The Russians Are Coming (To a Social Protest Near You)

Despite facing the same economic problems as their peers in Israel, the Russian community was noted by its absence from social protests, until now.

In the middle of a large crowd on the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, social worker Lev Berman suddenly lost heart. In that moment he realized he had to rethink everything. It was during the demonstration on Saturday June 2, which had been designed to reawaken the social-justice protest in Israel from its slumbers. As Berman stood in front of the stage, one of his friends signaled him to lift the sign in his hand high, and Berman realized he was having trouble doing so. The slogan was written in Cyrillic letters.

“All 20 years of the immigration trauma erupted, and I was surprised by how hard it was for me,” he says now. “I realized that it’s not at all simple. Later an Israeli girl approached and asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I realized how hard it was to explain to Israelis what we have to explain, and that made me change my mind. If once I worked to help Russians integrate, now I’m changing the concept: We have to belong.”

Later during the rally, activist Vicki Idzinski went onstage and explained precisely why Russian speakers should naturally belong to the protest. She spoke about the fact that more than 40 percent of the contract workers in the country are Russian speakers. About the fact that there are no apartments in the Russian community that are transferred by inheritance, and therefore their housing problem is far greater than the norm. And about the fact that elderly Russians who are not eligible for a government pension survive on crumbs.

Despite all that, during last summer’s protest, immigrants from the former Soviet republics preferred to join as individuals. Or, to be more precise, to become a part of the crowd, rather than belonging to a group with a voice of its own.

The Russian awakening is actually beginning now. At the June 2 demonstration, the activists walked around wearing long lab coats bearing the Hebrew inscription “The Russians aren’t here because they’re at work.” Some held up signs with Russian slogans and with humorous illustrations by artist Zoya Cherkassky.

Some of the Russians demanding social justice object to Cherkassky’s signs, which include caricatures of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The main group of Russian activists is afraid of being seen as anti-Lieberman, and therefore as leftist. Its members are children of parents for whom the concept “socialism” has a bad taste, and for whom Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, provided a political identity on the Israeli scene. They’re interested in enlisting their parents rather than causing them to feel threatened, and therefore they made it clear that Cherkassky’s signs were carried by other activists.

Arousing awareness

The protest signs of the Russian public may have been written, but they still lack a uniform approach. They are carried cautiously, with no desire to draw attention, in order not to arouse misunderstanding. Is it possible to bring about change that way? Have the Russians missed the boat? They may now be joining a wave of political protest that no longer has room for their comprehensive approach.

“My dream,” says Olga Birman, spokeswoman of an as-yet-unnamed protest group, “is that alongside these signs, people will also carry signs saying ‘Only Lieberman Can.’” There’s no question that that was the spirit of 2011. However, it’s not that of 2012; and definitely not that of 1917.

“We’re a year behind,” explains Edi Zhensker, who picked me up at the Be’er Sheva train station a week after the demonstration. He was born in Ukraine 29 years ago, immigrated to Israel at age 8, grew up in the Negev and recently settled in the regional capital in order to run a nonprofit called Morashteinu ‏(Our Heritage‏). The organization was founded in order to get the Russian public interested in peace processes. In other words, to create a possibility for change in the community. Zhensker believes that such change is essential in every respect.

“We have to arouse awareness of the problems,” he says. “The situation is what it is not because it’s all right, but because people have decided that that’s the situation. If Israelis have become aware of that in the past year, in the Russian community it has yet to happen. The Russian immigrants came from a place with two factors: the family and the state. There’s nothing in between. The moment you left the house and entered the grocery store, you were in state territory. In Israel there’s also civil society.”

Zhensker and the members of his generation describe themselves as the “one and a half generation” of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They are fed by both by the Israeli and the Russian media, move between the political atmosphere in their parents’ homes and in encounters with friends. Zhensker’s Russian accent is softer than that of the other activists with whom I spoke while preparing the article. It’s barely noticeable, and yet it exists.

As a child of mixed parentage he is free to work for change, but is greeted with suspicion. “I was interviewed on Reka radio [a Russian-language station] a day after the demonstration and was presented as someone who had participated in a political demonstration − in other words, as an enemy,” he says. “I tried to ignore that. I spoke about the contract workers, about the needs of the community.”

The suspicion is not limited to their parents and the Russian media. There is also the mainstream Israeli protest, which in the past favored joining forces and breaking down the barriers, and which will probably be forced to get used to the protest that is bubbling up from within the communities themselves.

“There are problems unique to various communities that will not be solved through the mainstream protest,” explains Zhensker. “Stav [Shaffir − one of the leaders of the protest movement] can’t solve all the problems of the Ethiopians, the Russians, the Arabs. They’re not familiar with the problems, they aren’t there. Ensuring that there’s a representative of a specific community is not enough.”

Zhensker met the other Russian activists in Tel Aviv at a demonstration of Russian pensioners that took place on March 29 − the first, gentle, sign of the awakening now taking place. At the June 2 demonstration Zhensker carried a sign saying “The Russians are saying ‘da’ to the social protest.” He believes that in the future there will be fewer signs and demonstrations, and more activity within the community: “We have to travel to the outlying areas where our parents live, to organize focus groups. The moment there’s a mass movement, there will also be legitimacy.”

B for Babushka

On a pleasant Shabbat afternoon in June, six more social-justice activists were waiting for me in the Beit Ha’am social center in Tel Aviv − a building still active as the source of cultural events and conventions, and which has been given over to the activists thanks to the generosity of its owners.

When I arrived, they were sitting on the balcony overlooking Rothschild Boulevard and speaking in the language of Pushkin. Idzinski explained the subject of the conversation in amused embarrassment: The group feels that they’re a caricature. “Here we are, like a group of revolutionaries talking about struggle, and on Shabbat afternoon! It immediately reminds us of [Lenin’s wife] Nadezhda Krupskaya.”

Idzinski, who spoke onstage at the June 2 demonstration, is, to a large extent, the mother of this protest group. “I wasn’t active before the social protest,” she says now. “The first demonstration I ever attended is the one I organized. The second the protests began I jumped up from the sofa where I had been sitting for a long time, because I felt that here was a tool for reaching people.”

In early August 2011, Idzinski organized a demonstration of more than 120 pensioners in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem. Later she was joined by Yulia Zemlinskaya − also sitting on the balcony − in an organization of Russian-speaking female activists on the boulevard and in other protest tent encampments. Idzinski, like Zemlinskaya, contacted commentators from the Russian-language media. She says her home is very close to the Channel 9 [Russian television] studios. A five-minute bike ride to interviews there did not give her time to think about satisfactory answers to the tough questions she was asked. Whatever the case, Channel 9 introduced her to a partner: spokeswoman Olga Birman, who was working at the channel at the time and has since left the media industry.

The summer ended and the momentum subsided, but winter and spring brought new partners. Also on the balcony were Lev Berman, Vlad Boguslavsky and Benny Mandel. Those seated on the balcony are aged between 30 and 40, educated, quick-witted, employed in the “free professions”: some currently or previously in high tech; others in teaching or social services. They were all born abroad − Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan − but when asked about their origins they reply with a look that seems to be saying “What difference does it make?” They belong to Israel, just a little differently from the way I belong. Their organization is still looking for a name, and they have tried to distance themselves from the “B for Babushka” label that some of them operated under last summer.

The group turned out to be divided in its opinions. Some of the members support a more political protest, others have reservations about it. Some have left Israel for various periods of time, and many of them have broken up with friends who deserted due to various types of despair. The dramatic events later in June − the aggressive police arrest of social protest leader Daphni Leef and the ensuing demonstration with many arrests − had yet to take place. Still hanging over the Israeli-Russian activists was the concern that there would not be a real protest again, and that the year’s delay meant that they, and those close to them, had missed a historic opportunity.

Boguslavsky explains that he “prefers to go with the government,” adding, “There are 40 draft bills of relevance to us that haven’t passed since 2000. It’s not the government’s fault. The coalition system is what prevents it.” He proposes lobbying as a possible modus operandi for changing the situation, but even he realizes that it will require a struggle. “There’s one opposition against another here. On the one hand there’s us, and on the other there are people who have a direct phone line to [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

The prime minister’s name came up far less in the conversation than that of his foreign minister. I once again brought up the subject of the protest signs drawn by Cherkassky, in which a gorging Lieberman sits with his leg resting on the back of a woman washing the floor. Birman claims that the signs are “very political and extreme.” Idzinski, meanwhile, mentions that she had declared from the stage that Lieberman and Netanyahu are bad for the Russians.

“We don’t ask about party affiliation, just as we don’t ask about religion and sexual proclivity,” says Zemlinskaya. Idzinski adds: “Right and left don’t suit us well. If someone votes for Lieberman because he believes in civil marriage, what would you call such a person? It’s not the same political map. The perceptions in Russian society were very different when we arrived, but people came with questions and all along the way they received very neoliberal answers. That’s what happens when you don’t listen to the waves of immigration − you get phenomena like Shas, and then everyone is religious and prays at grave sites.”

“The main reason for my fears and for the desire to protect us,” says Birman, “is that we’re just starting out. There’s a major objective that’s clear to everyone, but we haven’t agreed about how to achieve it. I hope we’ll also manage to define the path, how to increase social involvement among the Russian community...” “And political involvement,” interrupts Mandel. “And to increase awareness among Hebrew speakers of the problems of the Russians,” Birman concludes.

Saving grandma

Between the battle against the political and economic system, the internal differences of opinion, the debates with their parents around the dinner table, and disputes with non-Russian activists who don’t believe in a sectoral fight that contributes to the overall struggle, this group is also sitting and trying to think about how to save grandma. “Behind the young people who have become integrated, there are grandparents and parents whom we worry about,” explains Idzinski. “What they’re interested in is good public transportation and good public health care. Russian speakers don’t have money for a private doctor. We don’t have money for a taxi.”

The activists know they’re not the only ones with no money for a taxi. If Zhensker spoke in Be’er Sheva about a sectoral battle, here they emphasize that the battle is not necessarily on ethnic grounds. Idzinski: “If I’m sitting alone among a crowd of Israelis, that will simply be a curiosity,” she says. “I won’t really be able to explain the Russian narrative, and only as a group can we first understand it together and try to develop it. But the goal is to be a part of the general protest.”

Despite the stereotype, there are activists among the older generation, too. Some of them, mainly those who participated in the pensioners’ demonstration in March, are in contact with the young people. “Many of them live in the outlying areas,” Birman explains. “It’s hard for them to get together and exchange opinions. Very few have Internet access, and I really admire those who succeed, create Facebook groups and keep in contact. I really hope that in the end we’ll be able to combine the isolated initiatives. It may be a somewhat complicated group, but it will be only one.”

On the other hand, there’s also a new generation that has recently come into the world or not even arrived yet. Birman talks of a study by Michael Philippov, from the Israel Democracy Institute, which found that about 70 percent of the Russian immigrant community is not sure Israel is a good place to raise children. The frustration reaches the balcony of Beit Ha’am, but not the despair. Protesting, like having children, is a sign of optimism. It stems from a belief in the future. “We’re here to stay,” says Idzinski. “It took us time, but now we get it, and we’re not going home.”

They didn’t go home, and later in June the protest steadily gathered momentum. That happened in part thanks to them, but also mainly thanks to the law enforcement authorities, who were less than gentle and decided to eliminate the protest in advance with tough measures. Summoning activists who had done nothing wrong to a police interrogation touched an exposed post-Soviet nerve, and as a result a series of Russian-speaking activists, including Zhensker and Idzinski, published a concerned manifesto.

“We, Russian-speaking social activists and activists in ‘Morashteinu − a Democratic Convention,’” they wrote, “warn against turning the police from a law-enforcement arm into a political tool in the hands of the government to control the civil protest. We, who came to a democratic country from a Soviet system, where that was the official purpose of the police, know better even than veteran Israelis not only how it starts, but how it ends.” Among the signatories are two former Prisoners of Zion, Rabbi Michael Rivkin and Dr. Vladimir Brodsky.

Among the large crowd at the angry demonstration on Friday June 22, I met Idzinski, who told me − before I was arrested that night and before the change in the public and media perception of the protest − that things had changed a great deal in the interim. A week later, I met with her in Tel Aviv for an update.

“The things that have changed represent potential,” she explains. “The energy has changed. It was more confused and now it’s more focused. We’ve started to forge ahead. The group has entered a more fun work process. A division into assignments: who’s setting up the website; who’s organizing the discussions in the territories; who’s organizing the discussions in the north; who’s organizing the campaign on employment...” She tells me about cooperation with Fadis ‏(a small grouping of Russian-language Internet communities‏) in the battle against housing discrimination.

And still, the drama of the more recent demonstrations also contributed to the change. “My family has never yelled at me the way they’ve been doing since the demonstration last Shabbat,” admits Idzinski, referring to the June 23 disturbances. “It gave everyone a bad scare. I find myself having innumerable conversations with journalists and with my family, and explaining to everyone that this is a country where there won’t be a revolution. They tell me, ‘Look, that’s how it began in 1917.’ I explain that for Israelis, the protest reflects a lot of positive things: energy, change. And that people who are walking around and shouting ‘revolution’ don’t mean to bring down the regime by violent and undemocratic means. What I did was to talk like a good girl. I adopted the gender role of the Russian woman who looks as normal as possible, as I was trying to reassure people.”

On the other hand, Idzinski is also turning to the organizers of the demonstrations and asking them not to raise red flags, not to say “equality” but rather “equal opportunity.”

“When a Russian hears ‘equality’ he wants to die,” explains Idzinski. And suddenly everything looks nigh-on impossible. She and her group are fighting on three fronts. It’s amazing that the battle against the Russian mainstream and against the protest mainstream doesn’t cause them to forget the battle against those who are suppressing the protest, the sick system − but it doesn’t. “We want to show anyone who wants to suppress the protest that the Russian speakers are not in his pocket,” sums up Idzinski, “and that’s not self-evident, but it’s understood.”

The ethos and its end

The protest is now entering its next stage. Last Saturday’s Tel Aviv demonstration was dominated by images of Moshe Silwan setting fire to himself in a desperate protest against his housing predicament. Yet the rally was also notable for a huge banner in Russian, highlighting the greater visibility of Russians in the movement. In the present situation, however, everyone is as skeptical as they are determined, but there are some who are more skeptical than others.

One of the skeptics is Dr. Dimitry Shumsky, a lecturer on Israel studies in the Jewish history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “We have to be happy that there are groups of Russian-speaking young people who are themselves participating in the social protest,” says Shumsky, “but I wouldn’t get my hopes up about the parents’ generation.”

Shumsky is very familiar with the immigrant community from the former Soviet Union and he believes there is almost no chance of enlisting the community that the activists most want to involve. “What we’re seeing in this group is, first of all, a reflection of ‘Israelization,’” he explains by phone. “They want to challenge what could be explained as a Soviet and post-Soviet social ethos, an ethos that is a result of a profound gap between the daily declaration of the victory of social equality and the reality.

“In the Soviet Union, starting in about the 1960s, there was social inequality, which in terms of disparities was close to capitalism. The result was twofold. On the one hand, the Russians became profoundly cynical about the values of equality. And on the other, they developed a concept of inequality as the natural order of things, as an expression of natural justice. These things are very deeply ingrained and have a long-term effect beyond the Soviet reality. After all, the very fact that the Soviet Union disintegrated ostensibly proves the justice of these two things.”

Shumsky believes the group of activists is trying, consciously or unconsciously, to challenge the double ethos. “It sounds like a generalization,” he says, “and there are exceptions. I must also emphasize that there’s nothing especially Russian here. It’s simply a result of the communist situation, which can also be found in Eastern European countries. I assume that it also exists today in Cuba and North Korea, which are grandiose laboratories for the corruption of concepts of equality and enlightenment.”

According to Shumsky, the fact that the younger generation is joining the social struggle − thereby freeing themselves from the aforementioned ethos − stems firstly from genuine involvement.

This involvement may also explain Lev Berman’s momentary hesitation when he was asked to hold the sign up high. Is there really any point in doing something so un-Russian, so Israeli, with a sign in, of all things, Russian? Isn’t that absurd? Berman has changed his goal, from a desire to belong to a desire to become integrated.

Shumsky, meanwhile, suggests another term: “There’s an attempt here to become ‘interwoven’,” he says. “An attempt to interweave a voice that expresses needs unique to the Russian community within Israeliness, and Israeliness is multifaceted today.”