The Real Reason Soviet Immigrants Are Cynical About Israel

Like any social ill, the profound post-Soviet cynicism toward anything identified with values of mutual responsibility and solidarity are not incurable.

"The happiness of one family is not worth the tears of a thousand families," said one Russian-Israeli blogger in anger about the release of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in the context of the Gilad Shalit prisoner-exchange deal. "And if your son or brother were the ones rotting in jail?" she was asked. "My son and my brother will enlist in a combat unit over my dead body," she explained.

Although we cannot make far-reaching generalizations based on a single reaction, we must admit that this statement does not reflect a marginal phenomenon among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Its main characteristic - turning disdain for the basic values of social ethics, such as the value of mutual responsibility, into an ethical norm.

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union - Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On

We, who were born in the late Soviet period, were born into a country in which words like mutual responsibility, sacrifice and social solidarity were declaimed on a daily basis. They erupted from the radio and from TV sets, rhymed wondrously in songs for both children and adults, and were hung up and waved for all to see above high-rise buildings.

We were fortunate, we were told, to grow up in a society with no parallel in the world, in which all the children in the world would have dreamed to grow up, a society guided by brotherhood.

As we grew up - a few years of adulthood were sufficient, for the most part - we saw that the exact opposite was the case: In the absence of an open society, without any tools for self monitoring such as critical media (tools that some people in Israel dream of shattering), it was only natural that in Soviet daily life, the basest of human passions were given free rein. Slogans of brotherhood screamed out from every corner; and just around the corner, Soviet man waited in ambush for his brother like a ravenous wolf.

In light of this masquerade, with flags of mutual responsibility and social solidarity wrapped around the rotting corpse of a disintegrated society, whose members fought a merciless war of survival against one another, a rank-and-file citizen needed great emotional strength to stop for a moment and recognize the fact that it was not the social banners that were rotten here, but the corpse of Soviet society.

All the Israeli commentators who try to explain the cynicism about social values common to many of those who immigrated in the 1990s as a counter-reaction to the ostensible surplus and exaggerated presence of the values of socialism in the reality of the Soviet Union are mistaken. Almost the opposite is the case: This is a reaction to an incomprehensible gap between the flowery language of chivalrous socialism and the swinish capitalistic reality, which has turned the value of mutual responsibility and the selfishness of the isolated individual - or the family and close friends at most - into a sacred value.

This is not a social phenomenon that is unique to the Soviet reality. We can assume that in other post-modern societies in Eastern Europe (certainly Cuba or North Korea at this very moment), the doses of cynicism about the values of social ethics are large enough for ongoing self-poisoning.

Like any social ill, the profound post-Soviet cynicism toward anything identified with values of mutual responsibility and solidarity are not incurable. Witness, for example, the still-cautious questions sparked by the words of that Russian-Israeli blogger, and the fact that this past summer, Russian could also be heard among the tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.

But, as with any other social ill, it is impossible to uproot that post-Soviet (anti) social cynicism unless Russian-speaking society in Israel acknowledges its very existence.