach – more terrible racism. One of their spokespeople said something I could empathize with: that he lived his whole life feeling that he was not okay, that he wasn’t a success. And suddenly he realized that the successful ones are all from a different group, those who from the outset had money, conditions and status. That it’s not necessarily your fault that you’re not succeeding. Suddenly all that great anger, which you had directed toward yourself, is directed outward.

‘Russian vote’

Let’s talk a little about the “Russian vote.” Now, with elections looming, the Russian public is in the headlines. Reading material in advance of this interview, I noticed the same approach in 2015, in the election a few months ago, and again now.

I don’t even know if there is such a thing as the “Russian vote.” In my opinion, we are by now very close to being like sabras.

Russian-speaking immigrants are generally thought to espouse right-wing views. Some even say that they are the ones who tipped the balance and are responsible for the emergence of a right-wing majority in Israel.

As a sociologist, I can say that this public is mostly neoliberal, so you’ll find them voting for Likud or for Yair Lapid, who have that sort of agenda. Again, Russian speakers entered Israeli society via the mostly right-wing periphery. If I can draw a conclusion from what I know: When you are in a right-wing milieu and you want to belong, you will veer to the right. But it’s more complicated than that. Russian speakers brought [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin to power, for example. I think we’re seeing a big missed opportunity by the Israeli left.

Definitely not the only one, but please go on.

I am part of a group of activists called Generation 1.5. Our aim is in fact to shatter the stereotypes and stigmas about Russian speakers. We have joined the struggle for civil marriage, which was completely identified with LGBTs and totally cut off from a huge public of Russian speakers, hundreds of thousands, who simply cannot get married in Israel. And I absolutely remember writing somewhere, in a position paper, that our dream was for Avigdor Lieberman to dismantle a coalition over the issue of religion and state. Of course, I don’t want to take the credit for that.

Let’s also not give Lieberman credit for this being the real reason he dismantled the coalition.

Well, I do want to give him that credit. I am not naive. It’s clear to me that no politician gives up strategic thinking and that Lieberman understands that he needs to increase his strength. He has discerned among Russian speakers that there was less patience and less tolerance for religious coercion, and he went for that. I am very concerned that in the election campaign only the right wing will work to get the votes of Russian speakers and that the left is forgoing the effort from the start.

But Lieberman is a “leftist,” as we know.

In a sort of upside-down logic, Bibi was actually right when he called him that, because he – Lieberman – is closer to many values of the left wing. I think the Israeli left doesn’t see Lieberman properly. Many sabras who talk about him, especially from the left-wing camp, sometimes make abusive and insulting comments relating to his origins.

Do you think so? It seems to me that most of the criticism he gets is related to corruption issues, to the way his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, imploded from all that corruption.

Don’t get me wrong – I have plenty of criticism of Lieberman. I am not one of his voters or his fans. But I really don’t like the way people talk about him. It started even before the revelation of the corruption cases. He was seen as a frightening extremist. He was ridiculed for having once been a security guard.

So you perceive Lieberman’s move as being authentic?

Also. It’s both authentic and also serves his interests as a politician.

But in any event, it’s in keeping with a powerful sentiment of his electorate – the civil marriage issue.

Of course. That’s a subject that very much occupies the Russian-speaking public. I can’t understand why no one else is taking up this challenge.

It’s not clear why the left isn’t taking part in the battle for the Russian electorate. They have given up in advance.

For some reason, politicians on the left have decided that their goal is not to come to power. Not to represent the Russian public but to educate them. They don’t know that public, and are fearful, patronizing of it. From their point of view, the Russians are right wing. Lost votes. Take the issue of civil marriage. Why are these people prohibited from getting married in Israel? Not because they’re not Jews, but because they’re not Jews in the eyes of the rabbinate. They go to Prague or Cyprus to be married. I heard one woman say, “For a year I’ve been dying of fear that my boyfriend will propose, because I don’t know if the rabbinate will let us be married here.’

Should a woman have to be afraid of getting a marriage proposal? Why doesn’t the left raise the banner of civil marriage for Russian speakers? Can’t Meretz do that? Fully 48 percent of the contract employees in Israel are Russian speakers. Can’t that gauntlet be taken up, either? Or the fight for pensions, which Bibi is now riding. There is so much to do, so many issues that are classic left-wing themes, through which this public can be reached, but the left-wing politicians just aren’t interested.

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