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.