A tale of two Russian MKs

MKs Yuri Shtern and Roman Bronfman couldn't have more similar backgrounds - or more different politics.

bronfman 88 (photo credit: )
bronfman 88
(photo credit: )
MKs Yuri Shtern and Roman Bronfman came from undeniably similar origins. Born within five years of each other in the former Soviet Union, they both became leaders of the Soviet Refusenik movement - Russian Jews who stood up against Soviet totalitarianism. The right to come live in Israel was a pillar of their movement, and something both Shtern and Bronfman fulfilled when they made aliya within a year of each other in 1981 and 1980 respectively. In 1996, they both began their careers as MKs - in the 14th Knesset. Since then, however, the two have embarked on vastly divergent political paths. Shtern, who is a member of the National Union party, appeals to a right-wing Russian constituency, while Bronfman, a member of Meretz-Yahad, is considered one of the most left-wing members of the current Knesset. Shtern has entered into several unlikely marriages - political ones, that is. The MK, who joined the religious National Union ticket for the 16th Knesset, has often found himself walking the line between his secular leanings and the religiously oriented coalition he has chosen to join. "There are many people who do not like my partnership as a secular person with religious right-wingers," says Shtern. "There were a number of people who did not vote for our list because it included men without kippot on their heads. There are suspicions about some Russians like me that we are not Jewish enough." These suspicions are difficult for Shtern, who says he has devoted his life to the Jewish people. After his work in the Refusenik movement, Shtern immigrated to Israel and founded the Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center, while he managed the El David settlement. Since then he has continued to work for immigrant, and especially Soviet, interests. His first Knesset work was as advisor to the Immigration and Absorption committee, where he often fought for broader rights for olim. In the current Knesset session, he said his main battles would be in the fields of budget and social policies. One of his pet projects is the promotion of a bill that would make it easier for single parents to receive higher education. "These are groups that need greater representation," he says. "A large number of secular right-wing supporters - particularly among the Russian community - share my views." These views include a staunch opposition to disengagement, which Shtern calls, "a grave mistake." "We need to look at what is defensible and what is not defensible," he says. "I think it is a terrible option, this giving back of land, that I hope to see stopped. The National Camp needs a new debate. We need to rethink what we stand for, and how we can win the war after losing the battle." The war, Shtern believes, is over the very state of Israel, which he fears will be torn apart from within as it is being attacked from without. "We [the government] lost our ground, our trust, with large segments of the Israeli population," he explains. "Now we need to look for a Jewish consensus so that we can defend external enemies and all internal challenges." Shtern argues that a large part of such consensus must be over the security fence. "We have found ourselves in an incredible point in history, a point where we are defining the future border of Israel," says Shtern, who has argued strongly for the inclusion of Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel within the fence. ROMAN BRONFMAN has often been called the "liberal's liberal" - and that's just the way he likes it. His name is often synonymous with civil marriage and the medical use of marijuana - but the MK says his agenda is far more inclusive. "I think I put forth a progressive agenda that looks at the world comprehensively," says Bronfman. "I am proud to be called left wing." He has introduced bills on a broad range of issues, including the legalization of civil marriage and divorce, voluntary euthanasia and the declassification of "soft" drugs such as marijuana. "I am also a big supporter of the 'green' agenda," he says. "I think it is something Israel too often puts in the back seat." This agenda includes the preservation of nature reserves and the reduction of gas emissions. On security, Bronfman is a steadfast advocate of separation between Israel and the Palestinians, and has often taken visiting dignitaries on tours of the fence. A proponent of disengagement, Bronfman says that the next Knesset session would be about dealing with the aftermath of the withdrawal. "The heart of this session will be the fight over the budget," he expounds. "It will carry the weight of all the political arguments surrounding it." For Bronfman, the session will be about fighting for his social legislative reforms, namely the rights of immigrants and the elderly. Bronfman hasn't always been a promoter of his current political agenda. He began his career as Natan Sharansky's right-hand man in the Yisrael B'Aliya party. Over the years, however, the two men diverged, with Sharansky espousing more right-wing values, and Bronfman moving more towards a left-wing social justice agenda. During the 15th Knesset, Bronfman left the Yisrael B'Aliya party, following disagreements with Sharansky on the separation of religion and state and on security issues. Together with MK Alexander Tsinker, he formed the Democratic Choice Party. Most recently, he joined the Meretz-Yahad ticket in the hopes of forming a new Left party. Bronfman became particularly well-known for being the first politician to openly support soldiers who refused to serve int he territories. During a 2002 political rally held by Peace Now, he discarded his planned speech at the last moment to talk about his admiration for the "refusers."