Bobby Kennedy once said, “Some see things the way they are and ask ‘why,’ I see
things the way they could be and ask ‘why not?’” Some view the Russian-speaking
public’s view of Israel, particularly as it is embodied in the legislative
initiatives of Yisrael Beiteinu, as a threat to Israeli democracy. Even US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to agree. But this political agenda
should be understood along the lines of Kennedy’s thesis; namely, that they do
not accept the status quo.
Every group in Israel either attempts to shape
the country or is shaped by it. That’s true for the Russians, but unlike
other groups, veteran Israelis (immigrants and native-born “sabras”) are prone
to complain about them.
Take, for example, Haaretz
Shalev, who recently wrote, “Many [members of Israel’s ruling coalition] hail
from distinctly non-democratic backgrounds and represent expressly
Alexander Yakobson, a professor, was
more direct when he wrote that Israeli democracy was “weighed down” by Soviet
traditions. “Russian-speakers have made a positive contribution to Israeli
society in many areas. But when it comes to attitudes toward freedom of
expression, the majority of this group’s elected representatives are making a
Refuting these “place of origin” claims is easy.
Israel’s first generation of rulers came from decaying monarchies in Eastern
Europe and some even came from Nazi Germany. But few people would accuse David
Ben-Gurion of being a monarchist. It is manifestly untrue that the Russian view
of Israel is “soviet,” but it is true that it is skeptical of some of the
received wisdom of the Western democracies.
For instance, the West tends
to put a lot of stock in protest. If people are protesting Western commentators
tend to believe that their demands must have some credibility.
instance, after Russians took to the streets to protest what they believed to be
election fraud, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed Israeli
election observers had verified that the elections had been fair. Lieberman has
been condemned in many sectors for “sucking up” to Vladimir Putin and making
Later he elaborated on his claims: “In Russian villages
the elections did not operate like in Zurich or Basel... but is it much
different than what happens in Israel in various villages?” he mused regarding
whether Israeli democracy was much better in 1968.
YISRAEL BEITEINU has
been a driving force behind recent bills to restrict foreign funding of Israeli
NGOs. From the perspective of progressive Israelis and some on the Right who
adhere to strict notions of freedom, this smacks of limiting free speech and
democracy. However the objection to the NGO funding is based on a different
understanding of democratic realities.
European governments use their
financial power to colonize Israeli NGOs, providing as much as 95 percent of
their funding and using them to critique Israeli policies and even to challenge
those policies in the High Court. It is logical to view this situation as an
aberration unless one examines it from a Eurocentric view, that says Europe has
a right to impose its interpretations of human rights everywhere in the
Anastasia Michaeli, a Russian-speaking MK, has also been behind
recent calls for legislation to limit the decibels at which Muslim calls to
prayer may be played next to non-Muslim areas. Some Likud civil libertarians
have claimed this is a threat to freedom of religion. But that claim is somewhat
disingenuous: the same people that maintain extreme views about “religious
freedom” are usually the same ones that complain about haredi encroachment on
the secular public space. You can’t have it both ways.
One might solve
the muezzin issue by subjecting it to the “self” test. If Jews routinely blasted
a call to prayer at four in the morning next to a quiet Muslim community, would
anyone object to the decibel level being curtailed? Russian legislators have
also pulled strongly for giving more benefits to former soldiers. This has been
called discriminatory because, so the logic goes, the Arab minority does not do
military service. Therefore, they say the bill is a type of hidden
In fact, the alternative view holds more water. Russians
(and Ethiopians) disproportionately serve in the army; more of them do military
service than any other sector of society except for the
From their perspective a country shouldn’t take three
years of someone’s life and then throw them out on the street.
veteran Israelis, used to the absurd system in which about only one half of the
country serves in the military, for a variety of reasons, accept the status
When it comes to encouraging ex-Israelis to return to Israel, the
Russians are also accused of doing terrible things. New York Times
Roger Cohen blasted Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, a Russian
speaker, following the recent ad campaign warning Israelis in America to come
home or risk losing their culture.
He called her an
Several American Jewish commentators misconstrued
the message of the ad campaign and claimed they were offended, but Cohen’s
description of Landver could hardly have been more absurd. Landver is a moderate
who takes her work with immigrants very seriously. She may be uninspiring, but
she didn’t set out to offend American Jews.
Yet Israeli commentators fell
all over themselves to apologize for the supposed offense without bothering to
ask if the American voices had a point. Here, again, was a cultural disconnect -
the Israeli status quo is to be afraid of American-Jewish outrage, but Russian
speakers in Israel can’t understand why the country kow-tows to the
From acceptance committees to challenging the power of the
Rabbinate, politicians and the public whose origins are in Russia pave a
different path. To call it an un-democratic path is wrong and to blame “soviet”
tradition is demeaning. Russians don’t understand the received wisdom of
Israel’s holy cows. It is imperative not to bash people simply because of where
they came from.The writer received his PhD from the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute of Market
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