A Lebanese limbo

The devastating blast that annihilated both Beirut’s famous port and its seaside districts, leaving up to 300,000 people homeless felt like a horrifying, apocalyptic scenario. To many Lebanese, the explosion was also symbolic of Lebanon’s systemic decay, economic stagnation, government neglect and rampant corruption, compounded by the social and economic devastation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lebanon’s post-civil war reconstruction largely benefited its elites, and the post-explosion reconstruction is bound to do the same. Yet the system is showing cracks. The following personal perspective is from NCF Research Officer Ivan Tarkhanov and does not necessarily represent the view of the Next Century Foundation.

Even without the horror of the Beirut explosions, Lebanon’s economy was already sliding towards disaster. A vicious cycle of stagnant economic growth, subpar infrastructure, unemployment and a lack of investment have left the Lebanese economy hopelessly dependent on diaspora inflows, which have in turn mainly benefited the inefficient real estate sector. In addition to this, an entrenched and monopolistic elite continues to block important reforms. As a result despite Lebanon’s status as a middle-income country, its infrastructure was ranked 113 out of 137 countries by the McKinsey report in 2019. 

Lebanon’s political system, built on sectarian lines in an uneasy post-civil war consensus, has now largely lost legitimacy with the average young Lebanese voter. Even in the economy’s better days, the omnipresence of corruption, nepotism and government incompetence left a great number of Lebanese falling through the cracks of the system. Social inequality arguably remains one of the root causes of Lebanon’s 2019-2020 protests and has been a significant obstacle to economic growth and social prosperity. To make things worse, Lebanon’s vibrant middle class has been eviscerated by the succession of crises, and many Lebanese are desperate for a political solution. The majority of Lebanon’s citizens are now trapped in poverty.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government fell one week after the explosion. This resignation came only one year after then PM Saad Hariri’s announced his resignation in the wake of earlier Lebanese protests. But many Lebanese citizens are no longer satisfied with mere cosmetic changes. They are demanding fundamental change at all levels. 

Some have called for a national unity government. But Lebanon has already been run by a unity government. It mostly failed to provide pragmatic solutions to important issues, instead getting trapped in ideological and sectarian debates.

Lebanon needs immediate change. And this change must come through comprehensive economic reforms. Lebanon does not have many options – the economic limbo of the fiscal crisis was only compounded by the damage caused by the Beirut blast, estimated at 15 billion dollars. 

Pushing through significant economic reforms would qualify Lebanon to receive assistance from the International Monetary Fund. That said, IMF programs are not without very considerable controversy. Even the IMF’s own study into austerity policies concluded that they can increase inequality and hamper long term economic growth. Before the explosion rocked Beirut, PM Hassan Diab said that Lebanon needed $10bn in international support. Self-evidently, its needs now far exceed that. But in my personal view, besides the IMF bailout package, Lebanon currently has few credible options. If Lebanon managed to find an agreement with the IMF, it could unlock further aid packages. Meanwhile, also in my personal view, the so-called ‘Chinese option’ for Lebanon remains insufficiently explored: after all Lebanon’s ports could play a key role in China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Entrenched interests impede economic reform in Lebanon. In the years preceding the fiscal crisis, crucial laws and reforms have been either indefinitely stuck in Parliament or avoided altogether. A hostile and monopolised business environment has both repelled investors and placed a heavy toll on small businesses. To make matters worse, Lebanon’s financial services industry remains overwhelmingly dominated by banking, which impedes the nations’s economic stability.

Following the explosion there was an outpouring of international support for Lebanon. Yet direct economic aid to the Lebanese government has been scarce. An emergency donor conference claimed to have raised 253 million euros for humanitarian relief, but the donors demanded stringent transparency in the management of the aid money and most of this money will never reach Lebanon. This is because many international actors remain conscious of the Lebanese government’s corruption and systemic reluctance to reform. Hezbollah, of course, remains an elephant in the room. Since its parliamentary victory of 2018, the organisation has often proven incapable of delivering on reforms demanded by outsiders. Hezbollah’s strong presence in Lebanese politics has led to unwillingness on the part of the United States, most Gulf States and certain European countries to commit resources to Lebanon.

Hezbollah understandably remains hostile to many of the calls for reform, most notably the IMF-demanded customs reorganisation, which would spell the end of the Hezbollah’s share in the militia monopoly over the sector and its control of large swathes of the Lebanese- Syrian border, along with what I view as its lucrative oversight of smuggling operations into Lebanon.   

Ideas of disarming Hezbollah are unrealistic and risk further antagonising the group. Hope remains that a strong, non-sectarian protest movement might finally lead to a new government and a new system built along non-sectarian lines. In any case, corrupt oligarchies, armed militias and rabid sectarianism have served the Lebanese people’s interests poorly.

Russian-Israelis: identity and trauma

Israel was formed by immigration, and Jews from Eastern Europe were an important part of the Jewish immigration to Palestine ever since the days of the First Aliyah of 1882. Many Russian-speaking Jews arrived in Palestine fleeing the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and would form the backbone of Ha-Yishuv (the settlement). After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union’s tightening border controls meant that few if any Soviets were allowed to leave the country, generating a sharp disconnect between the Soviet Jews and their Jewish brethren abroad. After almost half a century of suspended Jewish migration, many Soviet-Jews arrived in Israel in the 1970s and even more in the 1990s, in the periods of Soviet openness towards Jewish emigration. These were much larger waves of immigration, and they had a significant impact on Israel – the Jews were also deeply altered by half a century of socialism. Today, Russian-speaking Jews are an important part of Israel’s demographic, and key right-wing voters in Israel’s politics. 

A migrant’s culture could be defined as a compromise between his origin society’s values and the ones of his host society. Israel’s immigration story is closely linked to Israel’s Law of Return, that stipulated that any Jew has the right to come to Israel. The law reflects a vision of Israel as a safe haven for all the Jews in the world and is one of the cornerstones of modern Israel’s identity. Many have claimed the law promotes a proactive and effective integration policy towards new migrants, who are immediately given Israeli citizenship and allowed to vote.

Israel is a very diverse society, and the simplified distinction between the Jews and the Palestinians often does not account for the complexities of the cultural landscape on the ground. Even when looking at Israel’s Jews, the standard separation between the Ashkenazim (European Jews) and Sephardim or Mizrachim (Middle Eastern Jews) is often insufficient to understand the different origins of modern Israelis.

Ashkenazim in Israel are composed of European and American Jews, but also Jews from the Soviet bloc. The cultural and social divergences between Western and Soviet Jews reflect the Cold War divisions of Europe. In the Soviet Union, emigration was strictly prohibited, and only a few openings were available to Jews who wanted to emigrate. In this closed country, Soviet Jews developed a distinct mindset and integrated into Soviet society against the backdrop of rabid antisemitism, often preserving their sense of Jewish identity in a concealed and heavily secularised form.

Periods of brief Soviet openings toward Jewish emigration led to waves of Russian Jews immigrating to Israel in the 1970s (150,000) and especially in the years 1989 to 1991 (400,000). Another 300,000 to 400,000 arrived during the 1990s. The immigrants on average had a higher level of education than most of the native Israeli population, which was partly because education was one of the only tools of social mobility available to Soviet Jews. Russian-speaking Jews were also overwhelmingly urban and had smaller families on average. While in many ways they have integrated into Israeli society, some have perceived that their Jewishness, which they preserved despite widespread anti-Semitism in their societies of origin, was suddenly under question from the Israeli society itself. The religious establishment in Israel is strongly connected to the state – the Rabbinate’s authority extends to determining someone’s Jewishness on the basis of their mothers’ religious persuasions, according to the halakha law that stipulates that Jewishness is passed on by the mother.

Many Jewish immigrants from socialist and former-socialist countries defined their Jewishness differently, in ethnic and cultural terms, reflecting the way in which socialist states classified someone as a Jew. Several of the new immigrants were sons and daughters of Jewish fathers, and having experienced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, they perceived themselves to be no less Jewish than those born to a Jewish mother. Yet Israel’s society limits the rights of patrilineal Jews, who are for example unable to have an official marriage unless they ‘correct’ themselves by subscribing to a full-blown conversion. This includes extensive and sometimes humiliating monitoring by the religious establishment to ensure regular religious activity from the new converts. Adding to this, Russian Jews sometimes brought to Israel spouses or family members who were not Jews, creating a situation where the authenticity of the Russian-speaking immigrants’ Jewishness was increasingly questioned by the Israeli society.

While the Russian Jewish immigration wave of the 90s has significantly contributed to Israel’s economic development, some problems were also apparent. The sheer size of the wave made it hard for Russian Israelis to fully meld into the native society, leading to unfavourable comparisons with the smaller wave of Soviet Jews from the 70s. Those were portrayed as ‘model immigrants’ who, unlike their rowdy counterparts from the 90s, were said to have integrated into Israeli society without much trouble.

There were issues of language, culture, beliefs and economic status. In terms of integration, the Russian-speaking immigration wave was also arguably the only one in Israel’s history to openly preserve the language and culture of their society of origin. Larissa Remennick, a sociology professor, wrote that in the case of Soviet Jews ‘their deities were Pushkin, Chekhov, Pasternak and Bulgakov’, and that the immigrants retained a visceral connection to Russian culture. Russian-language news outlets are still incredibly popular. In a clash of cultures, Russian grocery stores even sometimes sell pork, a deep gastronomic taboo in Judaism and consequently in Israeli society, and an important staple of Slavic and Soviet cuisine. Russian-speaking Jews are mostly secular, with only around 30% reporting religious beliefs. They tend to associate secularism with modernity and use their voting power in favour of a more secular Israel. The immigrants of the 90s often reported high levels of distrust towards politics, with some also noting their disappointment at the economic prospects in their new homeland. In many cases, and despite the harsh Soviet quotas on Jewish students in universities, Soviet Jews were overrepresented in the Soviet intelligentsia, and were expecting to find in Israel comfortable working conditions that matched their professional skills.

Waves of Soviet immigrants have often sparked the ire of the religious establishment which doubted the new arrivals’ Jewishness and worried about the dilution of religiousness in Israel. Undoubtedly, the Rabbinate also feared a loss of political control, which was expected to be precipitated by the arrival of secular migrants. The suspicions have never quite gone away: in 2020, Israel’s chief rabbi called the immigrants from the former Soviet Union ‘religion-hating gentiles’ drawing condemnations from across Israel’s political spectrum. His remarks did however resonate with a portion of Israelis that view the Russian-speaking immigrants with distrust.

Some observers have noted that the Russian-speaking community tends to be attracted to strong leader figures and has embraced Israel’s right-wing parties. There are many reasons for the Russian-speakers’ alliance with Israel’s right.

Some have argued that the Russian Jews’ often hawkish stance on Palestinian issues reflects their perception of Israel as an ethnocentric state. This echoes back to their own experiences in the Soviet Union, where Jews were systematically stigmatised, and markers of Jewish identity had to be concealed and suppressed. In the view of some Russian Jews, Israel was finally a place where Jews had the majority status. Therefore, judging from their Soviet experience, they expected their Jewish status to reflect all the privileges that such a position should entail. Some Russian Jews also associated the Arabs with the upsurge of Soviet anti-Semitism. While obviously not taking part in the Arab-Israel conflicts, Soviet Jews became indirect victims of those conflicts within the USSR, where Israel’s victories caused a steady rise of Soviet anti-Semitism, starting with the Six Day War and continuing throughout the 70s.

Russian Jews also have much more uncompromising stances on Israel’s security. This might be due to the fact that after their immigration to Israel, many have ended up in border towns or settlements, on the frontlines of a conflict they barely understood. The FSU (former Soviet Union) immigrants also figured disproportionately among Palestinian terror victims due to their proximity to the conflict areas. Many sociological studies, for example those by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague attest to the radicalizing effects that manifestations of violence have on immigrants in their adoptive homelands. Their outrage was also amplified by the Russian-language media, which often focused on themes of unjust martyrdom of long-suffering Russian Jews at the hands of Arab terrorists, especially during the Intifadas [Palestinian uprisings against Israel’s control]. Yelenevskaya quotes an article piece:

Once, at the very beginning of Intifada, an old woman, a colonel of the Red Army and a war veteran, was in a car driving along a road in Samaria. The car was shot by terrorists. She had survived the war against the Nazis but was killed by those who continue on their road. Only here in Israel the veterans find themselves on the frontline again. And so do their grandchildren.

She notes that Soviet Jews often viewed Israel’s politicians and Israel’s society as much too lax and were sceptical about the possibilities of a compromise with the Arabs. They also decried an overall lack of order along with what they perceived to be the chronic insecurities of their communities in the face of terrorism, poverty, high housing prices and the two Intifadas. When sometimes a sense of patronising superiority over local Jews emerged, it could be explained by the pervasive socialist-era propaganda of the Soviet man’s superiority, and of the Soviet civilisation as an epitome of Utopian thinking. Aside from this type of thinking, they often carried with them emotional baggage from their home country, which some sociologists eventually qualified as a form of psychological trauma due to the collapse of an entire system of beliefs and meanings with the fall of the USSR. Many Soviet Jews were ambiguous in their relationship to the USSR, both resenting a country that stigmatised and persecuted them as Jews, while often expressing a profound nostalgia for an idealised country of their youth.

Others, such as Larissa Remmenick, have sought to highlight the Russian Jews’ insecurities about their identity, which were reflected by the Russian-speaking immigrants ‘constant need for adjustment and mimicry’. It could be suggested that many Russian Jews opted to imitate and ‘outdo’ the locals by doubling down on radical views such as Israeli nationalism and Jewish ethnocentrism. Many Russian speakers’ rejection of the establishment as too lax and moderate eventually led to them voting for the right-wing parties.

Soviet Jewish votes led to the rise of parties catering to Soviet Jewish interests, starting with Yisrael BaAliyah [Israel on the rise]. The party’s gradual drift to the right of the political spectrum reflected that of the majority of Russian Jews. Eventually came the rise of another party, Yisrael Beitenu [Israel, our home], which sought to capitalise on right-wing secular nationalist votes, predominantly from the Russian community. The party was formed by a group of statesmen led by Avigdor Lieberman, who left the government coalition to protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Today, competition over Soviet Jewish votes is prevalent in Israeli politics and has gotten more spotlight during the repeated election runs of 2019, when Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to peel Russian-speaking votes from Avigor Lieberman’s secular nationalist Israel Beitenu. Streets in Russian-Jewish neighbourhoods often featured signs in Cyrillic proclaiming ‘Only Netanyahu – only Likud’. Some Russian Jews were finally promised pensions which were previously repeatedly denied to them. Election posters featured pictures of Netanyahu holding the hand of president Putin. Many Russian-speaking Jews in Israel originate from Ukraine – and Netanyahu also made a prompt state visit to the country, and its first Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It can be argued that Likud’s attempts to draw in Russian Jewish votes were not very successful: fundamental distrust towards the religious parties in coalition with Netanyahu’s government prevented many Russian Jews from voting for Likud.

Change is on the horizon. The younger Russian Jewish electorate is more integrated, speaks much better Hebrew, is more moderate, and is slowly shedding some ambiguous aspects of their complicated identity, identifying more strongly with Israel than with an idealised country of their parents’ memories. They retain a strong connection to the Russian language and culture but are often more comfortable with a hybrid or predominantly Israeli identity fusing both Jewish and Russian cultural symbols and practices. They often remain relatively antagonistic towards the Rabbinate’s authority but are less likely to vote for the Russian-speaker parties such as Yisrael Beitenu, instead opting for a wider spectrum of parties reflecting individual preferences and beliefs. Russian speakers will continue to play an influential role in Israel’s politics, and it remains interesting to see how their demographic evolution will affect the Russian Jews’ political affiliation. Perhaps the new Russian Jewish generation will not carry in them their parents’ Soviet traumas and insecurities, will finally be able to lay the questions of identity aside and be full members of Israeli society. But some change in Israeli society’s capacity to accommodate them will also be needed: perhaps a concession on behalf of the uncompromising religious establishment. As of today, there are reasons to remain pessimistic about such prospects.


Political crisis in Israel: COVID-19 and democracy

Israel’s third elections in a row have brought little fundamental political change, despite a slightly reinvigorated Likud: a Knesset majority for the right wing block, which seemed so close on election day, is now decisively out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reach. In the recent elections Israeli Arab voter turnout has increased significantly: the Joint List has obtained 15 seats in the Knesset. An interesting dynamic was the upsurge of the left-wing Jewish vote in favour of the Joint List, some deserting the Jewish left in a likely bid to protest anti-Arab demagoguery in Israel’s politics. Despite their increased turnout, the Arab Israelis are still, just like Russian-Israelis, ‘punching below their weight’ in proportion to their demographics. 

One of the main focuses of the repeated elections has been Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictments on the basis of breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud. Israel’s society remains largely split between the ‘only Bibi’ and ‘anyone but Bibi’ camps in a struggle around Prime Ministerial immunity. 

Just like the United Kingdom, Israel doesn’t have a Constitution: it relies on an ‘Uncodified Constitution’, made of a patchwork of Basic Laws and rights, not devoid of paradoxes. One of the most glaring ones is the fact that unlike a government minister, an indicted Prime Minister can remain in office until the verdict becomes final. Unless Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White party manages to sideline Netanyahu, potentially by pushing a law through the Knesset that would prevent an indicted Knesset member from forming a government, Netanyahu will likely remain a strong and divisive presence in Israel’s politics. Benny Gantz was nominated by the President to form a government after getting the backing of a majority of Knesset members, yet as things stand today it is more unclear than ever who will come out on top. Various rumours during the week have insinuated that Gantz would be willing to join a unity government with Netanyahu, which Benny Gantz has actively denied. In a characteristic exchange of blows, Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu have accused each other of undermining democracy.

The situation was further complicated by the onset of the COVID-19 preventive measures. The rise in COVID-19 infections is allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to cast himself as a strong leader that the country needs in times of struggle. It would seem that the pandemic couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Prime Minister, since Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial was finally postponed until May, buying him more time. A government plan to use big data and digital surveillance to control the spread of COVID-19 has also raised concerns on the grounds of invasion of privacy. The High Court has however demanded that any such operation would have to take place under Knesset oversight, defusing some of the anxiety. 

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was also for now able to prevent the opposition from replacing the current Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who intended to block any opposition efforts to weaken Netanyahu’s hold on power. By resorting to ‘health concern’ measures, the speaker managed to shut down the Knesset until Monday the 23rd of March, which has sparked heated discussions on Israel’s social media. The influential liberal newspaper Haaretz has dubbed the crisis ‘Netanyahu’s coronavirus coup’ and deplored a situation where a minority is keeping a hold on power in spite of a majority that wants it to go.

If somehow Netanyahu manages to escape prosecution and cling on to power, his actions could potentially undermine Israel’s democracy.  This would likely materialise in Netanyahu’s ‘vendetta’ against the Supreme Court, which he accuses of a ‘leftist conspiracy’ despite having appointed the Attorney General himself.  

The crisis seems to have underlined multiple problems in Israel’s democracy, such as a crisis of government illustrated by repeated elections, a constitutional crisis allowing an indicted Prime Minister to stay in power, and significant strain on the system of checks and balances. One could argue that the situation was compounded by a gradual accumulation of power within the executive branch, and by the subservience of Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the legislative branch, to the Prime Minister’s will.