Those Were the Days

Immigrants from the former USSR met with Palestinians and exchanged nostalgic memories of Mother Russia.

Last Thursday evening we dived into a dark tunnel, and soon found ourselves in a strange and alien world. This description may be reminiscent of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," but in the real world, the tunnel was not a rabbit's burrow, but rather the road that cuts through the hill leading south from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion.

It brought us to Beit Jala. Another short distance on a dark road, and the guard at the gate opens the gates of Talita Kumi, a compound belonging to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. We are greeted by a pleasant hubbub caused by people who have gathered to have a good time. They are all speaking Russian.

Up to this point, nothing is out of the ordinary. After all, the Russian language has also become a matter of routine in our part of the world. But Beit Jala is not really "our part of the world." And not all those participating in the reception are those we would call "Russian speakers in Israel."

Another glance, and there is an explanation for the strangeness: The meeting is being attended by Jewish Israelis, and by Palestinians from the territories, all of whom share one common denominator: They are all fluent speakers of Russian, and they are all olim (new immigrants) in their own way. The Israelis, a minority among the guests, are members of the Morashtenu movement, intellectuals who are tired of hearing how right-wing "the Russians" are, and of waiting for the Israeli left to be so kind as to let them participate in some of its activities. A year ago, the group wrote itself a pact for democracy and peace, and embarked on a long journey.

The Palestinians are divided into two groups. The majority of them are men, most of them physicians, who studied and lived in the FSU for eight to 15 years; they have returned home. The smaller group consists of the Russian women they brought with them. Prominent among them are two beauties in traditional Muslim dress, their Slavic faces peering out beneath the hijab. From the bottom of the modest pantsuit others wear, one can glimpse the occasionally pair of stiletto heels.

These young women have exchanged a life in the large cities of the FSU for life in the territories, and they look very satisfied. In fact, everyone radiated satisfaction. Wearing tags with their first names, in Russian of course, attached to their lapels, they mingled and socialized. They may be too sophisticated and experienced to believe that by doing so alone they will bring about peace, but they are also sufficiently tired of fighting so as to hope that they at least have the power to bring about a small change.

On the same unusual occasion they reminisced about the universities where both the Israelis and the Palestinians studied, and about the cities where they lived. The Israelis, who are "more veteran," were brought up to date by the recently returned Palestinians about the changes that have taken place in their cities of origin. There was a great deal of nostalgia and longing being expressed, and there was something else: a shared experience of life in a vast country and immersion in a great culture. For the Israelis, this had shrunk to the experience of immigration, and for the Palestinians, to a return to checkpoints, and restrictions on the freedom of movement to which they had become accustomed. They also had had to become accustomed to a loss of freedom of choice, in part because of their return to a traditional society.

"I'm suffocating here," admitted Dr. Omar Lafi, a gynecologist from Bethlehem. "For 12 years I raised a German shepherd there, and here I can't have a dog. It's not customary in our society, and behind my back they'll call me 'the doctor with the dog.' If there are Russian Jews who want to go back there, imagine how we feel when we return to the territories."

For supper, the main offering was potatoes. Together with cabbage, of course. At a corner table, Dr. Alla Shainskaya, who heads a laboratory at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, and is the chairwoman of the Morashtenu council, was excited by her conversation with Dr. Samir Mohammed, who recently returned from studying in the city of her birth, Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. He spoke to her in Russian with a Ukrainian accent and updated her on local developments.

Shainskaya belongs to the hard core of the organization. She and her colleagues recently met with senior Palestinian negotiator Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia), who identified the potential for introducing firm political content into the fascinating social and cultural encounter.

On Thursday they tried to create just such a combination: The artistic component was provided by the children of the Prestige dance studio, in Ashkelon, all of them Russian speakers. Their Palestinian peers at the meeting also spoke Russian. Their parents, like the Israeli ones, think that it is very important to preserve the language and the culture, and after all, they also need to be able to talk to Grandma.

The political part was run mainly by Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a prominent public figure in the Palestinian Authority who is close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The idea for the meeting was born after Shtayyeh gave an interview to Xenia Svetlova, a Middle East specialist and a correspondent for Russian-language TV Channel 9. At the end of the interview, they began thinking about what could be done.

Looking on from the sidelines at this celebration was the official Russian representative in Ramallah, Maxim Litvinov. He didn't like hearing the argument that people from his homeland who live in Israel support their opposition to returning the West Bank to the Palestinians by noting that even mighty Russia is not returning to Japan the islands it captured from it. "It's not the same thing at all," he said, angrily rejecting the comparison. But all the lofty talk was dwarfed by the simple human encounter, which only hinted at a reality that could be, but is not.

"For me they are more Russian than Israeli," said Dr. Shadi Issa, who returned from dermatology studies with a Russian wife. "I only hope that they won't all turn into Liebermans," a reference to right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman. "We have enough people like that on both sides."