In the weeks leading up to Israel’s September 17 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been devoting time and energy to wooing the country’s Russian-speaking voters.
One of his first moves after the do-over election was called in May was to offer an exclusive interview to Channel 9, Israel’s Russian-language television station. He then appointed a special adviser on outreach to the community. He has set aside time in his calendar for a series of informal get-togethers, often in pubs, with activists in the Russian-speaking community. He’s promised — and this time, he says, he really means it — to assist the tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have no pensions. And he’s cut a deal that would give a prominent member of the Russian-speaking community, former Arad Mayor Tali Ploskov, a safe spot on the Likud Knesset roster.
Why Netanyahu is suddenly showering this large community with so much attention is clear: This election was forced upon him due to his inability to form a government after the April 9 election. The person who stymied his plans was Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party caters to Russian-speaking voters.
Lieberman’s party won only five seats — one more than the minimum required to cross the electoral threshold — in April. He said he could not join a Netanyahu government because it would be unduly influenced by the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox partners (Shas and United Torah Judaism). The overwhelming majority of Russian-speaking voters are strict secularists and highly resentful of the power wielded by the Haredim in Israel.
Netanyahu’s strategy was simple: If he could lure enough Russian-speaking voters away from Yisrael Beiteinu, he could prevent the party from crossing the electoral threshold in September — thereby making the job of forming a right-wing, religious coalition much easier.
Except that, if the polls are accurate, things don’t appear to be working out as planned. Not only are Netanyahu’s overtures to the Russian-speaking population not having the desired effect, but Yisrael Beiteinu appears to be gathering considerable steam.
Recent polls give the party at least 10 seats in the upcoming Knesset — double its strength today. Its campaign slogan, which refers to the threat of a religious takeover — “Yes to a Jewish state, no to a halakhic state” — clearly resonates strongly among Israeli voters.
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Although, ironically, not necessarily among Russian-speakers. In fact, many young Russian-speakers who spoke with Haaretz say the fierce battle being waged between Netanyahu and Lieberman over the so-called “Russian vote” hardly interests them.
“These attempts by politicians to find favor with Russian-speaking voters by speaking their language or having themselves photographed eating verenikas — it’s all so 1990s,” says Katya Kupchik, director of outreach to the Russian-speaking community at Israel Hofsheet (aka Be Free Israel), an organization that promotes religious freedom in the country.
“The young generation doesn’t need to be spoken to in Russian. They read Hebrew, and I’m not sure there’s anything fundamentally different about them than the generation that was born here,” she says. “They’ve been here from the time they were young, they’ve worked hard to become Israelis — perhaps even harder than Israelis themselves. This whole ‘Russian’ thing ... I’m not sure it speaks to them, and it may even embarrass them.”
Kupchik belongs to a group that has come to be known in recent years as “Generation 1.5”: Immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came of age in Israel, attended Israeli schools, served in the army, went to university and — unlike their parents — found jobs commensurate with their skills.
They also happen to share some common concerns. Many of their parents, for example, didn’t work enough years in Israel to accumulate proper pensions. Consequently, the burden of supporting them now often falls on their offspring. It is common in Israel for parents to help their children buy their first apartments. Children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union cannot usually count on their parents to provide them with such a head-start in life.
Perhaps their biggest grievance, though, is against the Orthodox-influenced establishment for casting doubt on their Jewish credentials. An estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Russian-speakers in Israel are not considered Jewish by religious law because they were not born to Jewish mothers. As a result, they are prohibited from marrying in Israel.
“When young Russian-speakers vote, these are the fundamental issue that concern them — not all the semantics,” says Kupchik, 36. “It’s very nice that Netanyahu is now talking about the need to solve the pension problems, but where was he these past 10 years? And so long as he has the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government, it’s clear there will be no progress whatsoever on issues like civil marriage and public transportation on Shabbat.” (Civil marriage is outlawed in Israel and, with few exceptions, public transportation does not operate on Friday evenings and before sunset on Saturdays.)
Calling Lieberman’s bluff
Alex Rif moved to Israel from Ukraine as a child, during the great immigration wave of the early ’90s. The 33-year-old scoffs at the notion of a “Russian vote,” noting that “most of the younger generation have integrated fully into Israeli society and vote just like other Israelis.” If Lieberman is enjoying a sudden popularity boost in the polls, Rif doesn’t believe it is thanks to young Russian-speakers like herself.
“Among my generation there’s a lot of anger at Lieberman, because all these years he pretended to represent the Russian-speaking population and he never really did anything for us,” says Rif, whose first book of poetry was published recently. She is also the founder of Cultural Brigade, a group of young Russian-speaking adults active in sharing their heritage with greater Israeli society. Unlike her parents’ generation, she says, she and her peers do not need to rely on the often-fawning Russian-language media for their news intake and are, therefore, “able to call his bluff.”
The recent campaigns of both Netanyahu and Lieberman aimed at her and her cohorts “not only miss their target, but are also an insult to our intelligence,” she says.
Rif cites the large campaign posters hung up outside Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv recently that depict Netanyahu with world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Does he think we’re not aware of what is happening these days with the violent suppression of protests in Moscow?” she asks. “Does he think we’re not aware about how the LGBTQ community and women are treated there? What exactly was he thinking when he put up that poster?”
In the April election, Rif voted for the center-left Labor Party. She has no intention of voting Labor next month, mainly because she doesn’t like the new party leader Amir Peretz. “I never voted for Lieberman,” she says, “and I never voted for Meretz — but this is the first time I’m considering it.” The Zionist left-wing party recently merged with a new party headed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to form the Democratic Union.
Historically, Russian-speaking Israelis almost overwhelmingly voted for parties on the center-right. But according to Prof. Larissa Remennick, chairwoman of the sociology and anthropology department at Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University, this trend has shifted with the younger generation. “The picture that emerges with Generation 1.5 is more nuanced and diverse,” says Remennick, a leading academic authority on Israel’s Russian-speaking community and coined the term “Generation 1.5.” Whereas 85 percent of the older generation vote for center-right parties, among the younger generation it’s only about half, she says.
“Unlike their parents, who are mainly exposed to the largely right-wing Russian-language press, the younger generation has access to a much wider range of media sources,” she explains. “We especially see this shift to the center and left among young Russian-speakers who grew up in the big cities, where they had many other influences outside the home.”
A study she published late last year, together with Anna Prashizky of the Western Galilee College, found that 20 percent of Generation 1.5 members identify with the political center, 31 percent with the center-right, 22 percent with the right, 15 percent with the center-left and 12 percent with the left. Based on an online survey, the study found that 19 percent of young Russian-speakers in the 2015 election voted for parties on the left (Labor, Meretz and the Joint List of four Arab parties), 15 percent for the smaller right-wing parties (the religious Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu), 18 percent for Likud and 27 percent for the center parties (Yesh Atid, which has since become part of Kahol Lavan, and Kulanu, which has since merged with Likud).
When asked to compare their own politics with those of their parents, 39 percent situated themselves to the left of their parents and only 11 percent situated themselves to the right.
Alex Panov, who lives in the southern coastal city of Ashdod, is the executive director of ShaBus, a bus cooperative that provides alternative transportation on Shabbat for nonobservant Israeli Jews. Fighting religious coercion has become his passion, he says, and he gave up a well-paid job in high-tech to pursue it.
He doesn’t believe Netanyahu’s outreach efforts among the Russian-speaking community will win over many young voters. “Likud doesn’t attract the young generation,” Panov says. “Whoever voted in the past for Likud will probably continue to do so, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to bring over new voters.”
He plans to vote for Kahol Lavan on September 17, as he did in April, because he doesn’t see any alternative — but it is with a heavier heart this time around. “That’s because Kahol Lavan pretty much stopped talking about religious coercion,” Panov explains. “It seems like they’re trying to go after a more traditional crowd now. I think it’s a shame that they’re abandoning their base, and I really don’t think these overtures to religious voters will help.”
Is he not impressed by Lieberman’s recent stand against religious coercion? “I don’t believe a word he says,” responds the 30-year-old.
But there are seemingly other young Russian-speaking voters who do. Guy Saar, a 31-year-old contractor from Ashdod, is a case in point. In April he voted for Kahol Lavan. He says his decision to transfer his vote to Lieberman in September is not out of any great love for the veteran politician, but is purely strategic.
“I’m 100 percent sure that Netanyahu will be our next prime minister,” Saar says. “I want to make sure there will be someone in his government who stands up against the religious extremists, and I don’t think there’s anyone who can do it as well as Lieberman. Certainly not anyone in Kahol Lavan.”
Roman, a blogger who asked that his full name not be published, belongs to a new group of Russian-speaking voters who are pretty fresh off the boat. Originally from Moscow, he moved to Tel Aviv about three years ago. He was among a group of young Israeli Russian-speakers who showed up outside Likud headquarters last week to protest the poster depicting Netanyahu with Putin. Roman says it was especially upsetting for people like him, “who moved to Israel to escape the economic and political crisis in Russia” and had friends participating in the demonstrations in Moscow.
In the last election, the 30-year-old voted for Kahol Lavan. This time, though, he’s not sure. “I’ll definitely be voting for a pro-democracy party, so that definitely rules out Likud and the far right. Maybe this time it will be the Democratic Union.”