“Noviy God,” the Gregorian New Year, is an important day on the calendars of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, which includes a big family meal,and an opportunity for politicians to pander to Russian- speaking voters.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu has long been a popular, and maybe the most popular political party among immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
However, with some of the party’s senior officials, including Yisrael Beytenu Secretary-General and Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirschenbaum under investigation, some other parties see a window of opportunity to bring in Russian votes.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett doesn’t celebrate “Noviy God,” but he made sure to wish Russian voters a happy one in a clip released on Wednesday night, New Year’s Eve.
Opening the video with “dear friends” in Russian, Bennett immediately admitted in the video that he doesn’t mark the holiday, but expressed respect for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who do. He added that he could fathom a better tradition than sitting around the table with loved ones and wishing them a good year.
Then, Bennett compared the diversity of Israeli society to an Olivier Salad, which many FSU immigrants eat with their families on the new year, and began chopping vegetables for his own salad.
“So many different flavors and textures, you have to mix them together, and then it’s perfect,” he said, tossing the salad in a crystal bowl while fake snow fell on the screen. He made sure to say the blessing on vegetables before eating the salad.
Then, Bennett said the traditional blessing for the new year in Russian: “I wish you new happiness in the new year.”
Bayit Yehudi has a small, but active FSU immigrant forum and one Russian-born primary candidate, Sofi Ron-Moria, who was right wing newspaper Makor Rishon’s political reporter and previously held the same position at Russian-language daily Vesty.
Ron-Moria lamented that many Russian-speaking voters “think Liberman is holy. His supporters say on Facebook that I’m stealing his votes. They think he’s in charge and I’m just getting in his way.”
The Bayit Yehudi candidate was an underground Hebrew teacher in Leningrad in the 1980s who was caught by the Soviet government, but was allowed to emigrate to Israel with her family.
“There’s an ongoing argument in the Prisoners of Zion e-mail [listserv]. Some people say Liberman has become left wing and his party is in trouble with the law, and others say he’s one of us and we have to vote for him,” she explained.
According to Ron-Moria, “Russian voters are not a herd,” and older FSU immigrants see Liberman as their protector, but the younger ones don’t feel that need, they are proud of their identity, but relate to candidates who successfully integrated into Israeli society.
“We have to show that we can reach our goals and it doesn’t matter that we’re immigrants,” she said, pointing to her own transition from Russian-language to Hebrew media.
Ron-Moria also posited that young Russian-speaking voters are more likely to vote for other parties, especially those that have an open primary.
“If the Right wants leadership, there cannot be just generals, there must be soldiers. Younger people [interested in politics] need to see a horizon and a place to move up. All the centrist parties aren’t democratic. I think that’s the worst thing out there,” Ron-Moria said.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who was a Prisoner of Zion as a Hebrew teacher in the USSR sent to the gulag for years, was less willing to make generalizations about what he called “the Russian vote, if something like that still even exists.”
However, he said that most votes from FSU immigrants are divided between Yisrael Beytenu and Likud.
Edelstein also lamented the fact that the Likud primary took place on New Year’s Eve, saying some Russian-speaking party members told him they’d be too busy with holiday preparations to vote.
Still, the Knesset Speaker had nothing to worry about, since his high position on the Likud list clearly indicated his appeal is much broader than just for Russian Likud members. There is one other FSU-born candidate in a realistic spot on the party’s list, MK Ze’ev Elkin.
On the Left, Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On produced a short video in Russian that social media users identifying with both the Right and Left praised in Russian.
Gal-On was born in Vilnius and speaks Russian fluently, albeit with an Israeli accent.
Like in the Bennett video, Gal-On’s clip also featured fake snow, which she pointed out.
“Unlike others,” she said, holding a champagne flute, “I won’t promise you snow in the desert. However, you can be sure that when you vote for Meretz, you are voting for freedom and equality.”
Then the camera pans out to show a set worker on a ladder standing not far from Gal-On.
She asks him if the champagne is real, and he says yes.
“Let’s drink!” Gal-On offers him, and they clink glasses.