Lieberman's Lofty Position Means Nothing to Struggling Russian-Israeli Community

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Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman speaking at a press conference.
Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“I’ve shattered the glass ceiling for Israeli Russians,” Avigdor Lieberman told Russian-Israeli newspaper Vesti last week, after becoming defense minister-in-waiting. However, his statement is inaccurate. Although the appointment is indeed a personal achievement for Lieberman – who until now always faced stubborn resistance over being named number two in the political hierarchy – he actually broke that ceiling more than two decades ago, after being appointed director general of Likud and, later, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

As for Israel’s Russian immigrants, whom Lieberman has now decided to represent once more – despite expressly stating in the past that his Yisrael Beiteinu party was not parochial – his problem is not the ceiling but the floor: the starting point for his community’s social and economic development. In all his years in government, Lieberman has done nothing to improve this starting point.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the incidence of nonprofessional workers in services, sales, industry and agriculture was significantly higher among immigrants from the former Soviet Union compared to Israeli-born workers (57 percent vs. 41.5 percent). In contrast, the incidence of managers among this community was more than twice as low as among veteran Israelis – 5.8 percent compared to 13.6 percent.

According to earlier data, former citizens of the Soviet Union make up around half of Israel’s contract workers. Wage gaps between veteran Israelis and immigrants have not changed from 2000 (a year before Lieberman first entered the government as national infrastructure minister) to 2014, standing at 67 percent. Immigrants continue to live in ghettos, concentrated in the country’s social and economic periphery.

Did we hear the glass shatter in 2009, when Lieberman arrived at the Foreign Ministry – that bastion of the Ashkenazi elite? Not really. There was no wave of post-1990 immigrants being appointed to senior positions after his arrival at the ministry. Indeed, the first ambassador to be appointed from this mass wave of immigrants was actually only last year, when Lieberman wasn’t even in the cabinet.

The problem is that these ghettos, the dire economic situation and feelings of discrimination are actually the elements that support Lieberman’s party. They are also what give it some hope of improving its standing in the next Knesset election, based on an increased “pride in one’s people” evoked by his pending appointment as defense minister.

However, as in the foreign service, it’s hard to believe Lieberman will increase the number of Russian speakers in senior positions in the army and security services. The processes that led to the appointment of two brigade commanders who hailed from the former Soviet Union took more than two decades. And, as with the public service and media, immigrants’ success depends largely on their socioeconomic starting point and issues such as where they live and study, who they do military service with, and whether their parents have apartments and the ability to finance their academic studies.

In addition, Lieberman has openly declared that he’s giving up on attempts to solve another problem facing these immigrants – the tie between religion and state (“We understand that the ultra-Orthodox parties are part of the coalition,” he said in the same interview). In fact, the only clear promise he made to his voter base relates to their pensions. When the noise and tinkling of the shattered glass dies down, this is what he will be judged by.

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