Poll finds former Soviet olim less tolerant of Arabs than native Israelis

Lieberman talks to his supporters (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Lieberman talks to his supporters
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union harbor significantly greater resentment toward Arabs than veteran Israeli Jews, a poll released last week by the Israeli Democracy Index (IDI) said.

The survey of 1,191 Israeli Jewish adults, which had a 2.8 percent margin of error, found that 77% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union support emigration of Arabs from Israel, compared with 47% of the native Jewish population.

In a related matter, 64% of former Soviet Union citizens oppose any retreat from settlements, a vast difference from the 48% of the entire Israeli population who feel that way.

Additionally, 74% of former Soviet Union residents believe a strong leader can do more for Israel than discussion and laws, compared to 61% of older Jewish Israelis.

Anna Knafelman, a researcher with IDI, said much of former Soviet Union immigrants' desire for a strong government and skepticism of Arabs comes from the changes in landscape coming from the former Soviet Union to Israel.

"The Soviet Union, Russia, they're very big and they see Israel is very, very small so every war, every peace negotiation… it's hard for them to understand such a small country as Israel can give anything away," she said of the settlement situation. "They don't see Arabs as a minority because Egypt is Arab, Saudi Arabia is Arab. They see Israel as a minority in the Middle East."

But some people refuted IDI's findings by taking issue with its methodology.

Ze'ev Khanin, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said it is likely that wording of questions could lead to different results. He added that new immigrants generally hold the same view as Israelis but express them more radically, meaning former Soviet Union olim might have voiced aloud what Israelis only think regarding Arabs.

"Political correctness itself is less important to the immigrant Israeli population," Khanin said.

Still, with so many former Soviet Union olim living in the often-shelled cities such as Ashkelon, Knafelman said concerns of security related to an Arab presence is normal.

Khanin disagreed that a large share of former Soviet Union immigrants lives near the vulnerable borders. He said more than 70% live in the 20 most populated cities within the Green Line.

Sticking to her position that living on Israel's edges poses anxiety, Knafelman said security problems increase the support of tough leaders, as former Soviet Union immigrants have often cited former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as their favored government official during the past 20 years.

Vociferous support by former Soviet Union immigrants for a hard stand against Arabs also comes with viewing Israel as the national Jewish home, said Alex Selsky, Jewish Agency spokesman for Russian language media.

Although such immigrants are mostly secular, Selsky said Jews from the former Soviet Union were persecuted and denied the ability to identify as Jews. Finally coming to a Jewish land, they see Arabs as a threat to the land of Jewish tolerance they were promised.

"My generation, we will not move anymore. We don't have to run like our mothers and grandmothers, this is our place," he said. "My grandfather just died last year and he told us before he died he said 'I'm going back to how I felt as a child, I don't have to run anymore.'"

Despite Selsky's assertion that his generation is prepared to stay in Israel, the IDI survey said among respondents between the age of 31 and 40, only 28% of former Soviet Union olim want to raise their children in Israel compared to 80% of native Israelis.

Knafelman said wariness about staying in Israel is rooted in unfulfilled expectations of former Soviet Union immigrants.

She said there was very little information about Israel following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, but many people came to the country because the United States closed its doors to its Cold War counterpart. The instability of the region was another shock for a people who had lived much of their lives in fear, she said.

Holding onto former Soviet roots and delaying integration into Israeli society amplifies bitterness toward the Arab world, Knafelman said.

"Most of them are still watching and listening to Russian news," she said. "It's very anti-Arab and most Russian immigrants consume this press and don't hear other views."

Hostility toward Arabs also is tied to past experiences in the former Soviet Union, with its history of pogroms and intolerance toward Jews, Khanin said. He added that former Soviet olim perceive a threat against their way of life with Arabs in and around Israel.

"The fight to practice Judaism would be quite an accurate assumption," he said of the importance Israel holds to former Soviet Union immigrants. "Our understanding of Judaism came through Jewish nationalism and through searching for a Jewish identity."