Israel's Russian muscle

No longer second-class citizens, the recent immigrants are emerging as vital swing voters.

Published May 7, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

Imagine, for a moment, that since 1989 the United States has granted citizenship to 50 million immigrants. Imagine that these new citizens are highly educated and highly opinionated, but speak little English and have little or no experience living in a democratic society. Imagine that they have now discovered the power of the vote and have transformed their yearnings and grievances into political muscle, and you will have some notion of the complex and contentious relationship between refugees from the former Soviet Union and their new homeland, Israel.

Since the end of the 1980s, about 800,000 immigrants have arrived from Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union. Including those who emigrated to Israel in the pre-Gorbachev era, the Russian-speaking immigrants now number around one million and account for 17 percent of the electorate. Their arrival has injected a highly volatile element into a country already struggling with gaping social, cultural and political divides between secular and religious Jews, and between Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European origins and Sephardic Jews with roots in North Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps the most prominent political schism is between those who favor territorial compromise with the Palestinians and those who oppose it.

Against this backdrop, the new immigrant block has emerged as a critical group of swing voters in Israels political landscape. As Israel prepares for national elections on May 17 -- elections that will determine the future course of negotiations with the Palestinians -- it is clear that the new immigrants will play a key role in determining the outcome. Both major parties - the right of center Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Labor Party led by Ehud Barak - are belatedly recognizing the power of the new immigrant vote.

Whatever the outcome of the current elections, political instability in Russia and the other former Soviet republics assures that the inflow of new immigrants will not end anytime soon. And Natan Sharansky, for one, warns that it would be a mistake for anyone to take the Russians for granted.

"The bulk of [Israeli] voters have been here for years or generations, so a relatively small percentage change their position," says Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who shocked Israeli pundits in 1996 when his newly formed Israel B'aliyah party won seven seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament. "But the Russians are newcomers, and their vote is not yet firmly ideological. It is a floating vote, not linked too closely with any party, which makes them very attractive for all the parties."

The surprising success of Sharansky's party in 1996 -- when Israelis for the first time cast separate votes for prime
minister and for political parties in the parliament -- gave Russian immigrants their first taste of voting power. Now, they realize they are key players in Israeli electoral politics. "There are so many of us here now that the politicians all realize that they can't win an election without us, they can't form a government without our support," said Shurik Lifshitz, a middle-aged photographer who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

If pre-election polls are
accurate, a majority of the Russians will again cast their vote for
Netanyahu for prime minister. Netanyahu's slogan -- "A strong leader for a strong nation" -- has powerful appeal to former citizens of a totalitarian superpower, and many immigrants explain their support for him with one word: byezopacnost (security). Having witnessed firsthand the traumatic collapse of their previous homeland, the Russians say that ensuring Israel's future is their tantamount concern. Raised on empty Soviet slogans extolling "the brotherhood of nations," they are highly distrustful of Israel's neighbors and believe a Likud government is far more likely to resist Palestinian demands.

"We must think about our interests, but Labor thinks more about the Arabs' interests," says Alexander Pesen, who arrived from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in 1990 and now owns a Russian bookstore in Ashkelon that sells translations of Danielle Steel alongside Pushkin and Tolstoy. "Let the Arabs think about their own interests. I don't think we should make concessions just because things are bad for them, because concessions won't give us a balanced peace."

In the 1996 elections, almost two-thirds of the new immigrants supported Netanyahu, who defeated Labor's Shimon Peres by 30,000 votes, less than 1 percentage point. Sharansky's Israel
B'aliyah party, which garnered about half the Russian vote, became a vital part of Netanyahu's ruling coalition.

The Russians' rightward slant has confounded many Israelis on the left who welcomed the immigrants' arrival. For decades, left-leaning, secular Ashkenazi Jews dominated the Israeli political, academic and media establishments. In recent years, Likud and other parties on the right have come into power by harnessing the support of two other key constituencies -- Sephardic Jews, who are the long-time have-nots of Israeli society, and the ultra-Orthodox.

So when the massive immigration of Soviet Jews began in 1989, members of the old elites assumed that the new arrivals would boost their sagging fortunes. "The Russian political pattern is surprising, given their mostly European, Ashkenazi background," says Hanoch Smith, a leading Israeli pollster. "It was assumed that they would be like the previous Jews who came out of that part of the world, so the left thought, 'Oh, boy, more supporters for us!' But decades of communism has had an enormous impact on their thinking."

Political analysts and Russian immigrants themselves point to a variety of psychological and sociological factors that nudge the Russians toward the right. Many former Soviet citizens, aware of the Israeli left's embrace of socialist political and economic concepts in decades past, react with visceral distaste to the very language used by Labor and its allies. Critics of the left, notes Alexander Yakobson, a lecturer in history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, exploit that revulsion by routinely referring to Labor's leaders as "socialists" rather than "social democrats."

"Soviet communism is really a perversion of one important tradition of the Western left, so it discredited all of the terms the Israeli left uses, like 'peace,' 'progress,' and even 'left,'" says Yakobson, whose family emigrated to Israel from Russia in 1973. "The left here is still paying a price for that."

The vibrant and increasingly assertive Russian presence is one of the most striking features of modern day Israel. It is difficult to stroll down the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or a host of other cities and towns without hearing the rhythmic cadences of Russian speech. Dozens of national and local Russian newspapers compete on newsstands with the Hebrew-language press. More subtle indicators also attest to the change: Vodka consumption in Israel has risen by 50 percent this decade, and medical clinics advertise circumcision services for adult Russians, the vast majority of whom did not observe Jewish rituals in the Soviet Union.

Today, it is possible for immigrants to live entirely within the Russian community and never have to learn Hebrew. On Aliat Hanoar Street, the center of a Russian neighborhood in the seaside city of Ashkelon, delicatessens post signs touting non-kosher staples of the old Soviet diet like svinina (pork) and kalbasa (sausage). A nearby bulletin board features Russian-language announcements for a travel club, gatherings for former citizens of Belarus, rock guitar lessons and a Russian magazine.

Some on the left believe Labor and its allies have done a poor job of reaching out to this new block of voters, and have boggled the job of explaining to Russians that territorial compromise could lead to greater national security for Israel.

Many Labor activists dismiss predictions of doom, noting that a majority of the Russians supported the party in 1992, when it ousted the Likud from power. But political analysts attribute that early success not to any great love for Labor but to pervasive discontent over the Likud government's clumsy handling of the huge wave of immigration that began in 1989. At that time, the newcomers found themselves living in substandard housing and working far below their educational level. Unemployment among the immigrants rose well into the double-digits, and stories abounded of Russian doctors collecting garbage, lawyers cleaning hotel rooms and engineers pumping gas.

Today, while some Russians, especially newer immigrants, are still struggling, many have risen rapidly through the ranks of Israeli society and take palpable pride in their achievements. More than three-quarters of Russian immigrant families own their own apartments. Russians now account for almost a third of the licensed doctors in Israel. The Gesher Theater, founded in 1991 by immigrants, has attained national and international renown.

"They had high status (in the former Soviet Union) as engineers, teachers, doctors, and here they found themselves at the bottom of the professional ladder, not knowing the language," says Leonid Belotzerkovsky, publisher of the Russian-language newspaper Novosti Nedeli (News of the Week), who himself emigrated from St. Petersburg in 1988. "They have moved up surprisingly quickly. I wouldn't imagine that immigrants from any other country would have attained that in less than ten years."

The rough transition into Israeli society has left some scars among Russian immigrants, and threatens to weaken Netanyahu's governing coalition. In a recent open letter to former Clinton advisor James Carville, who working as a campaign consultant for Barak, political columnist Ze'ev Chafets advised him to woo Russians away from Netanyahu by exploiting the tensions between Russians and other Likud coalition supporters

"The real damage ... will come when you drive a wedge through the Likud's two biggest ethnic blocs, the Moroccans (one of the largest Sephardi communities) and the Russians," he wrote in The Jerusalem Report, a widely read English-language biweekly. "The Moroccans resent the hell out of being climbed over by the immigrants, while the Russians are visibly contemptuous of what they see as the Moroccans' bongo-drum kultura and lousy SATs."

Many of the immigrants still grumble that their new country does not fully accept them. Overwhelmingly secular, they fear the power that the Orthodox wield in such vital areas as marriage, divorce and religious conversion. In recent weeks, both Barak and Sharansky have stepped up their criticism of Netanyahu's Orthodox supporters. Though they are the spouses and children of Jews, about one-third of the recent Russian arrivals are not considered Jews under Jewish law, which recognizes only those with Jewish mothers as Jews. Since Orthodox rabbis do not perform mixed marriages, and Israel does not permit civil marriage within its borders, non-Jewish Israeli citizens must go abroad to marry. The state does recognize civil marriages performed elsewhere. Conversion to Judaism is possible, but only under strict Orthodox guidelines.

Divorce can be even more complicated, since Israel does not recognize civil divorces obtained by Jewish couples elsewhere. Many divorced women arriving from the former Soviet Union have been dismayed to find out that they are still married under Israeli law. To receive Orthodox divorces, they must frequently locate and obtain permission from husbands who have not themselves emigrated and with whom they have not had contact for years.

There is also long-simmering tension between the Russians and the Sephardi. The Sephardi, who on average are poorer and more traditional than their Ashkenazi cousins, complain that the Russians have received special treatment in jobs and housing. Many Russians, in return, disparage them as uneducated riff-raff.

The tensions between the two groups gained widespread attention last fall, when an Israeli Moroccan killed a Russian immigrant soldier at a cafe in Ashkelon. Published reports alleged that the Moroccan berated the soldier and his friends for speaking Russian loudly. The murder took place a few days before municipal elections, and anger over the incident helped propel more than 100 representatives of Sharansky's party to victory in local city councils.

"The murder was a shock, a huge shock," says Galina Krochek, who emigrated in 1991 from Tashkent, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

"We knew that there was hate between the groups, but that it went so far as that was astonishing," adds her husband Artur, who himself remembers being criticized by co-workers for speaking Russian instead of Hebrew. Still, all these issues seem to be second-tier political concerns for Russian immigrants as they prepare to go to the polls.

Artur and Galina, both in their mid-30s, are two of about a dozen cousins of mine who have moved to Israel from Tashkent. The result of my highly unscientific poll of my relatives conforms to the trend among the Russians. At a recent birthday celebration, over a table laden with vodka and Russian specialties such as marinated tomatoes and cabbage, I was informed more than once that "we are a family on the right."

Of nine adult relatives present, seven indicated that they will vote for Netanyahu. The other two may cast their lot with Yitzhak Mordechai, a former Likudnik who is the candidate of the new Center Party that is seeking to draw supporters from both the left and right. None favor Labor's Barak. In the political party vote, most will support either Sharansky's party or Our Home Israel, a rival Russian party established by longtime Netanyahu crony Avigdor Lieberman.

My relatives, like other Russians to whom I spoke, explain their position by citing Israel's security needs, and are also put off by what they perceive as similarities between the Labor party and communism. "We're too small a country to make mistakes," says Artur. "And Labor is a socialist party. We've seen how that worked in the Soviet Union."

Equality, brotherhood -- we grew up with slogans like that," adds
Galina. "None of them are true."

They acknowledge that they are concerned about the tight relationship between the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Galina is not Jewish, which means that their teenage son is also not considered Jewish. Unless he converts, he will not be allowed to get married in Israel, even though he must serve in the army like other citizens. But my cousins point out -- accurately -- that in the past Labor, like Likud, has included the Orthodox in its ruling coalitions. Anyway, they say, the security issue trumps all others.

By David Tuller

David Tuller is a contributing writer at Salon. He is the author of "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia."

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