Events surrounding Yisrael Beiteinu provide suggestive parallels to other elements of Israel's political history, as well as to that of the US.
Avigdor Lieberman was not the first Israeli politician to reach power on the backs of an immigrant community that came from a non-democratic society. David ben Gurion and Menachem Begin also had elements of strong leadership, us against them, that resembled how Lieberman operated. And none were all that different from any number of urban bosses in the US whose power rested on Irish, Italian, Jewish or other immigrants who reached the US, needed help, and didn't care all that much about the niceties of democracy.
The predecessor of today's Labor Party, or whatever the Herzog-Livni team call it in their election campaign, controlled Israel with a tight hand from the pre-state yishuv period to 1977. Some called it Stalinist due to its Eastern European base, its concern to appoint only loyal members to key government positions and menial jobs, its efforts to root out those who were suspected of other loyalties including opening mail and eavesdropping on telephones, and following individuals to see with whom they met.
During my early days as a tenured professor in the Hebrew University, circa 1975, one of my colleagues gave me some advice that went something like, "I don't know you well. I don't know your politics. But if you are inclined to Likud, I urge you to keep quiet about it." My own position was secure, but any young lecturer who ventured from conventional Labor Party behavior was risking career.
The ascendance of Likud changed the complexion of Israeli politics. Not only was it more rightist in terms of economic policy, but its base was more Middle Eastern than Eastern European. Prominent among its voters were the families that had come to Israel from Muslim societies, settled by patronizing Eastern Europeans in quickly built neighborhoods and towns, and provided with the feeling that they were good enough to be workers, small merchants, and petty clerks.
Why should the Russians be greatly different from earlier immigrants, or those who flooded to the US in the 19th and early 20th century. They came without democratic traditions, had needs and a community identity different from the natives or those who came before them.
There were major differences. The Russians (more accurately "Russian speakers" who came from across the expanse of the Soviet Union) were prominent for their advanced education and professional occupations. Most had not made it to the most prestigious educational institutions or professional positions in the Soviet Union, like my oan and earlier generations of American Jews, but were a significant cut above the average Soviet or Israeli in their accomplishments. They were highly represented in medicine, science, engineering, and technology, some academic fields of the humanities, and music. The Israeli government and Jewish Agency established literary magazines in the Russian language, concert orchestras, and university departments of Russian studies to accommodate immigrants established in their professions, or wanting to learn. Early on courses in science and mathematics became heavily Russian, while those in the social sciences lagged behind in their attraction for the younger immigrants.
The initial sizable migration from the Soviet Union in the early 1970s of more than 100,000 was prominently that of Jews who wanted to establish themselves in Israel. That wave came to an end due to the Soviet objection to US anti-Communist politics. With the collapse of the Soviet Union from the late 1980s came what amounted to a million people, with large numbers also going to Germany and the United States. As many of one third of those coming to Israel did not meet the requirements of the Orthodox Rabbinate as Jews, due to the large number of mixed marriages in the Soviet Union, but came under the Law of Return that provided rights to those with a Jewish grandparent. The migration also included its simple people, workers, ruffians, petty criminals and more creative gangsters including pimps who imported women from Eastern Europe.
As with any sizable immigrant group that moved from country to country in a short period of time, their immediate needs were housing and jobs. Many who had had professional positions in the Soviet Union did not qualify for similar positions in Israel. Physicians were provided with government courses to prepare them for licensing exams, but many eventually became nurses or other professionals in the health field. People with the title of engineer often became technicians, or found other employment. Being Jewish was an issue, affecting individuals' rights to marry and where they might be buried. Israel is still coping with demands to facilitate conversion, or to allow civil marriages. A "Cyprus marriage" is a widely used solution, i.e., a ceremony in some other country's government office recognized by Israeli authorities.
It was inevitable that the Russians would have their impact on Israeli politics, like the Eastern Europeans, and the Jews from Muslim countries of the 1940s and 1950s.
Their strong tendency has been to the right of center, attributed to a Jewish nationalism and a distrust of Arabs, perhaps furthered by the posture of the Soviet Union during and after the 1967 war. Natan Sharansky was the first leader of a successful Russian party. Israel BaAliayh won seven Knesset seats in the 1996 election, but then declined and disappeared when it merged with Likud. Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu began as a competitor with Sharansky's party, went through a period of alliance with a right wing party, a time of independence, then alliance with Likud, and now an independent run in the present campaign.
Yisrael Beiteinu won 11 seats in the election of 2006, and 15 seats in the election of 2009, and coalesced with Likud for a combined total of 31 seats in the election of 2013.
Observers said that the Russian speakers' ethnicity had declined with the disappearance of Sharansky's political party. Now they are having another go at the theme in response to the involvement of Yisrael Beiteinu in allegations of corruption. Since the stories began there has been a decline in the party's polling, but it is far from disappearing. Yet there remains questions about the party's ethnicity. Only four of the 11 currently serving Knesset members affiliated with Yisrael Beiteinu and two of the the party's five currently serving ministers are Russian speaking immigrants.
Ethnic identify remains an issue across Israel's population. One hears comments, not usually positive, about Polish mothers (domineering, overprotective, and whining about their childrens' lack of concern for them), Persians (overly concerned with money and material goods), Romanians and Moroccans (shady, involved in the underworld or related to someone who is), Germans (humorless and pedantic), Anglo-Saxons (the name given to immigrants from English-speaking countries, perhaps partly in jest, said to be standoffish, with an indefensible sense of superiority) French (a sense of superiority comparable to that of Anglo-Saxons, and likely to be only a generation removed from Moroccans).
We'll see how the Russians get through this wave of police investigations. There are early signs in different directions. One is a sense of being picked upon right before an election, which may hold off a decline in the fortunes of Yisrael Beiteinu. Another is a distancing "from the crooks among us," which may hasten that decline.