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Israeli Russophones

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In Israel, immigration from Ukraine increased by 110% this year. The Israeli government has described FSU immigration as ‘one of the greatest miracles that happened to the state.’ But what do the immigrants think?

Lia Tarachansky
11 December 2014

In November, Ukrainians marked the one-year anniversary of the anti-corruption protests that led to the fall of the government of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. ‘Little green men’ were soon running around Crimea, brandishing weapons, but no insignia; Russia announced that it was annexing the peninsula; and a subsequent referendum in March formally incorporated what had been Ukrainian sovereign territory into the Russian Federation. Following this, armed conflict broke out in the nation’s east, taking the lives of more than 4,000 people. The UNHCR speaks of ‘490,000 people uprooted by the fighting and forced to seek shelter elsewhere in the country.’ But this is an under-estimate because many of these displaced people are staying with families and friends. 'It’s safe to say you now have over a million people displaced as a result of the crisis,' states Vincent Cochetel, director of the refugee agency’s European bureau. While a ceasefire was signed in September, hundreds more have died since; and the fate of eastern Ukraine remains uncertain.  

Nearly a million Ukrainians have entered Russia since the conflict began, and more than 250,000 have applied for refugee or other residency status. However, according to the UNHCR, Poland and not Russia, is the primary target country for Ukrainians seeking asylum, followed by Germany and Sweden.

Israeli policy

In Israel, immigration from Ukraine increased by 110% this year, according to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. The new citizens are following in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of Jews from all corners of the former Soviet Union who have made the move in the past 25 years.

Russian-language bookshop in Arad, Israel. CC J Brew, 2007

Since the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, roughly 1m former Soviet Jews have made Israel their home. In 2009, when that immigration wave marked its 20-year anniversary, Sofa Landver, the Minister of Immigrant Absorption, and a former Soviet Jew herself, said publicly that the ongoing boom of Russian-speaking immigrants is 'saving Israel demographically.' Israel doesn’t have an immigration policy like other countries. It has only the 'Law of Return,' which in practice means only Jewish people have the right to become full citizens. Landver’s sentiments were echoed by Prime Minister Netanyahu himself who said that FSU [Former Soviet Union] immigration was ‘one of the greatest miracles that happened to the state,’ because of the demographic boost, and the immigrants’ contribution to the state’s economy and hi-tech industries. 71% of the Russophones were younger than 50 when they immigrated, increasing the population of army-age citizens, and over 70% had high school or university education.  Russian-language bookshop in Arad, Israel. CC J Brew, 2007 Landver’s Ministry is tasked with actively encouraging Jewish immigration from around the world. This summer she launched a special programme, focusing on Ukraine, with a budget of 100m shekels (approximately £16.3m). The programme includes an additional 15,000 shekels (roughly £2,000) for families escaping high-risk areas, on top of the primary grants it already provides.

The programme has been such a success that only weeks after Israel’s last attack on the Gaza Strip, which provoked an unprecedented intensification of rocket attacks on Israeli cities, 150 Russian and Ukrainian immigrants were greeted at the airport by Minister Landver herself. The event marked the Jewish New Year and in her speech, Landver said, 'my wish for the new year is that it will bring serenity and growth and waves of immigration that we have never seen before.' Last week, her wish came close to becoming true when Netanyahu signed yet another plan to encourage Ukrainian Jews to make the move, focusing on making immigrants’ transition to Israel easier, streamlining their applications and helping their job-seeking efforts.

Last week, Netanyahu signed yet another plan to encourage Ukrainian Jews to make the move.

Immigrant views

Andrei Bar is a 33-year-old writer and editor currently working in online marketing. His family left Samara, in central Russia, in 1991 and settled in central Israel. ‘I started following the Ukainian conflict closely a few weeks after it broke out,’ he says. ‘At first I thought it would just blow over, that it would be a one-time thing like the mass protests we’ve seen around the world, but when I finally understood what’s actually happening I started taking great interest in it.’

Andrei gets his Russian-language news where most people his age do, namely from a combination of social media and hand-picked authors online. While the older generation watches the news on TV, especially the Israeli Russian-language mega station Channel 9, younger viewers like Andrei turn to print and web-based sources.

‘Channel 9? No I don’t watch Channel 9,’ Andrei asserts with a smirk. 'It’s not professional, it's totally not objective,’ he says. ‘It's exclusively dedicated to the Yisrael Beiteinu Party… and presents the conflict in a totally pro-Russian light because of [Yisrael Beiteinu Party’s leader and Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman's personal and business ties with Russia.’

Avigdor Lieberman (right), himself a former Soviet Jew, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Avigdor Lieberman, himself a former Soviet Jew, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (c) RIA Novosti/Eduard Pesov

While Israel’s Foreign Minister, a Soviet Jew from Moldova, is known to support the Russian president, the country’s foreign policy has allied Israel with the US’s position in support of the Ukrainian government. While Lieberman was the first political leader to congratulate Vladimir Putin when he was re-elected in the disputed 2012 elections, earlier this month he met with the Ukrainian foreign minister to discuss tightening relations with Israel. That meeting resulted in the two countries laying the groundwork for a new free trade agreement which will include Israel sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine and sharing its ‘expertise in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder treatment.’ This diplomatic handshake came less than a week after Israel also agreed to assist Ukraine in strengthening its emergency medical aid services.

The zookeeper

‘I came from Moscow, alone, when I was 18,’ says Polina Rubchinskaya, a 36-year-old media analyst. ‘I came because living there was grey. You have no opportunities in life, you feel like you can’t impact anything that’s happening to you. You get this feeling like you’re part of a herd inside of an empire, and this is how Russia is acting in Ukraine today,’ she says, ‘like they are an empire, and Putin is the king.’

‘I think of Putin as a zookeeper. No matter how you dress it up, I think the animals know they’re living in a cage.’

Like many Russian-educated Israelis, Polina takes a long-term historical view of the Ukrainian conflict. When speaking about the Crimean peninsula’s decision to separate from Ukraine she says ‘you can’t trust so-called democratic instruments like referendums taking place in the territory of the former Soviet Union. It’s a joke. When Ukraine got Crimea in the 19th century, the Tsar simply decided that the country was going to war there, and regardless of what anyone thought, the army went and fought. Since then, nothing’s fundamentally changed. You can’t really express your opinions in Russia, and you definitely can’t change what is happening.'

Rubchinskaya reads Russian and Ukrainian blogs, listens to the main independent Russian radio station Ekho, and watches Dozhd, the only opposition television station in Russia. ‘Look,” she says frankly, ‘I think of Putin as a zookeeper. He can take you around and say "see, there they are, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, there they are living in close proximity to the real thing," but no matter how you dress it up, I think the animals know they’re living in a cage.’

The theatre of politics

The theatre of politics extends beyond Russia’s internal policies, according to Andrei. Both he and Polina believe the conflict will not result in full-out war despite the increase in troops on the front lines. ‘If the sanctions were serious,’ he says, ‘the West would have shut off Russia’s oxygen, their international banking mechanisms, and so on. This is about gas and other resources, but instead of really hitting Russia hard, they’re making him [Putin] eat alone at the dinner table in the G20.’

Andrei is referencing a high-profile snub that took place at the G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia last month when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly said to Putin, ‘I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.’ Putin left the summit a day early, and upon arrival in Moscow declared that he fears that if Russia continues to be isolated by the West, Ukraine will fall into the hands of ‘neo-Nazis’ and ‘Russophobes.’

‘You have to understand that 95% of what Putin says and does is directed at the home audience,’ says Andrei. ‘He’s speaking to his people, not to the outside world, and his words should be understood as such. This whole conflict [in Ukraine] strengthens Putin in Russia. His image is boosted as someone who defends the nation.’

‘Russian immigrants don't protest.’

In Australia, Putin faced protests from Ukrainian immigrants, calling him a ‘killer.’ A handful of activists attempted to organise similar demonstrations in Israel, but few attended. Protesting, according to Polina, isn’t common among Russian-speakers in Israel. ‘They might argue over Shabbat dinner, some will say Putin is a dictator, others will say the West is using Ukraine to pressure Russia, but they would never go to a demonstration. Russian immigrants don't protest. For a number of reasons, our history [as oppressed Jews] in the Soviet Union, our distrust of the government, and our total lack of faith that you can affect things in any way. Look, we already live in a conflict zone here, we have enough to worry about.’

The Russian-language press in Israel, however, continues to zero-in on the Ukrainian conflict. Channel 9's website includes only two World News tabs, ‘The Middle East’ and ‘Ukraine.’ The channel focuses on Russia’s ability to withstand the West’s sanctions, such as another deal Putin signed with China this week to extend yet another pipeline of gas exports to that country. With this second deal, gas to China will ‘exceed the current volumes of export to Europe,’ according to Aleksei Miller, the CEO of Gazprom, Russia’s (and the world’s) largest gas company.

Another major topic of coverage is Israel’s strengthening relationship with Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko. While many see the newfound friendship as part of a quid pro quo with the US for it's unwavering support for Israel, the relationship serves Israel's own stated interests as well. 

A US Congress bill intended to limit US military aid to exclude neo-fascist or neo-Nazi groups was recently defeated, in large part due to pressure from Israel-friendly lobby groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It might be said that in some ways its defeat allows the continued flow of US arms to some of the groups extremist, far right – that Jewish Ukrainians are now fleeing, heading for Israel.

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