Opinion: The Russian Takeover

For better or worse, Russian-speaking immigrants from the Former Soviet Union are increasingly coming to dominate Israel’s major institutions – from the relative obscurity of  the Immigration Ministry to the towering heights of the Foreign Ministry.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman (photo credit: Michael Thaidigsmann/cc)

Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman (photo credit: Michael Thaidigsmann/cc)

From the very moment the new aged 20-something oleh hadash (new immigrant) from the Western World steps off the plane, it becomes very clear that this is not the country we remember from the more carefree days of our teenage years.  After the carefully insulated tourist excursions and choreographed Zionist youth programs, the reality-check comes swiftly and with little warning.  This as it turns out, is a country where knowledge of Russian is almost as useful as Hebrew when dealing with Israel’s antiquated aliyah (immigration) bureaucracy.  From the Jewish Agency to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption (misrad ha-klita) to the Ministry of the Interior, the halls of the government are teeming with the so-called dovrei russit, the catch-all Israeli term for first generation “Russian-speakers”. Whether they hail from the peripheral provinces (now mainly independent states) of Former Soviet Russia or Moscow itself, their presence is at once ubiquitous and influential.

The truth is, the aliyah story of the last twenty years has had little to do with Western Olim from the English-speaking world.  The last two decades have belonged to the dovrei russit and their impact can be felt along every rung of the aliyah ladder.  From the early nineties, the trickle turned into a downpour as over 1 million new Russian olim streamed in, eager to leave the old land of vodka and caviar for the new land of milk and honey.  To the casual Western tourist or even to the fourth or fifth generation sabra (Israeli-born) elite, the influence of the great Russian aliyah is barely felt.  Happily the affluent northern suburbs of Tel Aviv and the tree lined boulevards of Rothchild and Shenkin are untouched by a new force which is hardly considered to be of any great concern.

But the sweeping to power of the Yisrael Beiteinu party at the last elections and the dramatic inauguration of the sometimes dangerous and always controversial Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister came as something of a shock.  It was one thing, the ashkenazi-sabra elite reasoned, for “the Russians” to control such minor ministries as the misrad ha-klita but the much-famed Foreign Ministry (misrad ha-hutz), the stomping ground of such refined diplomatic greats as Abba Ebban, how could this be?

As the chalice passed (somewhat acrimoniously) from the West’s darling, Tzipi Livni to Lieberman, many wondered in disbelief as to whether this man, a former bouncer and Kach party[1] member, would truly represent us and be the face of Israel to the world?  But to many, Lieberman was a breath of fresh air.  Not only a straight-talker who would “tell it like it is” to the Arabs, but a strong and defiant leader not dissimilar to the autocratic Putin back home in Mother Russia.  Lieberman represented a sort of quasi-dictatorial figure, for those who saw democracy as over-rated and unnecessary.  For his supporters, Lieberman would restore Israel’s position at home and abroad not through diplomacy and dialogue, but through strength and force.

Even many Sabras were convinced.  In an atmosphere of near-constant war and conflict, it seems as if many Israelis have given up on such altruistic democratic principles as the rights of minorities and the exercise of restraint when it comes to the sacred policy of “security”.  One self-described upper-middle class Israeli told me quite openly that he supported Lieberman and thought he was a good thing for Israel.  When I asked him why, he explained that a “crazy guy” at the height of government would instil fear in the Arabs and Turks and make them think twice about attacking us.  In this twisted logic of deterrence, the inflammatory and provocative comments and actions of Lieberman on the world stage would somehow make Israel safer rather than less secure.

Of course, it goes without saying that it would be wrong to generalise across all Russian-speakers in Israel and say that they are all right-wingers or even extremists.  It is clearly just plain wrong to tar a whole demographic population with the same brush.  During my experience for five months at the mercaz ha-klita (absorption centre) and ulpan (Hebrew school) of Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, I met many fine Russian-speaking immigrants, ranging from Uzbekistan to the Ukraine, and I am glad to count many among my friends.  At the height of Israeli politics too, who could forget the heroism of a figure such as Natan Sharansky. Imprisoned by by the KGB for years because of his determination not to give up his allegiance to the Zionist cause, it is Sharanksy’s unwavering belief in democracy and freedom of conscience which should serve as a model for the next generation of Russian-speaking immigrants and all native-born Israelis alike. Upholding such long-cherished principles is perhaps more important now than ever – particularly in a time of growing instability and uncertainty in our region, the Middle East.


[1] Extremist party which rose to prominence under Rabbi Meir Kahane and subsequently banned from the Israeli parliament for racism. One of Kach’s major policies involved advocating the “transfer” or expulsion of the whole Palestinian Arab population, both from Israel “proper” within the 1967 lines and all those currently residing in the West Bank and Gaza.

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