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Who's Afraid Of Israeli-Russian Voters?

Israeli politicians fail to understand the choice of many Russian immigrants to live simultaneously in both worlds, writes Lily Galili.
Former Soviet Union immigrants attend a pre-election campaign rally in the central Israeli town of Holon March 15, 2006. Israel's most influential electoral bloc is saying "Nyet" to interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just days before his Kadima party is expected to win a general election. Picture taken March 15, 2006. To match feature ISRAEL-ELECTION-RUSSIANS   REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

Israeli politicians are having trouble following the developments and changes among the Russian-speaking public. They have always found it hard, but ever since the “Russian Street” turned from being a highway into a seemingly serpentine obstacle course, there is growing confusion regarding the “place” of “the Russians” on the political map.

It seems that too much effort is being put into an effort to fathom their political opinions and too little attention into mapping their social positioning. These two pivots have always determined this public’s voting patterns in a manner that puzzles Israeli politicians. They not only appear to fail to understand this group, they still fear it, too, as one fears any phenomenon that is not totally understood. The national anthem of the Russian-speaking public in Israel is, of course, “Hatikva”; their community’s anthem is Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”

Two recent developments in the business world reflect the goings on in the “Russian Street” in the election campaign. One of the biggest advertising agencies, McCann Erickson, is closing down its Russian department, which was especially active in the Russian sector; almost simultaneously, the largest Russian-language daily in Israel, Vesti, has enlarged its weekend edition and its women’s magazine, Sharm.

Each of these developments on their own, and the connection between them, mark the boundary line on which some million immigrants from the former Soviet Union are now poised. Twenty years since the start of the massive influx of immigrants, this large and influential public is on the demarcation line between “sectarianism” and “integration” into Israel’s complex society. In fact, the advertising agency will keep operating its departments in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish sectors, which proves that unlike the presence of these two sectors in Israeli society, the “Russian” sector, which is the immigrant sector, is a temporary and passing stage. On the other hand, the regeneration of Vesti is proof that there is still a well-defined sector worthy of economic investment. In addition, the sectorial media, by its very nature, has to strengthen sectarianism in order to extend its lifespan, otherwise it has no future.

Not surprisingly, the political arena of the Russian-speaking public is an exact reflection of this situation. McCann Erickson, which shut down its Russian department, is reminiscent of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s move joining Yisrael Beitenu party to the Likud. With sharp social and political instincts, Liberman identified the right point in time for such a step. In this regard, Likud-Beitenu is not simply a political move designed to serve the interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Liberman; it also expresses a new social reality in which Russian speakers are less needful of sectorial representation and, rather, are expressly seeking influence over the broad, national Israeli arena.

One might say that The Israelis, the new party headed by David Kun, is analogous to the regenerated Vesti or a reincarnation of Yisrael Ba’aliyah, the now-defunct party headed by Nathan Sharansky, which was established in 1996 to provide for the sector’s painful needs.

Kun, the senior anchor of the Russian-language Channel 9, presumes to address the remaining sectorial needs and to appeal to those disappointed by Liberman. More than their disappointment with Liberman, they are disappointed with his “betrayal” of the sector. “We have lost our independent representation,” some of them bemoaned. In his first remarks to the general Israeli public, Kun attacked Liberman for failing to act on behalf of the Russian speakers who still constitute the majority of his voters. That is true, but in all but one poll, The Israelis have not crossed the voting threshold necessary to get into the Knesset. In all other polls, it does not exist.

The natural divide between the “first generation”, which by its nature is more rooted in its Soviet countries of origin in terms of culture and consciousness, and the “generation and a-half”, i.e., young adults who arrived in Israel as children and grew up here, is only part of the story. Reality is much more complex. Often it is the same person who swings back and forth between these two poles, at his own pace. After all, this is what these immigrants projected from the start: Israeliness, yes, but at our own pace. Unlike previous immigrant groups, who arrived here in the age of the melting pot delusion, the immigrants of the past 20 years took the liberty of dictating whether, when and to what extent. “On our own terms”, was how sociologist Larisa Remnick, formerly of the Soviet Union, defined the process of joining Israeli society.

The national character, the post-modern adulation of multi-culturalism and especially the critical mass of a public which constitutes 18% of the population, enabled them to easily exercise their right to make this choice. They decided, and are still deciding, to what extent to mix and be involved, when and at what pace. They are doing it their way.

Lily Galili was for over 28 years (until 2010) an Haaretz senior feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and an expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. Her book, "The Million That Changed the Middle East" (co-written with R. Bronfman), has been recently published (in Hebrew edition). Galili teaches journalism and Israeli society at Tel-Aviv-Yaffo Academic College. She was a Nieman fellow at Harvard and holds a Master's  degree from Hebrew U. 

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