More than 2,000 Russian-speaking Arabs live in Israel, most of them graduates of universities in the former Soviet Union. Some returned to Israel with local Russian women who “followed the love” and came to live in one of the villages or towns of Wadi Ara or in some other mixed Arab-Israeli city in Israel.
In their homes there are still signs of the life they led “there.” Every so often, melodies accompanying the poems of Vladimir Vysotsky may be heard through the windows of houses in Umm al-Fahm. In some of the homes, a small figurine of Lenin decorates the living room.
The children speak Russian, having mastered the language. And just like the Israeli immigrants, the Arabs who returned to Israel after a stay there deeply miss “Mother Russia.”
Imagine this: A Muslim woman wearing a traditional hijab, through which one may glimpse Slavic facial features, their uniqueness highlighted by the veil covering her head. She is talking with another woman, attired similarly, her blond hair peeking through her headscarf. In another corner, a physician from Ramallah is engaged in a lively conversation with an Israeli scientist, reminiscing about Dnepropetrovsk, the large Ukrainian city where she once lived. She is eagerly listening to every word.
Children are running around among the adults. In the meantime, the attendees help themselves to servings of herring. The secular among the Arabs gulp it down with vodka. They then savor some Russian candy unfamiliar to people around here, in Israel. And then, it is all over. The Israelis return to their homes, while the Palestinians take off to their homes in the West Bank.
It sounds almost surreal, but the scene described above is entirely realistic.
The meetings between Israeli immigrants and Russian-speaking Palestinians living in the West Bank are carried on along the same lines. There are some 10,000 Palestinians who graduated from universities in the former USSR. And there are about 2,500 Russian women who met their "would-be" husbands there and tied their fate with them.
The Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union are generally identified on the Israeli political map as right leaning. It seems as if they are inherently alienated from the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians living in the West Bank. Many of the new immigrants came to Israel with the Soviet history deeply ingrained in their minds. A history which do not believe in compromise, where the notion of returning territories is considered absurd, and the use of force a preferred means. Essentially, the enmity originates in the manifest conflict over the ownership of the land. The Palestinians claim it by virtue of their seniority, while the new immigrants believe they deserve it thanks to their Judaism. It's the Law of Return, by force of which the new immigrants have come to Israel, vis-à-vis the right of return claimed by the Palestinians. The obstacles seem insurmountable.
Still, here and there, these obstacles are overcome, and surprisingly, it happens in Russian, of all languages.
But beyond the idealistic aspect of these meetings, they have an important goal. The participants on the Israeli side are active members or invited guests of a small but active movement of new immigrants identified with the political left, named Our Heritage – The Charter for Democracy NGO. The association was set up with the declared goal of promoting the values of democracy and peace in the Russian-speaking population.
The meetings initiated with Russian-speaking Arabs are designed to make use of the common language as a means of communication, and as a lever for the advancement of mutual understanding and political agreement. The West Bank Palestinians are, for the most part, members of one of the two organizations of graduates of universities in the former Soviet Union. The Israeli Arabs have a number of organizations of former Soviet Union university graduates. The Arbat organization, named after a well-known street in Moscow, is particularly active in these encounters. But both sides taking part in the meetings are too realistic to believe that these meetings can in themselves bring about peace. They do believe, however, that a common language can help bridge the gap of hostility and misunderstanding separating the two nations.
Chairwoman of the Our Heritage executive board, Alla Shainskaya, herself an immigrant from the former USSR, is a scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science. She believes in the strength of the shared cultural values to bring about a change. “A deep chasm of hatred, bitter memories and mistrust separates veteran Israelis and Palestinians,” says Shainskaya, “This is not the case with us, new immigrants from Russia. No such sediment of rancor has accumulated. And it makes all the difference, and also holds a real promise for the future.”
The Palestinian physician from Ramallah reinforces the argument made by Shainskaya. “In my eyes, they are not 100% Israelis,” he says, referring to the Jews who immigrated to Israel from Russia. By the way, he means it as a compliment.
“As far as we are concerned, they are more Russians than Israelis. I just hope they do not all become ‘Libermans’ (after the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party associated with the immigrants from Russia, which merged with the Likud Party). We have too many of these already, on both sides.”
Alas, the goodwill displayed by both sides is too often shattered on the rocks of the harsh reality of the region. It recently happened during the last visit to Bethlehem of the Israeli group (in April), when activists of the Our Heritage association, accompanied by non-member Russian Jews who had come to Israel in the large immigration wave of the 1990s, were invited to visit the newly established Russian Center for Science and Culture. They brought boxes containing books in Russian; their gift to the library of the new Center. It is a beautiful building, modern and inviting. It even has a cozy café called “Kalinka” (after a popular Russian song by that name performed by the Red Army Choir ).
Sergei Shapovalov, the Russian Center managing director, was waiting excitedly for the Israeli guests at the entrance to the building. Even though he has a long and impressive track record in the Russian civil service, Shapovalov realizes that his new role in the Middle East is really his greatest challenge ever.
A debate was scheduled in the center with the participation of the Israeli and Palestinian guests. The topic of discussion: the role of the Russian language and the part played by the “Russian mentality” as a potential bridge to peace.
However, reality interfered with the plan. The Russian-speaking Palestinians did not show up. And of the 15 participants who had confirmed their presence, only two professors arrived. The others succumbed to pressures exerted on them by Palestinian organizations seeking to thwart any semblance of normalization of relations with Israel.
That same day numerous demonstrations were held throughout the West Bank calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel. One of those rallies took place in front of the Russian Center. Within minutes, stones were hurled at the building. Large forces of the Bethlehem Police did their best to protect the guests, who all of a sudden became unwelcome, to say the least. There was nothing for them to do but to board the bus, shielded by the Palestinian Police, and return to Israel.
Thus, those convinced from the very start that “there is no one to talk to” received further proof. At the same time, those who had come with the feeling that one should keep on at all costs, in the face of any difficulties, were also reinforced. Other meetings, to be held in Ramallah, are already planned, subject, of course, to the ever-changing moods in the region.
Lily Galili was a Haaretz senior feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and an expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union for over 28 years. Her book The Million that Changed the Middle East (co-authored with R. Bronfman) has been published in Hebrew.