Blood, Crime, Russian Immigrants and Racism; an Apology

Gideon Levy responds to the flurry of accusations leveled at him by Russian immigrant readers incensed about an op-ed he wrote.

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The Russians, the Russians: Two sentences I wrote in my opinion piece about racist prejudice against African migrants and asylum-seekers sparked considerable anger among some Russian olim in Israel. I wrote: “A million immigrants from Russia, a third of them non-Jews, some of whom were also found to have a degree of alcohol and crime in their blood, were not a problem. Tens of thousands of Africans are the ultimate threat.”

In that same article, however, I also pointed out that, according to two studies published in 2010 and 2011 by the Knesset Research and Information Center, the crime rate among African migrants and asylum-seekers is below the national average.

My intentions were purely innocent: I wanted to show that the argument that the African migrants and asylum-seekers have brought crime to Israel is simply incitement against this group of people. Crime can be found in every segment of the Israeli population – among native-born Israelis and long-time residents here as well as among the Russians; however, the finger of blame is pointed only at the Africans. Despite my intentions, many Russian olim in Israel were offended and furious and they accused me, of all people, of being a racist.

Some wrote me passionately-worded letters; most were highly critical of me. One or two threatened to cancel their subscription to Haaretz. Two petitions against me were disseminated in the Russian social network. Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver yesterday turned to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, demanding that he place me on trial. In the central news program of Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9, the subtitle that danced before the viewers was “Haaretz newspaper against Russian olim in Israel.”

I, the subject of personal attacks, sincerely apologize to anyone who might have been offended by what I wrote. However, this whole affair is simply a storm in a teacup, or, rather, a samovar. There is no connection whatsoever between what I wrote and racism.

What produced all this rage? Two emotionally charged words: “blood” and “immigrants.” Alcohol can be found in a person’s blood, but crime cannot be found there. Crime is generally borne out of socioeconomic deprivation – among Africans, Russians and Israelis.

However, the anger was largely due to my use of the word “immigrants” rather than “olim,” which is Hebrew for “new immigrant” and which is also a Zionist term that literally means “those who have ascended (to Israel).” It is sometimes permissible to digress from Zionist jargon. I see nothing wrong with using the term “immigrant” to refer to someone who has come to live in Israel. In fact, many of those who recently moved to Israel from Russia have not done so for Zionist reasons. Nonetheless, they have a right to immigrate here, for whatever reason, and that right is firmly anchored in Israel’s Law of Return. They can be called immigrants, rather than olim or new immigrants, and they need not be offended by that term.

However, beneath the surface there is another reason for the anger and humiliation: the mention of Russians in the same breath with Africans, heaven forbid. Here the hidden racism of those vehement attackers who have been deeply offended surfaces. Granted, the Russians have been integrated into Israeli society by virtue of the Law of Return; however, at least some of the African asylum-seekers also have a legal right to be in Israel – by virtue of the international conventions to which Israel is a signatory, even if it chooses to grossly ignore them by not bothering to check the status of each African who arrives.

Those who were offended by the two sentences in my article fell into the trap of the stereotype of the Russian olim in Israel, who want, and deserve, to be freed of that stereotype. Crime and Russians? It is absolutely forbidden to utter those two words in the same breath. However, it is permissible to utter crime and Israelis, or crime and Africans, in the same breath. Well, it is also permissible to utter crime and Russians without being considered racist.

The arrival of Russian immigrants – or, to use the Zionist term, olim or new immigrants – is a proven success story. If there is any racism against new immigrants, it is to be found in the margins of a society that is tainted with a far deeper racism toward other groups – Arabs, Africans, Sephardi Jews and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. I have been trying for years to write against such prejudice.

The Russian olim in Israel should not, of course, be the victims of racist prejudice or any other form of prejudice; However, it seems to me that they have set down sufficiently strong roots in Israel to be immune from taking offense from two sentences in an op-ed that were simply misunderstood or were perhaps improperly phrased.

Am I a racist? Moi? Responsibility for this whole misunderstanding is entirely mine.

African migrants walk on a road after abandoning a detention facility which began operating last week in the southern Israeli desert December 15, 2013.Credit: Reuters