The Middle East Channel

Was Clinton wrong about Russian-Israelis being ‘right’?

Last week, former President Bill Clinton drew some fire for his remarks about Russian-speaking Israelis. Clinton described the over one-million-strong community as more opposed to the two-state solution than most of their compatriots. To add a moral insult to the injury of generalization, the media paraphrased him as saying that Russian Israelis are an obstacle ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Last week, former President Bill Clinton drew some fire for his remarks about Russian-speaking Israelis. Clinton described the over one-million-strong community as more opposed to the two-state solution than most of their compatriots. To add a moral insult to the injury of generalization, the media paraphrased him as saying that Russian Israelis are an obstacle to peace — not particularly pleasant for anyone to hear about themselves. Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-right party that built itself precisely on the Russian Israeli community’s mistrust of the peace process, provided the comic relief of the month by pretending to be mortally offended by the former president’s remarks, while neo-con favorite Nathan Sharansky and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in vigorous tut-tutting.

But as generalized as the remarks may have been, they contain a kernel of truth. As a Russian Israeli myself, I can wholeheartedly affirm that the prevailing political culture in the community is distinctly right-wing and highly nationalistic–though it is not necessarily perceived as such by the community’s members. The crux of the matter is to understand the contradictions of this outlook.

The community known to native Israelis as "Russians" (not quite accurately, as it is comprised of representatives of all nationalities of the former Soviet Union) is Israel’s second largest minority, and enjoys considerable cultural autonomy. Just consider: at the peak of its popularity in the late 1990’s, the community’s largest newspaper, Vesti, printed 200,000 copies a day; there’s a dedicated Russian-Israeli TV channel tellingly running under the motto "We live here"; and there’s a vigorous blogosphere, considerably larger and more politicized than the Israeli Hebrew one.

Overwhelmingly, these outlets promote principally right-wing views. For instance, if left-wing activists are invited to the TV channel, they are usually treated with great suspicion and accused of  being on the Hamas payroll (indeed, this is the same channel that once held a theological discussion, on its prime-time current affairs news show, about whether President Obama suffers from a biblical curse condemning all blacks to eternal slavery). 

The code of political correctness (in the name of which the politicians of the community took offense at Clinton’s remarks) is routinely mocked and satirized in the printed press; the news analysis is permeated with the conviction that Palestinians dream of nothing but murdering Jews, cannot be trusted, and that their history and national identity is a myth and sham (one commentator memorably referred to them as "zombies" and "bio-robots".)

The mistrust (to put it mildly) of the Palestinians can be explained by some fairly obvious factors. Natasha Mozgovaya, Haaretz’s Washington correspondent who herself hails from the Russian-Israeli community, wrote last week that there is precious little information available to Israel’s Russians on Palestinians or even Israeli Arabs, and the community has come to view Palestinians merely through a prism of the political violence of the past two decades.

But more than anti-Arab, much of the Russian-Israeli political mainstream today is anti-left-wing: even Zionist leftists are seen as imbeciles or mentally-ill at best; deliberately treacherous and self-hating at worse.

On the face of it, all of this may seem bewildering. Many of the immigrants come from some background of active or passive dissidence within the USSR, having learned to take a bitterly skeptical view of chauvinist rhetoric, of denial of state atrocities, and even of general expressions of patriotism. It would seem natural that on arrival to Israel, a more open, democratic society where critical debate and information are more readily available, they would have largely retained and even solidified that general disposition. But ironically, most of the criticism and skepticism has instead turned against critics of the government of the adopted country.

The story of 20 years of mutual alienation between the Israeli left and Israeli Russians is many-layered. The great wave of immigration from the disintegrating USSR that began in the 1990’s landed in an Israel ruled by a lame-duck Shamir government. When the initial Israeli welcome was quickly replaced by a considerable degree of xenophobia, many immigrants lent their support to Yitzhak Rabin’s opposition Labor party, which seemed to offer a break with the  status quo.

However, the left quickly lost its ground among the immigrants on a number of key points. Members of Rabin’s government voiced inflammatory opinions of the Russian community, accusing it of bringing "mafia elements" into Israel and of exploiting its welfare benefits. Additionally, the social housing system in Israel was quickly scrapped by the Rabin government, effectively pushing newcomers into West Bank settlements–all while the same government was openly discussing the possibility of evacuating settlements in peace negotiations. This posed a challenge not only to their physical homes, as Clinton correctly identified, but to the identity they were trying to construct in their adopted–or as the Israeli national ethos goes, rightfully restored–homeland.

As sectorial parties dedicated to advancing the concerns of the Russian-Israeli community rose, it became apparent that rightist coalitions not only had better chances of winning elections but were also more open to welcoming immigrants into cabinet. On the latter point, only one leftist government, Ehud Barak’s, included an immigrant–and only briefly (Sharansky was Minister of the Interior). By contrast, Benjamin Netanyahu’s current governing cabinet has four immigrants. Young politicians from the Russian-Israeli community with talent and ambition for influence thus have little incentive to throw their lot with the left.

But the rhetoric and identity politics go deeper still. Traditional leftist discourse — brotherhood among nations, pursuit of peace, equality and the undesirability of parochial and national identities — were closely associated with the oppressive Soviet regime these immigrants had left behind. As such, cynicism and bewilderment became natural reactions to a Labor party (under Rabin and successively) whose political program contained some similar-sounding rhetoric.

As the center-ground shifted to the right and narrowed to a virtual pin-head, Russian-Israeli voters lost interest in Zionist-Leftist parties advocating nationalist politics in liberal clothing, and went for the more ‘honest’ right-wing parties instead. As it was described in the critical journal From The Other Side in 2005:

Let us consider the last general elections. The solutions to the conflict on offer were as follows: population transfer, separation wall, unilateral withdrawal. Some were pushed by the right, others by the left, but the message was the same: We promise you that if you vote for us, you won’t hear or see the Arabs any longer. But the right says it openly and determinately. So who needs the pretenders?

More poignantly than that, patriotism began to be perceived as the last resort of one’s dignity. Journalist Michael Dorfman wrote in 2004:

If I don’t have the connections, status or chances, thinks the Russian immigrant, I still have my Jewishness! And I’ll show them how to love the motherland!…this is why marginal figures like Kahane,  Baruch Goldstein, and Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir, are seen as bigger patriots tha
n Shimon Peres…some may see them as a nightmare, but some may see them as an example of how a weak, unconnected loner can turn an entire society around.

In a political climate in which Israeli governments, in a perceived time of ongoing war, were still using the rhetoric of withdrawal and land-for-peace, this created a massive dissonance with the Russian constituency. In such an atmosphere, moreover, the anti-Zionist left had especially little to offer. Immigration is the process of leaving behind one’s surroundings, shedding key parts of one’s identity, and acquiring new ones, often through a concentrated effort and struggle to integrate. Yet the deconstructionist discourse of the radical Left, which criticizes and picks apart Zionist mythology and identity, is seen as a direct challenge to the kind of identity and community that these immigrants tried in earnest to cultivate; it was a mark of ultimate betrayal to their condition.

So do the one-million Russian speakers pose an obstacle to the two-state solution? Probably–not because they are uniquely prejudiced about it, but because they’ve seen very little from either the ongoing peace process or those who lead it. Does it make them an obstacle that needs to be circumvented or broken? Hardly. It reaffirms them as one of several sub-parties to the conflict, with their own particular fears, traumas, and perceived–as well as real–grievances. These will need to be understood and addressed, if the process is to be a real, inclusive and legitimate one.

Dmitry Reider is an Israeli journalist whose work has appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and the Guardian. He blogs at +972.

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