This year, one of Israel’s biggest stars, Omer Adam, decided to release a new song in honor of Novy God, the Russian New Year: Kakdila.
While this is a sign that Novy God is becoming mainstream in Israel, Adam’s song (partly sung in a fake Russian accent) led to uproar both within and outside of Israel over its reproduction of derogatory stereotypes about "Russians," including their ignorance of Hebrew, love of alcohol and the hypersexuality of Russian women.
The music video features plenty of dancing matryoshkas, and the song’s chorus boasts the unforgettable lines: "Where did she come from/She says that Hebrew is language difficult/All day long just Nyet and Da!"
While most media coverage on the scandal has focused on overlapping rounds of criticism and pushback, who said what to whom, the public reaction speaks to a deeper issue – the integration difficulties experienced by more than one million Russian olim after immigrating to Israel following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Almost immediately after the song’s release, several prominent public figures criticized it for its blatant racism and sexism. This included Russian-Israeli actress Yulia Plotkin and Labor party leader and prominent feminist Transportation Minister, Merav Michaeli, who called the song "the most vulgar three minutes heard during the last year."
Knesset member Evgeny Sova, from Yisrael Beiteinu, a party that represents Israeli Russophones, called on radio stations to take the song off air (one major state-financed radio station followed suit). Sova also reminded Adam about the musician’s own origin in the Caucasus, warning him that if he’d dared sing similar lyrics there, he’d have been forced to publicly apologize.
A Russian immigrant Facebook group of thousands even launched a campaign to boycott the song and make a fomal compaint with the justice ministry under Israel's anti-racism laws.
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Unusually, the uproar spread outside of Israel. Russian media outlets such as Komsomolskaya Pravda – once the official media of the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – commented that the "hit song was humiliating Russian compatriots." Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin (who is name-checked in the song) has pledged to defend the Russian-speaking diaspora as part of a "Russia abroad," a shared cultural sphere of influence whose protector, if not political patriarch, sits in Moscow.
Omer Adam’s response has done little to calm the controversy. He told Minister Michaeli to "take a moment to breathe," mind her own business and focus on improving transportation in Israel. Adam, referring to his origins in the Caucasus, claimed that he only wanted to "protect a community that [he is] a part of." However, this same community does not seem to be very receptive.
One of the only Russian-Israeli figures supporting Adam was TV anchor and convicted money launderer Semyon Grafman (who once unsuccessfully ran for the Knesset as head of a new political party whose acronym spelt "Fuck") who said he found the song "funny and not racist."
In Israel today, "Russians" are seen by many as not fully integrated into Israeli society because of their persistent cultural attachment to the ‘Russian world.’ Their ‘true’ identity is constantly under question, even when they attain the highest achievements, and do so in Israel’s name.
For example, when the Ukraine-born gymnast Artem Dolgopyat won Israel’s second ever gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Aryeh Dery of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party declared that "Winning a medal doesn’t make him Jewish." Dolgopyat, like many Soviet-born Israelis, is not considered halakhically Jewish and cannot marry in Israel despite his Israeli citizenship and pride in representing Israel at the Tokyo Olympics.
According to historian Anita Shapira, part of the explanation for the stubborn stereotypes about Russian Jews is due to the unique character of the 1990s Russian wave of immigration to Israel. Up until then, Israel had a "melting pot" policy, according to which immigrants were supposed to forget where they came from and become "Israeli." Indeed, early immigrants were humiliated for speaking their own mother tongues instead of Hebrew, and were pressured to Hebraicize their names.
But by the 1990s Israel had become a more pluralist society and had abandoned this policy. The Russian olim were the first group in Israeli history to outwardly and proudly preserve their language, culture and links to the motherland.
The deep connections between Russia and Israeli identity become clearer in historical perspective. Ironically, it was Jews from Tzarist Russia who laid the modern foundations of Israel during the Second Aliyah (1904-1914). Approximately 35,000 Jews immigrated at that time from the Russian Empire, pushed out by violent pogroms and pulled in by Zionist ideals.
As opposed to the immigrants of the 1990s, who had lived through and rejected communism, this earlier group consisted of socialist Zionists. Their names are still featured on street signs across Israel. They founded the kibbutzim, contributed politicians such as David Ben-Gurion, and invigorated Hebrew literature, with some of the country’s finest poets, like Saul Tchernikovsky and linguists such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, among their number.
Perhaps Adam should have read Arik Eber’s poems before releasing his Novy God song. Arik Eber, born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) before coming to Israel in 1990, describes how he was not considered ‘Russian’ enough in his birth country, but after moving to Israel, "For the first time in my life I heard the phrase: Stinking Russian."
Eber and Russian speakers in Israel like him must navigate in between multiple identities: "I am Russian/I am a Russian Israeli or Israeli Russian or Hebrew-speaking Russian or Russian-speaking Israeli or Israeli whose mother tongue is Russian," he writes in his poem, "Who am I, what?"
Despite still facing bigotry, Russian-speaking Israelis are now far more confident in their Israeliness and their place in the mainstream, while not giving up their connection to Russian culture.
In the end, the real object of ridicule is Omer Adam himself. For someone considered so totemically Israeli, so representative of the zeitgeist, Adam seems curiously out of touch about what Israeli identity is today – hybridized, multilingual, and more capacious than ever before.
Anat Peled is a Rhodes Scholar pursuing a master’s degree in history at the University of Oxford on Labor Zionism and Russian Jewry. Twitter: @AnatPeled1
Milàn Czerny is pursuing a master’s degree in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Oxford on Russia in the Middle East. Twitter: @milanczerny