Opinion |

Israeli Racism, post-Soviet Style

The Jews of the former Soviet Union grew up with a sense of alienation from their homeland, so they believe that Israel’s Arab citizens lack roots in Israel

Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky
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A Russian-themed celebration at Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park, 2006.
A Russian-themed celebration at Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park, 2006. Credit: Pavel Wolberg
Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky

A childhood friend of mine from the early ‘90s, the son of an educated Jewish family from Moscow, lived with his parents in Haifa in a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood. Near his building was an Arab-owned grocery store. Neither my friend, who was 15 at the time, nor his parents ever went to this store, preferring to walk a long way and climb steep steps to reach a Jewish-owned grocery.

“I don’t understand,” my friend once told me when I accompanied him on his national mission to the Jew’s grocery store, “why they don’t leave for Jordan or Syria, just as we left the Soviet Union.”

Of course, there was no shortage in the Jewish state of racist ideas about Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens, even before the large aliyah from the Soviet Union and former Soviet Union, but the racist worldview of my childhood friend has unique characteristics. It’s not similar to homegrown racism, just as the call by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to boycott Arab businesses in Wadi Ara differs from the rhetoric of Israeli racism and has a different purpose: to question the legitimacy of the citizenship of the Arab residents of Wadi Ara.

My childhood friend, like many who came from the Soviet and post-Soviet space, and the electorate of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party in particular, projected on Israeli-Palestinian citizens’ connection to the Israeli space the relations between Jews and Soviet Russia toward the end of the communist era. This model was essentially derived from Soviet Jews’ profound alienation from the space where they grew up.

We know that emigration to the West was a common phenomenon in the history of Russian Jews, starting from the last quarter of the 19th century. But only in the past two generations — on the eve of the Soviet disintegration and after it — was the emigration accompanied for many Jews by a sense of disgust toward everything related to the “homeland.”

This type of detachment from Eastern Europe was very new in the history of Russian Jewry. For most of Jewish history in Czarist Russia, as well as in the Soviet state until after World War II, Jews’ link to their Eastern European homeland, where they had lived for generations, before and after the Russian occupation of parts of Poland, played an important role in their many identities — even among the most prominent representatives of Jewish nationalism and Zionism.

Leon Pinsker once wrote that despite the anti-Semitism and recognition of the need to create a national homeland for the Jews, Russia’s Jews refused to see themselves as foreigners in Russia because “we are the ancient sons of the Russian land. On her soil our forefathers were raised and died. On this soil Russia found us.”

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who ideologically was unequivocally committed to the idea of a homeland in the Land of Israel, also exhibited a passionate patriotism regarding his hometown of Odessa, and even insisted there couldn’t be a contradiction between his Zionist dream and his love for his city.

And if Russian Zionists saw themselves, without pangs of conscience, as deeply-rooted natives of their Eastern European homeland, among Russian Jews who were not Zionists this phenomenon was even more prevalent. This feeling was particularly clear at the beginning of the communist era, when the young Soviet state waged an uncompromising battle against anti-Semitism, and during World War II (which is called the Great Patriotic War despite the Molotiv-Ribbentrop Pact), during which many Soviet Jews’ identification with the country that led the campaign against the Nazis reached a peak.

But starting at the end of World War II, the situation reversed — from the brutal campaign toward the end of the Stalinist era against the Jewish intelligentsia, whose members were portrayed as rootless cosmopolitans, to the strengthening of official Soviet anti-Semitism against the backdrop of the severing of relations with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War. There was a constant persecution of “Zionists” — a negligible minority among Soviet Jewry.

And so the Soviets erased not only most of the cultural content of Jewish identity, but also the Jews’ emotional link to Eastern Europe, a very central component of that identity. Though the Jews were in love with Russian culture in a spiritual sense, when it came to the worldly-civil dimension, many recognized their (external, institutional) identity as total strangers in their homeland, both in Russia and the other Soviet republics.

The Soviet regime therefore made many Soviet Jews do something no Jew-hating czar ever made the Jews of Czarist Russia do: become convinced they had no historical affiliation to their country; believe they were on Soviet soil by charity, not right. Most importantly, they accepted the hierarchy of civil rights between the national majority and minority groups as a natural, correct and just model of the national-civil situation in a modern state.

And then, when they arrived in Israel, the Jews of the former Soviet Union encountered a native national minority that was proud rather than apologetic, shattering the distorted Soviet consensus on relations between a majority and a minority. Palestinian Arab citizens not only have no intention to leave “for Jordan or Syria,” they even dare to demand full equal rights and demonstrate a unique national presence on the Israeli civic landscape. In doing so they are reshuffling the deck of the concepts of citizenship among the Israeli Homo Sovieticus, and repeatedly driving him crazy.

Since this is a very sensitive issue for large swaths of Russian-speaking Israelis, it’s no wonder that Lieberman — himself part of this phenomenon — turned the delegitimization of Israel’s Arab citizens into his party’s ID card as soon as he actively entered Israeli politics. And he waves it again and again regardless. In doing so he and much of his electorate are making a dubious contribution to the multicultural variety of Israeli racism.

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