You Broke It, We'll Fix It

A Yisrael Beiteinu cynic put it bluntly: 'Our constituency needs an overdose of patriotism from time to time. We provide it.'

Even more than defining the state's borders, the large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union seek to determine the character of their new state. This is a common thread that emerges in private conversations and public debate - in addition to Knesset legislation proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu - and reflects sentiments of people beyond those who actually voted for the party. In addition to the so-called Nakba bill and the citizenship bill requiring an oath of allegiance to the state, a law has been proposed requiring all schools to teach Zionism.

These bills, like their predecessors, have one common denominator: to shore up national values. Sociologists who arrived in the last immigration wave from the former Soviet Union say that because these immigrants came here in the 1990s without a firm religious and Zionist foundation, their identity coalesces around national symbols - or some would say nationalistic symbols. A sociologist who immigrated about 20 years ago, Alek Epstein, defines it this way: "The more you are non-Arab, the more you are Israeli. This identity crisis is driving the 'Liebermanization' of the Russian community," referring to Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman. A party cynic puts it more bluntly: "Our constituency needs an overdose of patriotism from time to time. We provide it."

For good reason, from the ideological equivalent of a religious seminary, Yisrael Beiteinu also proposed legislation on the national anthem, 55 years after a law was passed providing for national symbols. Former Knesset member Michael Nudelman made "Hatikva" the anthem by law, explaining that in Russia, Jewish pride swelled every time the song was played. He also explained that in any properly run country, national symbols are defined by law.

The expression "a properly run country" is the key to the story. Making Israel a properly run country as they see it is a vital element of what immigrants from the former Soviet Union seek in influencing the state's character. As far back as the 1996 elections, in which the Russian-immigrant Yisrael b'Aliyah party scored impressive gains, the late MK Yuri Stern spoke of the Russian aliyah's historic role in the state's founding and 1990s-immigrants' historic role to fix what had broken since. He spoke enthusiastically about the imperial thinking of the immigrants, who thought big - not only in terms of territory - even though he knew that this kind of thinking was perceived among the old-timers as "a problematic combination of something both pathetic and nationalist."

The term "properly run country" comes up again in conversations with senior figures from that immigration wave, usually with the complaint that Israel is not such a country. A properly run country has a constitution and laws informing citizens of their rights. A properly run country has a strategy, and the people owe loyalty to a properly run country. In other words, order prevails in a properly run country.

The combination of super-patriotism and the desire to create order may sound like a recipe for a totalitarian state. This is not necessarily so. Churchill said the Russians tended to create institutions that were inflexible, but also fragile. The large Russian immigrant community does indeed seek more influence, but its direction is not clear. At present, the large immigrant public seems to be vacillating between its nationalist and secular elements, as the sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt put it. The Israeli scene actually seems more receptive at the moment to the first component.