On Multiple Fronts, Russian Jews Reshape Israel

Jan 2, 2013
Originally published on January 6, 2013 6:54 am

Many signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet. The men and women sitting in the cafes are speaking Russian. The shops sell vodka, black bread, pickled herring and Russian-brewed Baltika beer. You have to pinch yourself to remember where you are.

This scene, with all its echoes of the former Soviet Union, is not in St. Petersburg or Vladivostok, or anywhere else in that vast sweep of bleak northern lands. It is in Ashdod, Israel, a palm-lined, pastel-colored port city that sprawls along the mild shores of the Mediterranean.

More than 20 years have elapsed since the Soviet Union fell apart, prompting a tsunami of people, mostly with Jewish roots, to leave for Israel.

When the Cold War ended, Israel's population was just under 5 million. The Russian speakers who poured in after 1989 added roughly 1 million to that number, and changed the Middle East.

"I think it's an unbelievable phenomenon, by all criteria," says Lily Galili, an Israel journalist who has just co-written a book on the impact on the region of this mass migration from the Soviet Union. "It's like America, United States, absorbing all of France, Belgium and Netherlands."

Remaking Cities

So large was the influx that the southern coastal city of Ashdod more than doubled in size within a decade, becoming Israel's fifth-largest city, with a population of more than 200,000.

Israel now has the world's third-largest Russian-speaking community (outside the former Soviet Union), after the United States and Germany.

Galili says that this flood of new immigrants was enthusiastically welcomed by what she calls Israel's "elite" for many reasons, including the impact they made on the demographic equation between Arabs and Jews.

But she says there was opposition in Israel, from a variety of fronts. This included the minority Israeli Arab population who feared becoming more marginalized. Questions were also raised over whether many of these former Soviet residents were actually Jewish.

Israel's Law of Return allowed the new arrivals to qualify for citizenship if they had one Jewish grandparent. Under rabbinical religious law, Jewishness passes through the maternal line. This defines more than 300,000 of Israel's Russian-speaking immigrants as non-Jews.

Galili says immigrants from the Soviet Union struggled with this: "They come here, and they have a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father — and suddenly this motherland, who's expecting them to come, says, 'Oh ! I forgot to tell you — you are not Jewish here.' "

There are no civil marriages in Israel. Russian-speaking Israelis defined as non-Jews who wish to marry must go abroad, or convert. Galili says conversion is not a popular option.

"They find it offensive. They feel Jewish. They were raised Jewish. They have Jewish names. They once suffered for being Jewish in the Soviet Union. Now they suffer for being Russians in Israel," she says.

To get a sense of what it was like to transition from the Soviet Union to Israel, you only have to wander through Ashdod — with its beach cafes, boulevards and apricot-colored apartment blocks — and chat with some of the many thousands of Russian-speaking residents.

A Major Transition

"In the beginning, of course, the language was a serious problem," says Stanislav Fishbein, a Ukrainian who migrated to Israel 18 years ago, speaking in Hebrew. "In addition to that, we didn't know about the tradition. I didn't know about Judaism and about Hanukkah, for example. But now I do — and I like it."

Fishbein is the ringmaster of a Russian circus that has been touring Israel, in part, he says, to "cheer people up" in the aftermath of the latest eruption of hostilities with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

In November, Israel's military launched more than a week of missile and artillery strikes against Gaza, saying this was to stop Palestinian militants' firing rockets into Israel. Some of those militant rockets targeted Ashdod.

That outburst of violence was the latest installment in decades of bloodshed that has blighted the Middle East. Yet some Russian-speaking immigrants admit they knew little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when they first set foot in Israel.

Standing in an Ashdod bookstore, surrounded by Russian books, Inna Israeli says she came from St. Petersburg in 1990. Back then, she was not sure about the location of Gaza, some 15 miles to the south.

"We didn't know! We didn't think about that," she says.

A Political Force

Dima Esterman, who's sitting in an Ashdod real estate agents' office, says he did know about the conflict when he arrived in the early 1990s but believed it would soon be settled.

"I was [politically] on the left, and I thought it was possible to reach an agreement with the Arabs. But after 20 years, I no longer think an accord is possible," he says.

Most of Israel's Russian-speaking community, including Esterman, is on the right these days. Since they now make up about 15 percent of Israel's 8 million people, they wield considerable political clout and have played a significant role in the general rightward shift of the Israeli electorate.

Russian-speaking immigrants form the base of the influential right-wing nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu. The party has teamed up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud to form a bloc that is leading the polls ahead of this month's elections.

Galili argues that immigrants from the former Soviet Union have made a considerable impact on the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — not least because of their resistance to the idea of giving up territory.

She attributes this partly to the fact that they came from a vast empire. "They look at the size of this country, and they say, 'What? You want to hand back territory? You must be crazy!' "

One reason Israel's "Russians" fascinate Galili is that their experience chimes with her own story. She moved to Israel from Poland in the 1950s, when she was 8 years old. She recalls how back then, immigrants were dropped in the deep end.

"You had to become an Israeli in a second — language, name, love of the country, the whole package. I had no contact with my culture, not even with my friends," she recalls.

Cultural Separation

Arrivals from the former Soviet Union have had a different experience. New technology has proved to be a major factor in defining their relationship with "non-Russian" Israelis.

"They come, they have the Internet, they have satellite, they have blogs, they know everything that is going on in Russia," says Galili.

Galili stresses that the immigrants from the Soviet Union are fully integrated into Israeli society and are a big asset to the economy. Yet she also points out that, more than 20 years on, many of them choose to remain culturally separate.

"They meet Israelis, and they mingle with Israelis at workplaces, in the army, at school, at university. But after 7 p.m., there is some separation."

Galili says this is by choice. Members of the Russian-speaking community like to be together and are fiercely proud of their rich Russian language.

"This applies to the younger generation as well, which never ceases to amaze me," she says. "Because even people who are now, let's say 30 [years old], and they have been here for 20 years ... when they go home, most of their friends are still Russian-speaking."

Vladimir Dzyakevich is a biologist, aged 32, and an actor with a Russian theater group based in Ashdod. He agrees that he is culturally conflicted.

"Israel is my home and my only home," he says. "But I feel that as a person, culturally I am torn inside because I feel a very deep connection with the Russian culture and Russian literature."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Israel was changed dramatically a couple of decades back with a wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. Those immigrants now account for more than 15 percent of Israel's population.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports on the role they're playing today in shaping the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This bar could easily be in Moscow. A party is in full swing. Everyone's speaking Russian. The menu offers 15 brands of vodka. Yet we're just a stone's throw from the gates of Jerusalem's Old City. Some of the world's most religiously conservative people live in this neighborhood. That doesn't deter these revelers drinking and dancing the night away. They're part of one of the more unusual migrations of modern times.

When the Cold War ended, Israel's population was just under 5 million. The Russian speakers who poured in from the former Soviet Union added roughly another million to that number.

LILY GALILI: I think it's an unbelievable phenomena by all criteria. It's like America - United States - absorbing all of France, Belgium and Netherlands, I think.

REEVES: Lily Galili is an Israeli journalist who's just written a book about this. Jewish immigrants arrived from across the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. But they're still widely referred to in Israel simply as Russians. Galili remembers that when this mass immigration began in 1989, Israel's leaders were eagerly looking forward to it for many reasons, including...

GALILI: To change demography - Arabs, Jews - they were saying, oh, this country is becoming part of the Levant. We need you with your culture and educated children, come.

REEVES: There were plenty of issues. Israel's Arab population was worried about becoming more marginalized. Some of Israel's Jewish majority also had concerns. The new arrivals qualified for citizenships under Israel's Law of Return if they had or were married to someone with one Jewish grandparent.

Rabbinical law, though, says that Jewishness passes through the maternal line. This defined more than 300,000 of the Russian-speaking immigrants as non-Jews. Galili says that was very tough for the new arrivals to accept.

GALILI: And they come here and they have the non-Jewish mother and the Jewish father. And suddenly, this motherland who's expecting them to come says, oh, I forgot to tell you, you are not Jewish here.

REEVES: There are no civil marriages in Israel. If Russian Israelis defined as non-Jews wish to marry, they must go abroad or convert. Galili says conversion is not a popular option.

GALILI: Because they find it offensive. They feel Jewish. They were raised Jewish. They have Jewish names. They once suffered from being Jewish in the Soviet Union. Now they suffer from being Russians in Israel.

REEVES: A lot of the Soviet immigrants ended up here, beside the Mediterranean in the port city of Ashdod. The influx was so great that after 1990 Ashdod more than doubled in size within a decade. It's now Israel's fifth largest city with a population of more than 200,000.

The Russians are making their mark. You only have to wander through town to see that. Many signs are in Cyrillic. There are Russian products, books, beer, pork sausages.

Stanislav Fishbein is a Ukrainian who migrated here 18 years ago. Becoming an Israeli wasn't easy, he explains speaking in Hebrew.

STANISLAV FISHBEIN: (Through Translator) In the beginning, of course, the language was a serious problem. And in addition to that, we didn't know about the tradition. I didn't know about the Judaism and about Hanukkah, for example. But now I do and I like it.

REEVES: Fishbein is in a restaurant, lunching with some clowns and acrobats from a Russian circus. He's the ringmaster. One reason the circus is in town, he says, is to cheer people up.

In November, Israel's military launched more than a week of missile and artillery strikes against the Gaza Strip to stop Palestinian militants firing rockets. Some of those rockets targeted Ashdod, which is about 15 miles from Gaza.

Twenty years ago, some of the new arrivals knew very little about the war simmering away in this region for decades. Inna Israeli says she came from St. Petersburg in 1990 so that her daughter could grow up in her own Jewish homeland. Back then, Inna wasn't even sure where Gaza was.

INNA ISRAELI: (Through Translator) We didn't know. We didn't think about that.

REEVES: Realtor Dima Esterman says he did know about the conflict when he arrived in the early '90s, but adds...

DIMA ESTERMAN: (Through Translator) When I arrived here, I thought this problem would soon be settled. I was on the left, and I thought it was possible to reach an agreement with the Arabs. But after 20 years, I no longer think an accord is possible.

REEVES: That worries Esterman. He has a young daughter who'll one day serve in the Israeli military.

ESTERMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: He's not happy with the idea of young women going to war. Yet he believes in this region there will always be wars.

ESTERMAN: (Through Translator) Only war. Here, everything is decided through war from a position of strength.

REEVES: Esterman's now right wing. That's true of most Israeli Russians. Galili, the journalist and writer, says this is partly simply to do with being immigrants.

GALILI: Immigration is a tremendous crisis, and you have to restructure your identity because it's a crisis of your identity. So out of all - the many choices, they restructured their identity around national and nationalistic symbols.

REEVES: Galili also argues that the Russians associate the left with the Soviet Communism they left behind. Their arrival changed the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Galili says they came from an empire that was once so vast and powerful that they now inherently resist the idea of conceding land.

GALILI: They look at the size of this country and they say, what, that's it? And you mean you want to give back territories? You must be crazy.

REEVES: Israeli Russians form the electoral base of the influential nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu. The party is allied with Likud, forming a bloc that's leading the polls ahead of this month's election.

One reason the Russians fascinate Galili is because their experience chimes with her own story. She moved to Israel from Poland in the '50s when she was 8. Back then, immigrants to Israel were dropped in the deep end, she says.

GALILI: You had to become an Israeli in a second: language, name, love of the country, the whole package. I had no contact with my culture, not even with my friends.

REEVES: Now it's different.

GALILI: They come. They have the Internet. They have satellite. They know everything that's going on in Russia.

REEVES: Galili thinks that's proving a major factor in defining the relationship between the Russian-speaking community and their fellow Israelis. She says the Russians are integrated into Israeli society and they're a big asset to the economy. Yet, some 20 years on, many of them still choose to remain culturally separate.

GALILI: And it applies to the younger generation as well, which never stops to amaze me. Because even people who are now, let's say, 30 and they've been here for 20 years, they grew up here, when they go home, most of their friends are still Russian-speaking.

REEVES: Back in Ashdod, a group of actors gathers in the city's Russian theater. Their playhouse is inside a bomb shelter. They include biologist Vladmir Dzyakevich.

VLADMIR DZYAKEVICH: I am 32 years old, and I came from Moscow 20 years ago.

REEVES: Dzyakevich holds strong views about this question of the Russian Israelis and their cultural identity.

DZYAKEVICH: Israel is my home and my only home. But I feel that, as a person, I'm -culturally, I'm torn inside because I feel a very deep connection with the Russian culture, with the Russian literature.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.