Are Israel's New Immigrants Keeping Netanyahu in Power?

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Immigrants from France are welcomed upon their arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Immigrants from France are welcomed upon their arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport.Credit: \ Gil Cohen-Magen
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer

In their 2013 book “The Million that Changed the Middle East” (Hebrew), dealing with the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Lily Galili and Roman Bronfman evoke the atmosphere in Israel on the eve of the influx. “The Israeli left was convinced that the profile of the immigrants – white and educated – would lead them naturally to the peace camp,” they write.

That expectation, we know, was not fulfilled. The immigrants forged a solid alliance with the political right. In the Israeli consciousness, the 1990s arrivals generated a shift in the political map. At the same time, people tend to assume that the dramatic influence exerted by the new immigrants ended in the early 2000s, when the second intifada erupted and the waves of immigration receded. But could this assumption be fundamentally flawed?

It’s been 20 years since the left’s last election victory. Gradually, during those two decades, nearly 600,000 immigrants arrived in Israel. The majority of them belong to three groups: Russian speakers (mainly from Russia and Ukraine), French speakers (France and a minority from Belgium) and English speakers (mostly from the United States and Canada). What do we know about the voting patterns of these groups? Is it possible that, in a slow, covert process, the immigration that’s been trickling into Israel for the past 20 years has contributed critically to the consolidation of the right-wing government?

Countless articles have analyzed the voting patterns of the 1990s newcomers, but a research vacuum exists when it comes to subject of the creeping immigration to Israel. Still, on the basis of a number of surveys that focused on these recent arrivals, and in the wake of conversations with scholars and key figures in the immigrants’ communities, it can be said with considerable certainty that this aliyah is largely right-wing.

We can, perhaps, go further. In the 2013 election, the right-wing bloc won 61 Knesset seats. In the latest polls, it’s hovering around 63-64 seats. Without the 21st-century immigrants, it may well be that Benjamin Netanyahu would not have survived in power.

New immigrants arriving from North America. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

“Immigrant groups, if they are successfully integrated, tend to vote for the ruling party when they first arrive,” says Prof. Tamar Hermann, who directs the Guttmann Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and teaches in the Open University’s political science department. “The hypothesis is that the immigrants of recent years are definitely pulling Israel rightward.”

Russia and Ukraine

The war in Ukraine, which began in 2014, has generated a flow of immigrants who are seeking to distance themselves from the hostilities. Concurrently, the so-called “Putin aliyah,” estimated at 50,000 immigrants, arrived from Russia. These are relatively well-off people who disliked the authoritarian climate that took hold in their country. One would think that new arrivals who are vigilant about the enfeeblement of democracy in Russia would constitute an opportunity for the Israeli left. That, at least, was the hope of Ukraine-born Edi Zansker, who immigrated in 1990 and until recently headed the Russian speakers’ forum in the Labor Party.

“At the beginning of the 2000s, a civil society developed in Russia that spawned a dialogue of rights, freedom and equality,” Zansker says. “There was some sort of approach to the West. These immigrants are the product of that society and, as such, are considered idealistic and more liberal than the veteran immigrants of the 1990s.”

That thesis is questioned by Prof. Larissa Remennick, a sociologist from Bar-Ilan University who has studied various aspects of Soviet immigration. “The new immigrants are based on opposition to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, it’s true, but no inference can be drawn from that about their attitudes toward the government in Israel,” she says.

According to Prof. Ze’ev Chenin, the chief scientist of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, any attempt to view the Putin aliyah as potential voters for the left was pure fantasy.

Ze’ev Chenin.Credit: Screenshot from Channel 9

“The assumption that liberals from Moscow and St. Petersburg would leap into the arms of Meretz and Yesh Atid did not prove itself,” he avers. “They are in fact liberals, but this is not the Western European liberalism that rejects nationalism and despises patriotism. Those viewpoints are not acceptable to immigrants from the Soviet Union. Accordingly, their voting patterns resemble those of veteran immigrants, and 75 percent of them support the right.”

To back up his analysis, Chenin draws on in-depth surveys that he conducts among Russian-born Israelis through PORI, a market research company. The most recent one was conducted in 2017 for NEWSru, a Russian online news site. Chenin isolated a group of 209 immigrants who arrived in Israel after 2014 and found that the overwhelming majority of them defined themselves as right-wing. Fewer than 6 percent termed themselves left-wing. Thirty-five percent replied that they would vote in an election for Yisrael Beiteinu, while 22 percent supported Likud. About 6 percent said they would vote for Yesh Atid, while Meretz and Labor received negligible support.

According to Chenin, “About 70 percent of the immigrants from the Soviet Union are still ready to vote for only two types of parties: a Russian party with a right-wing, general Israeli agenda, a niche that contains only Yisrael Beiteinu; or a nationwide party with a strong Russian ‘wing,’ which is Likud’s niche. The young people in the community tend toward Likud, the older generation toward Yisrael Beiteinu.”

Arkady Maiofis owned a Siberian television station that was shut down under the authorities’ pressure. He emigrated to Israel in 2015, and is a good representative of the Putin aliyah.

“The political situation here is complicated because the right and the left in Israel don’t resemble the division between right and left in Russia,” Maiofis says, adding, “People with money and property came here, and they naturally support the economic right. Their awareness of human rights and humanitarian issues doesn’t yet make them left-wingers. Overall, most of the people in my circle tend toward the right.”

France and Belgium

The existing data on immigration from France indicate an almost total identification of that community with the right wing in Israel. A survey conducted by Hagal Hehadash Institute for the newspaper Makor Rishon a year ago, encompassing 250 respondents from France, found that 72 percent of them consider themselves to be politically right-wing. Only 7 percent termed themselves left, and 4 percent said they were left-leaning centrists. A quarter (26 percent) of the respondents said they supported Likud, while Habayit Hayehudi at the time had the backing of 17 percent of the participants. The other parties received only a few percentage points.

More recently, an election referendum was held in a Facebook group consisting of some 17,000 French Jews. As a poll, it is not representative and statistically invalid, but it still shows which way the wind is blowing among Israel’s Francophone community. Of the 547 participants, 55 percent said they supported Likud, followed, well behind, by Hayamin Hehadash (15 percent), Union of Right-Wing Parties (7 percent) and Zehut (5 percent).

Laly Derai is the director of the Atid Israel (Israel’s Future) project, which aids immigrants from France, and she also represents her West Bank settlement, Eli, on the Binyamin region council. When Derai was 6, in 1981, the socialist Francois Mitterrand was elected president of France.

Laly Derai.Credit: Shiran Cohen

“I remember my father, a communist from Tunisia, lifting me onto his shoulders. We weren’t the only ones. All the Jews danced in the streets and celebrated the left’s victory. And then we come to Israel and this whole thing collapses. The left simply broadcasts to me that it cares more about the other side [the Palestinians] than about me,” she says.

Derai, a Likud supporter who was mentioned as a candidate for the slate of Hayamin Hehadash, immigrated in 1991. In her view, the French Jews who have arrived since then have only heightened the community’s identification with the right.

“They are a lot more militaristic and extreme,” Derai says about those who have arrived in the past decade from France. “They are angry, because they see themselves as the second generation of expulsion by Arabs. Their parents were expelled from North Africa, and they left France because of the harassment by immigrants of Muslim origin. In the case of previous French immigrants, the dialogue ranged between light gray and dark gray, but with this group, it’s black-and-white.”

According to Dr. Dov Maimon, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and an expert on French Jewry, “The Jews in France are experiencing a prolonged narcissistic wound. They are being told that Israeli soldiers are bestial and that Israel harvests organs of Palestinians for transplants. Those voices are heard in the official [French] media. Accordingly, it’s hard for them to display their Jewishness publicly and take pride in it. For them, Netanyahu is something of a compensation, even an existential compensation, I would say. When he addresses the U.S. Congress, is interviewed in the international media or tells [French President Emmanuel] Macron the truth to his face – he is offering a response to their deep frustration. To them he is an exemplary figure, a hero and a redeemer.”

In this election campaign, we are seeing for the first time “organizing by French olim with the aim of using their numerical clout to see to the community’s distinctive needs,” says Daniel Hayek, a political commentator for i24 News, an Israeli news television channel. Even though the center-left parties are calling for social-welfare services to be beefed up, they are not perceived as a relevant platform for the resolution of the community’s problems. “The reason for this,” says Hayek, “is that this community has a strong traditionalist base, and the left is seen as being far removed from that traditionalism.”

Immigrants from the U.S. arrive in Israel.Credit: Shahar Azran

Maimon agrees: “The political left in Israel doesn’t speak to the French Jews. They didn’t come here in order to grant rights [to others]. They think like a majority, not like a minority.”

Marco Sarrabia, a member of Kibbutz Tzova and head of the Labor Party’s French unit, struggles daily with this adverse situation. “Every time I take part in a panel discussion or write a post identifying with the values of the left, I get a flood of curses and rage. They tell me I’m a traitor, that it’s out of the question, that Zionism and the left don’t go together, that there’s no way I did military service.”

Sarrabia immigrated to Israel about 30 years ago from Montpelier. “Among the veteran immigrants, there’s a relative balance, but in the new wave of immigrants 90 percent are on the right,” he says. “From their perspective, being left means to hand back territories and forsake the Holy Land.”

He too believes that the manifestations of anti-Semitism in France provoked a persistent rightward shift in Jewish public opinion there, but he also identifies a more deeply rooted process: “Because of violence and a certain hostility on the part of Muslim young people, a tendency toward insularity and isolation began in the Jewish communities, which was given expression mainly in the school system. Most Jews no longer attend state educational institutions; they go to private Jewish schools maintained by Chabad and other Orthodox rabbis. I would imagine that civics is not the most important subject there. They are not especially disturbed by the undermining of democracy.”

North America

Jeremy Saltan, who heads the English-speakers’ unit in Hayamin Hehadash, was 12 when his family came on aliyah to Israel from Chicago in 1995, straight into the era of the Oslo Accords and Palestinian suicide bombers. His political views took shape in the 1999 election campaign, and he began to describe himself as right-wing. American friends who arrived after him, in the early 2000s, expressed solidarity with the right from the outset. “Friends from Chicago who leaned toward the left stayed in the United States,” Saltan says. “It’s only natural that those who come to realize the Zionist dream , fall in love with the country and stay here, also support the government’s policy, and for most of the past two decades the right has been in power.”

Jeremy Saltan.Credit: Alexander Gorev

An examination of immigration from North America shows that it is not affected by periods of security tension, which in other cases sends aliyah plummeting. For example, Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, in 2014, only spurred Jews from English-speaking countries to immigrate to Israel. The overall number of immigrants in 2014 actually exceeded the previous average from North America. Among those who arrived in the 2000s from North America, religion and politics appear to override considerations of economic gain and personal security.

Chaim Waxman.Credit: Tamar Warshawsky Merkin

Prof. Chaim Waxman, head of the behavioral sciences department at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Academic College, addresses this issue in a forthcoming article on current trends in Jewish migration from the United States. In Israel’s first decades of existence, he notes, the Orthodox stream was a negligible minority among the new immigrants. However, that trend underwent a significant change beginning in the 1990s, to the point of being reversed. Today, the Orthodox, who tend to the right at far higher rates than Conservative or Reform Jews, constitute the majority of newcomers to Israel.

That analysis is supported by data provided to Haaretz by the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization, which since its establishment in 2002 has assisted some 60,000 Jews from North America and England in their resettlement in Israel. According to the figures, 55 percent of the immigrants came with families and 70 percent of the families describe themselves as Orthodox.

Concurrently, there is a consistent increase in the number of U.S. immigrants who term themselves Republicans. Exit polls in 2016 showed that 49 percent of the Israelis who were entitled to vote in U.S. elections chose Trump. That statistic should be examined against the background of “the overwhelming majority of Democrats among American Jews,” Waxman says.

Immigration from English-speaking countries, says Saltan, is “an aliyah of choice and not of flight, because they come from places considered to be more established economically.” That’s a long-standing axiom in regard to immigration from the West, but it may be time to reexamine it.

In his article, Waxman asserts that for some immigrants, the decision to make the move is partly motivated by an economic incentive, given the high costs of primary-school education in private Jewish institutions in the United States, particularly for the Orthodox, whose birthrate has risen in recent decades. That consideration also applies to immigrants on the brink of old age, who are worried about the high costs of healthcare in the United States.

The new profile of these immigrants also has a geographical expression. According to the Knesset’s Research and Information Center, about 45 percent of immigrants from English-speaking countries settle in the metropolitan Jerusalem area, including the Gush Etzion settlements. Saltan explains that this stems from the aspiration of most of the newcomers to live in “the center of Jewish life.” Josie Arbel, director of absorption services for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, demurs. The data could be misleading, she says, because many immigrants first attend a Hebrew-language course in Jerusalem and then scatter to other places in the country.

Last week, Hayamin Hehadash held an election campaign event for the Anglophone community, with the participation of the party’s co-leader, Naftali Bennett, himself the son of American olim, and of the slate’s No. 6 candidate, American-born journalist Caroline Glick. Hayamin Hehadash is the only party that’s trying to muster support specifically from the country’s English-speaking population. In the outgoing Knesset as well, the political representation of this public ranged from the right (Michael Oren, of Kulanu) to the hard right (Yehuda Glick, Likud). They were preceded by Rabbi Dov Lipman, who grew up in Maryland, and was a Yesh Atid MK from 2013 to 2015. Lipman is a friend of Yair Lapid, but he too is convinced that a solid majority of the immigrants in recent years support the right.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: