Capitol Letter / The Russians Are Not All Right

Israel's Russian-speakers may seem largely right wing, but a small group of expats are comrades to the leftist cause

At first glance, the double byline by an Arab Israeli rights activist and Russian-emigre scientist in Washington's congressional newspaper The Hill seemed like a pairing of strange bedfellows. But Jafar Farah and Dr. Alla Shainskaya's op-ed and visit to Washington to speak about troubling trends in Israel would not have been a surprise for the small community of Russian-speaking leftists in Israel.

Shainskaya who is head of the Mass Spectrometry Unit at the Weizmann Institute of Science and chairwoman of Our Heritage, Charter for Democracy and Farah, of the Mossawa advocacy center, were in Washington as part of a delegation of Israeli Human rights organizations.

Alla Shainskaya - Archive / Limor Edrey
Archive / Limor Edrey

Shainskaya immigrated to Israel in 1990. Unlike most scientists from the former Soviet Union that had to survive at Weizmann for years with just the help of government-funded programs for immigrant scientists, she was invited by the Weizmann Institute and was promoted quickly. She admits she had no idea about politics in Israel because she was consumed with her work.

A visit to a checkpoint following her acquaintance's invitation shook her, and she became an activist, distributing self-made leaflets. Eventually, she was invited by the Meretz party to run for Knesset, but didn't make it.

She has had a hard time with the Russian-language press in Israel following her organization's report on their right-leaning bias. Her own son left for Canada and she admits she is depressed with the current political climate in Israel and the lack of leadership among leftists - but she is confident the "Russians" in Israel are "not hopeless."

She says that for some people they met in the U.S. "A live Russian Israeli leftist was like an alien, but not everybody is Lieberman. ... There are 'Russians' among the protesters at Sheikh Jarrah. One of my workers at the laboratory is Palestinian, we worked together for five years and it's good. We didn't take him because he is a Palestinian - when we were looking to enlarge the staff, he met all the requirements."

In recent years, the tiny group of Israeli Russian leftist activists has made contacts with the Arab Russian-speaking intelligentsia (about 10,000 Palestinians studied in Russian universities during the Soviet era ), and they organize meetings for the community - including Russian-style New Years celebrations and singing nostalgic songs together.

"I believe there is a chance for peace because I am a scientist," Shainskaya says. "When your experiment fails, it does not necessarily mean the hypothesis was wrong. You try to change the conditions, you have to keep an open mind - and many times we prove that the hypothesis was right after all. That's why we try to work together now - Mizrahim, Arabs, Russian immigrants - we have the same goal of fair society and democracy."

Their visit had unfortunate timing, coming at the same time as President Shimon Peres' visit and while the city was quaking under the specter of a government shutdown. Little room seemed to be left for alternative perspectives.

"Over the past few months, the Israeli Knesset has passed a series of laws that seriously undermine Israel's claim to be an open, tolerant democracy," the two wrote in The Hill. "Sadly, while a wave of democratic uprisings sweep the region, Israel, the self-proclaimed 'only democracy in the Middle East' is moving in the opposite direction, toward a less open, less democratic society."

The article detailed a couple of recent controversial laws that are perceived to be discriminatory.

"If Americans want to live up to their noble ideals and rhetoric about promoting human rights and freedom around the world, they must ensure that their Israeli friends and allies understand and uphold those ideals as well," the article continued.

The state of human rights

While lawmakers were working feverishly to avoid a shutdown, the U.S. State Department released its annual human rights report.

"We have a section both on Israel and a separate section on the territories, and in the section on the territories, we comment both on human rights problems, violations by the Palestinian Authority, by Hamas, and by the Government of Israel", said Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner, following the release of the report.

The report mentions the Golan Heights as "Israeli-occupied" - and states that "principal human rights problems were institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against Arab citizens, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, non-Orthodox Jews, and other religious groups; societal discrimination against persons with disabilities; and societal discrimination and domestic violence against women, particularly in Bedouin society. While trafficking in persons for the purpose of prostitution decreased in recent years, trafficking for the purpose of labor remained a serious problem, as did abuse of foreign workers and societal discrimination and incitement against asylum seekers."

As for the ticking clock toward the possible UN vote on a Palestinian state in September - it's not clear yet whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hasty visit to European capitals will ease the pressure on Israel, but the U.S. administration has supported him so far.

Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that "the tough issues between Israelis and Palestinians can be resolved only by direct negotiations between the parties, not in New York," and committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen asked "that the U.S. do all we can to ensure that the Palestinian lobby does not gain member status in the UN before negotiating a true peace with our ally Israel."

Capitol Hill may have Israel's back, but the man on the street is another issue. According to an Israel Project poll, 51 percent of voters oppose the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state without a signed peace treaty with Israel, and 54 percent believe that without a peace treaty, the United States should not recognize a Palestinian state. The Israel advocacy group reported 61 percent said Israel is making an effort for peace, while 53 percent agreed that the Palestinians are making "not much" or "no" effort.