A Mind of Their Own

Unlike their parents' generation only a decade ago, young upwardly mobile Russians have solid reasons for voting as they do, backed up by careful research. Perhaps because they are new in the ring, nothing is taken for granted. Most of them even read the parties' platforms.

Milla Teitelman has vivid memories of how the Russian immigrants decided what party to vote for when they first came to Israel. "The first ones who would show up at their houses or come to take them by car to the polling station would get their vote," she says, remembering the "Sallah Shabati" days of Russian aliyah. "Who had the time and the strength to do in-depth research on which party to vote for?" she asks. "Today, the immigrants are in better shape: They've got food, they've got work. So now their minds are free to think about stuff like politics and ideology."

Teitelman, 23, an accounting student at Hebrew University, plans to vote Likud this time. In the last elections, she voted Moledet, because of Rehavam Ze'evi. In hindsight, she thinks she made a mistake voting for a small party. Apart from that, her views have become more moderate. Casting her ballot for a Russian party was never an option. "Why would I want a Russian to represent me?" she says dismissively. But Labor is not an option either. She first heard of Amram Mitzna two years ago, when Haifa was hosting a beauty contest. Now, all of a sudden, he's a candidate for prime minister.

Teitelman's attitudes pretty much reflect the mood and voting patterns among Russian-speaking university students in Israel - a rather small group in a mostly older immigrant population. Of the 120,000 Russian immigrants in the 18-30 age bracket (equal to approximately five Knesset seats), only 20 percent are students - the same proportion of students in the general Israeli population, but much lower than in the former Soviet Union.

This is not the only meeting point between the immigrant student and Israeli student populations. The two groups also vote similarly. Likud and Shinui, the two parties in fashion today at Israeli universities, are also the parties supported by immigrant students. Russian students are Israeli in every respect except for the process by which they reach their electoral decisions.

Meeting with a group of them, several distinctive characteristics emerge: They don't read the Russian-language newspapers because even the rightists among them believe these papers are totally slanted, and they all agree that they devote more effort to establishing a political identity and probing the mysteries of politics than their Israeli peers. Being newcomers, they have no traditional affiliations. They don't come from families with a commitment to any specific party or political camp. They reach their political decisions on their own, after giving the matter much serious thought.

Unlike the "Sallah Shabati" mentality that typified their parents' generation only a decade ago, they have solid reasons for voting as they do, backed up by careful research. Perhaps because they are new in the ring, nothing is taken for granted. Most of them even read the platforms of the parties. They are part of Israel's future elite, and talking to them, one gets a sense of how their Israel will look.

Neither revolutionaries nor suckers

Surprisingly, they are not the revolutionaries one might expect. Israeli society may have this image of the immigrants as right-wing extremists but their rightist views are moderate and level-headed. On social issues, they seek change, but not a revolution. They regard the Jewish character of Israel as worthy of preserving, but would like to see more openness and consideration for the rights of individuals, especially in personal matters. They don't eat Arabs for breakfast or hate the ultra-Orthodox, and they don't feel like "suckers," as Shinui chairman Yosef (Tommy) Lapid suggested in his attempt to woo the younger generation.

"That's a very Israeli concept," they say. "In Russian, there is no word for `sucker.'" At the same time, they are very much aware of the complexity of the society in which they live, and feel that slight changes are in order, of the type that would meet the special needs of Israel's one million new citizens.

Dr. Alex Feldman, a researcher of public opinion in the Russian sector, says that young Russian-speaking Israelis fall into three categories: "There's the `Jerusalem track,' made up of successful young people with nationalist views, or motivated by a desire for communal revenge, similar to young Shas voters. Then there's the `Amsterdam track,' consisting of young people who want to live in a liberal country founded on civil liberty, like their peers in Europe. And finally, there's the `New York track,' youngsters for whom personal fulfillment and success come first. Those who fail, leave the country and seek their fortunes elsewhere."

Also typical of the Russian students is the almost complete abandonment of immigrant parties. Slava Gerber, 25, is studying economics and accounting at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He immigrated to Israel 10 years ago from the Ukraine. In the 1999 elections, he voted for Yisrael b'Aliyah. "I was still an immigrant at that time," he explains. "I had a lot of interests I thought an immigrant party could safeguard. But that's over now."

This time around, Gerber plans to vote Shinui. He has made sure to read the party platform, and says it suits him fine. He even likes the direct appeal to the middle-class. "I may not belong to it yet," he says, "but I want to belong." Unlike Milla Teitelman, who thinks only Jews should be allowed to immigrate, Gerber believes there are many ways to be a Jew. His non-Jewish girlfriend is now in the process of converting, so they can get married. If there were a civil marriage option in Israel, they wouldn't bother with conversion.

"There's a contradiction in this Jewish character business," says Yevgeny Weiner, 25, studying for a master's degree in economics at the Hebrew University. "In Russia, many half-Jews identified more with Judaism than those who were Jewish on both sides. What we need in Israel is more flexibility. Not just in making it easier to convert, but in fully accepting those who serve in the army and link their destiny to that of the state."

Weiner is planning to vote Likud, just as he did in the last elections. In 1992, shortly after immigrating to Israel, he persuaded his mother and grandmother to vote Likud, too. Apart from agreeing with this party's political views, he was looking for a party with roots and continuity. "Only voting for a large party can insure a stable government," he says. "Even on the right, I'm for moderation. Realpolitik calls for a political settlement with territorial compromise, but not surrender. At the moment, Labor symbolizes surrender and the Likud symbolizes compromise. I live in Pisgat Ze'ev and go to school on Mt. Scopus. That's a pretty dangerous route. But a country that wants to survive needs symbols, and a capital city is one of those symbols on which you don't compromise."

Rightward drift

Living in Jerusalem has also affected the voting patterns of Jana Kaminsky, a 24-year-old student of international relations and eastern Asian studies at the Hebrew University. In the 1996 elections, she voted Meretz, influenced by living on a kibbutz during her first years in Israel. In the army, she voted for Ehud Barak. The move to Jerusalem has pushed her rightward. Now she plans to vote for Avigdor Lieberman - not for the National Union party, but for Lieberman personally. Not because he is Russian, which she thinks is irrelevant, but because he is a "strong leader." Kaminsky says this shift in her political outlook is the consequence of living in Jerusalem and watching the Arab students on campus waving black flags on Independence Day. That frightened her.

Marika Katz, 25, studying education and international relations at Hebrew University, immigrated to Israel on her own six years ago. During that period, her political views have followed the opposite trajectory of Jana Kaminsky's. The first time she voted in Israel, she cast her ballot for Yisrael b'Aliyah. That's the party she knew from her work as a Jewish Agency counselor in Siberia, where she was born. She left when MK Roman Bronfman did. Now she is an activist for Meretz.

"My reasons for choosing Meretz have less to do with the political platform than my interest in human rights," she says. Katz is not Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law), and her personal status impacts on her political views. "In its approach to human rights, Israel is very far from being the kind of democracy you read about in textbooks," says Katz. "This has an effect on the way Arabs are treated, but also on the way they treat me. I feel terrible that in my country, amongst my people, I have an ID card that says `Russian.' Separation of religion and state is not only something I think I'm entitled to personally, but a process that will improve this country."

Perhaps it is not surprising that the one other Meretz supporter in the group is not halakhically Jewish either. Sasha Rothgeiser, 29, a computer science student, immigrated to Israel from Turkmenistan, where he experienced what it was like to live harmoniously in a heterogeneous society. When he first came to Israel, he voted Yisrael b'Aliyah, after serving in a "Russian" army unit and seeing his countrymen discriminated against and humiliated. The turnabout in his political outlook was shaped by a personal tragedy: the death of his father, after two years in Israel.

Until today, Rothgeiser believes that his father died of a broken heart, in a country which he felt had no need of him. The Hevra Kadisha burial society in Safed refused to bury his father. They said he was only half-Jewish - the wrong half. In the end, Rothgeiser's father was laid to rest at Kibbutz Masaryk. "I went looking for some political niche with an emphasis on human rights, a party where I would feel at home," recalls Rothgeiser. "That's how I found Meretz." It also began to dawn on him that the only way to change things in Israel was through politics. As a result, he is not only a supporter of Meretz, but a tireless activist.

For two years, Rothgeiser was the chairman of the Meretz branch at the Technion, and he is now a chief of campaign operations in the immigrant sector. He says that until today, immigrants are shocked to discover his affiliation with Meretz. "Sometimes they ask if they can pinch me to see if I'm real," Rothgeiser says with a snort.

Rothgeiser is the most militant and critical member of this impromptu discussion group, expressing disgust with the anti-democratic character of the state, the lack of equality and the prejudice he sees around him. A loud argument ensues between him and a right-winger in the group when he says that Israeli Arabs should be made to feel that they fully belong here.

"Because of the demographic problem with the Arabs, Israel can't be a European-style democracy," protests Artiom Lieberman, 24, a student of international relations and accounting. "The country has to stay Jewish. We can't allow a situation in which the Arabs have an exaggerated influence on politics."

Paradoxically, Artiom Lieberman's affair with right-wing politics began after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. At the time of the murder, Lieberman was a student at the Telma Yellin School for the Arts in Givatayim, which he describes as a bastion of the left. "The hysteria after the murder bothered me," he says. "It was the collective delegitimizing of the right, and the cynical attempt to demolish the whole camp, that brought me in."

The filth is built into the system

In 1992, Lieberman's parents voted for Rabin, and he supported them. In 1996, he already voted for Benjamin Netanyahu, and in 1999, for Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. Now he plans to vote for Ariel Sharon. A month ago, when the Likud primaries scandal broke, he had a temporary change of heart and considered switching to Shinui. But then allegations that Sharon was involved in corruption sent him home again. "I began to realize that the filth is built into the system," he explains. "When I first saw these guys at Likud headquarters, I didn't want to be associated with them. But after the whole business with Sharon, I saw that the media was getting involved and trying to influence the outcome of the elections. So I went back to the Likud."

Weiner, the other Likudnik in the group, admits to being troubled by the scandals, but not enough to make him switch parties. Over the years, he, too, has developed a cynical attitude toward the Israeli political system. With an impressive command of the facts, he ticks off a whole list of scandals, past and present, involving politicians on the left. In this light, the new allegations against Sharon just seem like another item on the list.

With all their cynicism, Rothgeiser, Weiner and Lieberman do not dismiss out of hand the idea of going into politics one day. Lieberman likes the way Netanyahu kicked off his political career, and regards it as a possible model for himself. Weiner does not picture himself on the podium at the Likud's Pavilion 28, or inviting Likud bigwigs to a hotel, but he will certainly "weigh the matter if I'm called to the flag." Rothgeiser says politics is an option "if the political situation continues to deteriorate." Weiner demurs: "For me, it's exactly the opposite. If the political situation is bad, you can't move ahead. Politics only makes sense for me if there is something I can do to move things forward."

Their differences notwithstanding, they have an almost uniform answer when asked what sets them apart from their native-born Israeli peers: "Israelis are less worried about the situation," they say. "Maybe it's because they've been here longer. They're more confident about tomorrow than we are."