On the rare occasions I have the opportunity to meet and talk with them, I can’t shake the feeling that they're better dressed than I am, more educated than I am and have more natural manners than I do. I am referring to the people of “Putin's aliyah” – a phrase that took root in Israel a while ago and refers to members of the middle class who left Russia in recent years because of the tightening of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belt around their necks.
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For many of them – Jewish, or people of Jewish ancestry – Israel was the default destination for many reasons, in large part because of the automatic citizenship. This was also the case for us – people from the large wave of immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s – but with one significant difference: Whether due to the inevitability of circumstances or a spirit forged in the era of the Cold War and Iron Curtain, emigration for us was a decision from which there was no turning back.
But the post-2000 immigrants, especially those who arrived following the failed protest that erupted after the parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012 – and even more so after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Eastern Ukraine – saw themselves differently from the outset. Those who could afford it did not give up jobs and businesses that could be performed remotely, and in effect they never defined themselves as Israelis forever, at any price.
Now that this mini-wave of immigrants has been given a name, and some of its representatives doused with a cold shower by its more veteran compatriots (social media has become the main arena for this clash), many have become an integral part of the Russian-Israeli landscape. However, others have taken advantage of the broad opportunities presented to them and have left. Some returned to Russia; others moved on to countries other than Russia.
I interviewed five of them, in an attempt to understand what led them to immigrate to Israel and what led them to leave it. I also tried to figure out why these questions bother me and others who immigrated to Israel in the ’90s.
“As a Jew who grew up in Russia, I am accustomed to feeling like a foreigner. In Israel, this rather clear identity began to split. I felt ‘more European,’” says Boris, 48, a composer who immigrated to Israel from Saint Petersburg with his wife and three children in 2012 – and who has been living in Berlin since 2013.
“I am at home here, but I will never be a local here in the social, ethnic, psychological and also cultural sense. And this is perfectly fine as far as I am concerned," he says from Berlin.
"Israel demands some kind of cultural union. You are a Jew, you speak Hebrew – so here is Israel and its culture. Paradoxically, it was in Israel I became an atheist once and for all.”
Beyond the religious pressure he felt in Israel and his dislike for ritual and the holy days, Boris says he also felt a lack of privacy in Israel. The hot climate, the cockroaches and the difficulty in getting from place to place using public transportation didn't increase his enthusiasm for the state. When he received a scholarship in Berlin, these problems and the difficulties of earning a living as a composer who is not prepared to compromise on his career were resolved.
From frying pan to fire
Unlike the others I interviewed – who loved Israel but didn't feel they could live there – Anton (not his real name), 39, says he is disgusted with Israel from an ideological perspective. A former journalist who now works in public relations, he came to Israel in 2015 with his wife and four children, and left about a year later.
“I came to the conclusion that Israel is a fascist state,” he says. “I don’t want to live in a country like that. I realized that nothing was going to change for the better here. An important factor in my decision to leave Russia was the desire to go with my children to a free country. And no, Israel is not a free country. I do not want to participate in what is happening here and have to take the moral responsibility for it. I am absolutely not interested in moving from the frying pan into the fire. Without doubt Russia is an authoritarian country, but it is not a fascistic country. In Russia, it doesn’t matter what your surname is, what the shape of your nose is and what your name is, as long as you speak Russian reasonably well. In the middle class circles I travel in, people don’t care about this. It doesn’t matter whether I am Jewish, Tatar, Kalmyk, Dagestani or Arab. In Israel, it does matter.”
Alongside the ideological reasons, Anton also lists more practical reasons for leaving Israel: His family ended up in the West Bank settlement of Ariel and his attempts to find work there in his profession – PR and writing copy – were not successful. He worked at a factory and other blue-collar jobs, his wife didn't work and they lived in semi-austerity. In contrast, there were many potential jobs awaiting Anton back in Russia, offering good salaries. Indeed, he started working at one of those jobs about a month after his return to Russia.
He doesn't conceal his bitterness toward the attitude he encountered from veteran members of the Russian-speaking community in Israel. “In the Russian army, if it turns out you are a Muscovite they immediately punch you in the face," he says. "In Israel, the attitude is similar. If people discover you are a Muscovite, they treat you with a certain coldness. In principle, they can also punch you – it’s no problem for them. For some reason, they think we are a kind of privileged class of superior beings who, now we are in Israel, have to eat a bit of shit together with them. And they won't hesitate to shove a plate of it under your nose.”
Anton’s statement is one of many manifestations of the bad blood that exists between prominent representatives of the Putin aliyah and some of the “old” Russian intelligentsia that has been in Israel for two decades or more.
The bitter feuds operate on a right-left axis. The old guard represents a conservative-patriotic front, while those who fled Putin are the skeptical-liberal alternative. The ideological conflict is also present in personal issues: The "non-immigrant" stance of the Putin generation, its status in Russia and requirements with respect to the standard of living in the new country – all this came down like a one-ton hammer on the image of the world to which we had accustomed ourselves in our decades here, which included the need to bow heads, kvetch and work hard.
Exhausting bureaucratic struggle
Alexander Gavrilov, a literary critic and producer of literary events, immigrated to Israel at the end of 2014. But he had to move back to Moscow two years later after proving unable to transfer his “center of life” here, as the Interior Ministry requires passport applicants to do. “I think – and maybe I’m mistaken – that in the meantime, the political pressure in Russia has decreased a bit,” he says. “From a feeling of revulsion and disgust every single day, I’ve advanced to a feeling of revulsion and disgust once a week. That’s what made it possible for me to consider the option of returning.”
Looking back, it seems Gavrilov’s departure was inevitable. What can an entrepreneur working in the literary world with creative people hope to find far from the center of intellectual life conducted in Russian? He says that in order to survive in Israel financially, he had to dumb down in terms of the type of artists and writers he represented, in response to the demands of a larger segment of the Russian-speaking community – and he wasn't prepared to do that.
Gavrilov, who declares his love for Tel Aviv in general and southern Jaffa in particular, never left his businesses in Russia or relinquished his Moscow office. He says the frequent trips between Israel, where his father lives, and Russia exhausted him and, ultimately, he and his wife, a Belarusian, decided to make Moscow their primary place of residence.
A considerable part of Gavrilov’s stay in Israel was accompanied by an exhausting bureaucratic struggle. The Population, Immigration and Border Authority denied his wife an entry permit and blocked the possibility of the couple meeting in Israel. The problem was only resolved when the visa requirements between Belarus and Israel were canceled.
Gavrilov noticeably refrains from openly criticizing Israel. However, toward the end of our conversation, when asked whether his departure and that of others indicate something has been out of kilter in relations between Israel and the new wave of immigrants, he replies, “I am sure that a certain opportunity was missed. More or less at the moment when David Ben-Gurion’s way overcame Chaim Weizmann's way, or when Albert Einstein refused the presidency. From that moment, this opportunity was missed in a systematic way. There's no doubt that if Israel had acted differently, it could have become the Jewish intellectual elite of the whole world and would have gained many benefits from that. This complex process would require, for example, political unity that is almost impossible to imagine.”
Summing up, Gavrilov says: “Israel today is not a country of fighters, kolkhozniks [farmers] and mathematicians, but rather a country of fighters and kolkhozniks. The mathematicians are still living in Brooklyn and are still wearing their checked shirts."
Like an Italian town, almost
The quality of life and cost of living in Israel come up in nearly every conversation with those who left. One of the biggest differences between the FSU immigrants and the Putin aliyah is that the latter had already tasted the good life. In fact, they spent a large part of their adult lives enjoying greater prosperity and economic freedom than those in the Israeli middle class.
Architect Katya Preobrazhensky, 31, arrived in Israel at the end of 2015 with her husband. She is now about to depart for Thailand, to study at the Cordon Bleu cooking school and is hoping to continue on to London from there.
“When we moved here, it was the first time we’d ever seen Israel," she relates. "We hadn’t visited here before then. I had different expectations with respect to the aesthetics of the place. The way we are living – with a sea view and old Jaffa – I thought this was how more or less everyone in Tel Aviv lives. In reality, everyone lives in standard, boring, three-story buildings with small windows and they are lucky if the view isn’t some garbage dump. And they pay a lot of money for that. This, of course, depressed me a bit,” she admits.
However, she says the Israeli public, which is not accustomed to good service or to inexpensive, high quality products, has proved very open to what she had to offer – which increases the chances that she will return here one day, she adds.
'We didn’t flee Aleppo'
Journalist and playwright Mikhail Kaluzhsky, 49, moved to Israel with his wife in September 2014, but they moved to Berlin just over a year later. His wife, a cultural researcher by profession, was offered a position at the Free University in Berlin and the family seized the opportunity for a quick departure.
“The Israeli absorption system, as it was constructed after the Declaration of Independence and the way it exists to this day, assumes that upon arriving in Israel, you reset your past – linguistic, professional and social – leaving only your private life,” says Kaluzhsky. “After that, you go to the ulpan [language school] for half a year to learn Hebrew, you embark on your new life and you start all over again. That is what happened to my mother, who arrived in 1991, and to many others. With us it is different. We can travel to Israel, Germany or anywhere else, and our professional life doesn’t start all over again. It is always with us.”
Could it be said this is immigration with privileges?
“I don’t like this leftist discourse about privileges," replies Kaluzhsky. “True, we didn’t flee from the bombardments in Aleppo. We are privileged, of course, in the sense that we have bought an apartment in Germany and are paying taxes, even though we can’t vote here. Though you are in the middle of the social scale, apart from work and a life, you don’t receive anything. At least that is how it is in Germany.”
Could it be that what bothers me in encountering people from the Putin aliyah is actually plain unadulterated envy? Beyond their relatively high socioeconomic status, beyond their education and the sudden desire I have to leap to the defense of all the things I myself got sick of in Israel (The cost of living? The whining of spoiled brats! The occupation? Putin’s dictatorship is worse! Too narrow a culture? Learn Hebrew!) – beyond all that, there is another element that has to do with a possibility I hadn’t known was open to me. For even if my freedom of choice is an illusion, in contrast to people of the Putin aliyah, this illusion was taken away from me when I was brought to Israel at age 10. The way the new immigrants skip so easily between countries and continents, and their unwillingness to commit themselves – all this is tantamount to a challenge I may some day accept.