Just Don't Call Them Parasites

The single mothers who speak Russian are not part of Vicki Knafo's protest. These are two different worlds, not particularly fond of each other.

On the day the Knesset's winter session opens, October 20, Yelena Kim, head of Association of Immigrant Single Mothers, is planning a mass demonstration in front of the Knesset. But it's not certain that she'll carry it out, because of the difficulty in raising funds to transport some 2,000 single mothers to the demonstration. The struggle over the budget requires a budget, and her organization has no money.

About two months ago, the new immigrants conducted a demonstration of some 200 single mothers, to identify with Vicki Knafo's encampment, in which the new immigrant moms raised demands of their own. Since then they owe $800, the cost of renting the buses.

Kim, who heads the association that now includes 9,000 immigrant single mothers, says a request for funding from the New Israel Fund, which assisted Vicki Knafo's struggle, was summarily rejected. "They are making us feel that Vicki Knafo's Israelis are heroines, and we're dirt," says Kim defiantly.

The director of the fund, Eliezer Yaari, says there simply is no money. "We didn't initiate the struggle of the single mothers, but one day we found them at our doorstep, and it has turned into a bottomless pit," he says, referring to Knafo's struggle. "We have reached a situation where the coffers are empty. In addition, I don't really understand why the new immigrants have to operate separately as `Russians,' rather than cooperating with the veteran single mothers."

The question of where the Russian-speaking single mothers have disappeared to is one of the more surprising questions of the ongoing battle. Over 40 percent of the 110,000 single-parent families in Israel are headed by new immigrants from the FSU, a large group that by joining could have changed the size and the nature of the struggle. It didn't happen.

Only two or three Russian-speaking mothers have passed through the encampment in Jerusalem, stayed for a short time and gone home. The reason is definitely not connected to being better off than the veterans; on the contrary, the immigrant single mothers are even worse off than the veterans. They are struggling not only with difficulties that typify the entire group, but with absorption problems as well.

The newcomers, as opposed to the veterans, have no support systems in Israel, neither parents nor siblings. The classic single-parent family from the FSU usually includes a mother, a child or two, and a grandmother, who although she is of assistance, is also an additional burden.

The immigrant single mothers suffer even more than the veteran mothers. Over 40,000 single-parent immigrant families have been hurt now not only by the cutback in allowances, but also by the cancelation of the benefits that are supposed to make their absorption easier, such as assistance in the payment of rent and of municipal property tax (arnona). Still their voice has not been heard in the struggle of past three months.

"Do you want 5,000 women to sit in the Rose Garden [near the Knesset]?" says Kim. "In any case they say we are parasites and don't work, and sitting there only reinforces this stereotype."

A struggle of the Moroccan women

The veterans and the newcomers speak of "differences in mentality." There are cultural gaps and ethnic and racist undertones on both sides. Why aren't the immigrants here? Inbal Cohen of Eilat, who has been in the protest encampment since the beginning, says knowingly, "They find men who set them up in life."

Why do only the Russian women find such a convenient solution?

"The Russian women find and the veterans don't," is Cohen's surprising answer. "They know how to seduce [men] and we don't." She adds: Among the single mothers from Russia are some who work as prostitutes, and are embarrassed to come here. There was one here from the south who said that she prefers to work as a prostitute and not to sit in a tent. She stayed here for two days and left."

The immigrant mothers don't spare their criticism of the veteran single moms: "Most of them are drug addicts who hang around with Arabs," is a common statement. Another one is: "We're different. We're educated, and we work."

All the ills of Israeli society, including clear ethnic tensions, have become concentrated in this encampment, and the difficult living conditions only make them worse. The absence of the immigrant women is also the reason for the image the group has attained as a struggle of Moroccan women, and the group is also the result of that image. All the single mothers, and the social organizations as well, have failed where other struggles have failed as well: They haven't succeeded in turning their struggle into an overall class struggle.

A partial explanation comes from Reuven Abergil, an early member of the Black Panthers, who recently joined the hunger strike in the encampment. In a tent emblazoned with the slogan "India is here" (a reference to the prime minister traveling to India instead of dealing with the problems at home), Abergil explains: "We all know that the Russians purposely separate themselves from Israeli society. That doesn't mean that the Russian single mothers don't have problems. It only testifies to the fact that they prefer to deal with them in their own frameworks. I have no complaint against them - Israeli society rejects them. If we were used to hearing `Moroccan knife-wielder," today it is the Mizrahim [Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent] who are looking for defects in the Russians in order to hide their own defects."

During one of the encounters in the Knesset initiated by the social organizations, there was a great uproar in the auditorium when the coordinator of new immigrants from the Yedid organization in Haifa got up to speak in their name, and neighborhood activists in the hall attacked her in strong words, saying the aliyah [immigration] comes at the expense of the poorer neighborhoods, and used all kinds of ethnic slurs.

MK Marina Solodkin, formerly of Yisrael B'Aliyah and now in the Likud, walked out angrily, and issued a press release to the Russian-language press saying the social organizations are hostile to immigrants. "All these organizations are not social organizations, but registration organizations for the parties," she said angrily this week.

Solodkin, who is active in social issues, went to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the issue of Russian single mothers with him. "I said to him: `You fool, what have you done?'" she says. "There are very few parasites among us, so you particularly hurt the immigrants."

These women can't participate in the struggle focused on the reinstatement of the allowances, she says, because there's no tradition of protest and strikes in the FSU, and because they work and don't receive unemployment allowances. The immigrant single mothers have a different agenda, mainly focused on the canceled special benefits for immigrants. Solodkin gave Netanyahu 10 out of approximately 1,000 letters that she received from the single mothers, those that were written in Hebrew. Most dealt with the large cutback in supplemental income for single mothers who work in less than half-time jobs because they can't find other work.

The hidden - or open - message of the immigrants is that, as opposed to the veteran single mothers, they do work. That angers the women in the encampment. "We work too," they protest. "I'm just as educated as they are," says Sarit Azarzari. "I'm a nurse by profession, and I have no work. If despite all the terror attacks they don't need nurses, then whom do they need? It's a shame that they don't join, but we're here for everyone."

"What are you getting out of this sitting in the tent? Nothing," says Olga. "We wouldn't dream of taking a child out of school in order to sit in a tent. There's nothing more important than education for children."

Others, more forgiving, say that the new immigrants are a very vulnerable group, and they're afraid of losing even the work they've found as cashiers in food chains or as cleaners, if they go to sit in the protest.

Within this complex situation, Yelena Kim is trying to organize her ranks for an independent struggle by the immigrant single mothers, at a time of profound weakness in the immigrant community. "Now I don't have the New Israel Fund, and I don't have a [political] party," she says, hinting at the collapse of Yisrael B'Aliyah. "I'm looking for funding, but it's not working. I've spoken to Labor MKs and to other opposition parties. I even turned to Shas. They have single mothers, too. They made a big deal about Vicki Knafo and that's nice, but they're not willing to do anything for us. After all, we can't stop working for three months, and our children have to study, not sit in the Rose Garden. We want to cooperate with them, but I think that they don't want us. They give us the feeling that they're not interested in us, but only in the Israelis, I have a feeling that some big shot from the establishment really doesn't want us to be together."

Some agree with her on that. Immigrants active in the social organizations as well as in the New Israel Fund say that the social organizations have a strange order of priorities, in which there are more legitimate battles and less legitimate ones. "The Arabs are in fashion now, and the new immigrants are not," says a central activist in one of these bodies. This defective approach perpetuates, even via the social organizations, a belief that assistance to one community comes at the expense of assistance to another, and this undermines any social struggle.