Party Faithful in Search of a Leader

Many of Fainberg's plays were staged in the finest theaters of the Soviet Union before his emigration 11 years ago; his translation into Russian of "The Rubber Merchants," the play by Hanoch Levin, has also been staged in Moscow. But his last play has sparked unique interest.

At the height of the recent election campaign, Valentin Fainberg published a new play. It is not the first play by Fainberg, who has represented Yisrael b'Aliyah as a deputy mayor of Haifa for the past four years. Many of Fainberg's plays were staged in the finest theaters of the Soviet Union before his emigration 11 years ago; his translation into Russian of "The Rubber Merchants," the play by Hanoch Levin, has also been staged in Moscow. But this last play, which was published on the Internet, has sparked unique interest, not only because of its subject matter but also because of the timing of its publication.

"Invitation to a Murder" is the name of this whodunit, which is about the goings-on in a political party. The party is headed by a certain Martin, who is known to be a superior chess player. The characters include Martin's colleagues in the party, Yuli - a bitter grumbler of a man, and Roman - who despite his low ranking on the party list is extremely popular. All the members of this imaginary party are struggling with one another and engaged in all sorts of internal scheming. At the beginning of the play, the body of a certain Bibergan, a former member of the party, is discovered. The police suspect that Bibergan was murdered. A while later, Roman's body turns up as well. With two corpses in the plot, a detective and detective's assistant are brought in to solve the mystery. In the final lines of the play, the detective's assistant sums up the case: "I think the chess player has something to do with it"; "You are no fool," replies the detective.

It didn't take long for the play to become a hit in the immigrants' political arena. The downloaded version was passed around from person to person, and read with great interest. Although in the introduction to the play Fainberg took care to note that "all of the characters are imaginary and have no connection to reality," everyone considered it a classic roman a clef, in which they easily spotted real-life figures from Yisrael b'Aliyah. The name Bibergan sounded awfully close to Lieberman.

But within a matter of days, this jazzy version of the play was removed from the Internet. It was replaced by a new version, the end of which is completely different. No longer is the chess player a suspect; now Roman and Bibergan have liquidated each other. "Political censorship, Soviet style," screamed the amazed readers.

Fainberg rebuffs the charge with revulsion. "No one put any pressure on me," he says. "As an author, I have the right to change the plot. I wasn't referring to any specific party, but with an imaginary political reality. It happens that Yuli, the bitter character in the play, isn't at all like the very affable MK, Yuli Edelstein."

Nevertheless, Yisrael b'Aliyah insiders are still quite sure that Fainberg is guilty as charged - of mudslinging. This week they were also saying, in a paraphrase of the final line of the first version of the play: "Now Fainberg has murdered the chess player." The reference is to the results of the elections in Haifa, in which Yisrael b'Aliyah received a scant 3.6 percent of the vote, less than half the votes it received in the previous election. Fainberg, the party's highest-ranking representative in the city, as well as other figures in the Yisrael b'Aliyah municipal arena, are considered the main guilty parties in the electoral debacle.

Independence day

They too are now waging all-out war against the decision by the party's chairman, Natan Sharansky, to merge with Likud. "Let him merge," they hiss, "it doesn't apply to us. Yisrael b'Aliyah is not dead." This week, they were already celebrating an independence day of sorts when they met with representatives of Avigdor Lieberman in a bid to link together for a joint run in the Haifa municipal campaign at the end of the year.

As far as the convulsing Yisrael b'Aliyah is concerned, Fainberg is leading the uprising. This week he was even summoned to a `clarification session' with Sharansky, after the minister heard rumors that Fainberg was accusing him of treason, no less. "They told him that I said he sold us out for a Volvo," Fainberg reported after his meeting with Sharansky. "I explained that I don't express myself that way, but neither did I hide the fact that I am very angry. He is surprised that the party is able to live without him, but this party will continue to exist even without Sharansky. Maybe it'll join Lieberman, maybe it'll find itself another leader.

"A lot depends on Lieberman himself. Now he is facing the big temptation to destroy this party. But what good would come to him from that? It would be a lot wiser for him to accept it in a dignified manner, award party functions to its activists - and get the voters. But if it isn't Lieberman, it'll be someone else. Maybe Gregory Lerner, a man who has both ambition and money. We haven't spoken with him, but why not? Why should Ariel Sharon go home with the whole dowry? The Likud won't give us anything, so we have to take it ourselves."

It's hard to believe that Fainberg, 67 - a professor of chemical engineering who worked for seven years at the Technion and set up a lab there that was financed by special grants for immigrant scientists - entered the world of politics only five years ago. "In my first few years in Israel, I didn't have a head for politics," he relates. "A fellow like me had to start from square one: no connections, no friends, no one with whom I served in the army or studied at university. So when they told me that we have to save the Golan Heights, I said that first I have to save my family. I came to Yisrael b'Aliyah by chance. Sharansky invited me, after he saw a few articles I had published here in Russian.

"But the truth is that four years as deputy mayor has taught me to understand the importance of the party. It is true that the ingathering of the exiles is the universal ethos, but it is not really at the forefront of any party's priorities. To put it in practical terms - I used to see 400 other scientists around me at the Technion, people who in Russia were of the highest status, but who were treated here like slaves in Egypt. Any veteran Technion professor can fire them at will, without explanation and without compensation. The same is true for engineers and doctors. I know this from my own experience. My wife, an electronics engineer, now works as a caregiver. I couldn't endure it, I still can't. That is what you need a party for, and that is why I am mad at Sharansky. You don't just liquidate a party overnight. We had dreams; we had goals we hadn't yet realized for the Russian community. To throw it all away because of a failure in an election just isn't right."

The new initiative by Yisrael b'Aliyah's activists in the field to link up with Lieberman's party in the municipal elections may be seen as an attempt to buy some political time. Presumably true, but not the whole truth.

Since the elections, in which the Russian-speaking community lost political power with the crash-and-burn of Yisrael b'Aliyah and the departure from the Knesset of Sofa Landver (Labor) and Gennady Riger (Yisrael Beitenu), the Russian street has been astir with expressions of sorrow and regret. The headlines about the "End of the Russian Street," the articles that praise the community for having assimilated into Israeli society, the liquidation of Yisrael b'Aliyah - all of this has now given way to an abiding sense of dread. Although they caused this situation through their votes, or non-votes, the Russian-speaking community is now anxious about finding itself all alone in the arena of social struggle.

"Our party went down, because it didn't do what it was supposed to do. What can you do, there is still the matter of lack of contact between the immigrants and the state," declares Fainberg. "Its obvious that as the new guys, we can't jump straight to the top of the pyramid, but our education, our past, says that neither should we be down at the bottom. All over the world, immigrants start at the ground floor, but we are not that sort of migration. We want to enter at the middle level, and they won't let us."

Fainberg's social analysis is supported by a surprising political analysis by MK Yuri Stern (National Union). Stern is the godfather of the attempt to be a link between his party and the Yisrael b'Aliyah refugees at the municipal level, out of a belief that there is still justification for elected representatives of immigrants, and a consolidation of forces.

Suspicious objects

Asked if by linking itself with National Union, Moledet and Tekuma, the Yisrael b'Aliyah party has essentially ceased to be an immigrant party, Stern offers this unexpected explanation: "Actually, Zvi Hendel (Tekuma), as chairman of the Knesset's Immigration and Absorption Committee accomplished more that I could have in the same post. He lowered the no-confidence roadblock that Treasury officials felt toward us. The immigrants and their representatives are still considered suspicious objects by the Israeli establishment. The interests of the settlers will always be viewed as national interests, whereas the interests of the immigrants will always be perceived as sectarian interests. I can prove it by process of elimination - my activities on behalf of the South Lebanese Army and the `Computer For Every Child' project were a lot easier to promote than are the projects for immigrants. In these matters, I am always considered suspicious."

This explains why Stern is so sure that there is still justification for an immigrant party. But in his view, his party - National Union - is the immigrant party. Since the elections, and especially since the merger of Yisrael b'Aliyah with Likud, Lieberman has presented himself in every Russian-language broadcast and interview as "the sole representative of the immigrants" - only a few weeks after he heatedly argued that he was a national leader and that there was no longer any justification for being "lobbyists of immigration." In no time at all, he was sucked back in to the orphan-looking-for-a-parent niche.

Nevertheless, the message that the Russian-speaking community is now sending is that there is truly no justification for a sectarian lobby along the lines of Shas, but there is most definitely room for a "Russian" leader to shepherd the ambitions, the yearnings for leadership status in Israeli society, well beyond solutions to housing shortages or integration issues. Perhaps Yisrael b'Aliyah's biggest mistake was that it consciously evolved into a Russian Shas, for a public that does not see itself akin to Shas in any way. At this stage, if at all, the Russian-speaking community is looking for a pride party, not a welfare party.

Whether some sort of unification of the remnants of Sharansky's party and Lieberman's party eventually takes place, or a new party comes into being, the story of the "Russian street" is far from over. In fact, the political assimilation and the resolution of most of the pressing social-welfare issues are now helping to point up the deficiencies and the other aspirations, which call for a different sort of leader. This is a title that, paradoxically enough, Sharon will not willingly relinquish. He has unearthed not only his "Russianness" but also the inherent potential of a million immigrants, who have enabled him to do without Shas in his coalition.