Israeli Politics, Soviet Style

‘Homo Sovieticus’ helped get Avigdor Lieberman to where he is – although it probably won’t be around forever.

Avigdor Lieberman 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avigdor Lieberman 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
DEPENDING ON YOUR POINT OF VIEW, FOREIGN Minister Avigdor Lieberman is one of the best things to have emerged from Israeli politics, or one of the most disturbing. He has the build, expression and demeanor of a no-nonsense bodyguard who – again, depending on your point of view – can be counted on to either save your life or rip out your liver.
For most everyone who has heard of him, there’s no middle ground.
You either love him or loathe him.
He wants a loyalty oath for Israeli Arabs, whom he considers a fifth column, and the death penalty for terrorists. He routinely mocks Israel’s enemies and even some of its friends, and seems to delight in antagonizing Arab Members of Knesset. He was once arrested for assaulting a pre-teenage boy who allegedly beat up his son, and currently faces indictment on suspicion of corruption. No less a Zionist than editor emeritus of the “The New Republic” Martin Peretz is said to have called him a “neo-fascist,” a “gangster” and “the Israeli equivalent of [Austria’s] Jörg Haider.”
Still, it’s probably no coincidence that Lieberman has emerged as a major political player and leader of the third-largest party in the Knesset. After all, these are dangerous times, with Islamists able and seemingly ready to hurl rockets indiscriminately from the near north and south; other Islamists a bit farther away who enrich uranium and, with a wink they hardly bother to hide, insist it’s merely for peaceful purposes; and a world that, while professing a sincere concern about all this, often seems, at least from inside Israel, to care not a whit.
Perhaps even more important, though, there is a sizable segment of the population that shares Lieberman’s worldview. Many are nativeborn, but even more are not.
“ALIEBERMAN SHOULD BE EXPECTED,” YORAM Peri, director of the Joseph B. and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, tells The Jerusalem Report. “We have to be sensitive and not generalize, because the former Soviet Union has different cultures. But they come from the same political culture.”
The “they” is Lieberman and the almost one in every seven Israelis who either come from or can trace their recent roots back to the FSU, most having arrived starting in 1989, with the fall of Communist rule.
“In several studies on this population’s political norms and behavior,” Dr. Peri continues, “a common denominator has emerged: Homo Sovieticus – a person who was created, formed and shaped by the Soviet Union.”
Some wince when they hear this term, considering it a slur, yet it comes up with amazing frequency in conversations with academics and other experts on both the FSU and its expatriates.
“Studies of Soviet émigré communities in the West, and not necessarily Jews, show much of the same characteristics,” Peri continues.
“Generally, they hate anything that has to do with socialism and social democracy. They prefer extreme individualism. But in terms of leadership, they appreciate power.”
According to a research paper published a year ago by the Gildenhorn Institute titled “Ex-Soviets in the Israeli Political Space: Values, Attitudes, and Electoral Behavior,” the situation in Israel has led to a unique worldview among many, and even most, olim (immigrants) from the FSU, especially those whose formative years were spent under Soviet rule. It cites a culture of heroism and sacrifice, primarily in the Second World War, and vast expanses of territory that together make it seem unthinkable to relinquish land won with the nation’s blood. What’s more, there’s the matter of “us” versus “them.”
“[O]ne of the central components of Soviet political culture is the enemy complex, i.e., the process of characterizing the enemy that enables a person to analyze the country’s conflicts and its surrounding borders in a clear, one-dimensional manner,” the report says. “The enemy complex allows for a perception of the world divided into ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ forces, ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’ Generations of Soviet citizens became habituated to this simple, dichotomous view.”
According to the study, “[h]aving enemies makes it possible for the post-Soviet population to justify all the difficulties in their lives… One might hypothesize that in the reality of life in Israel (one that is especially harsh for immigrants who often feel that they exist at the bottom of the social ladder), the ‘enemy complex’ serves as a useful and easy mechanism to develop clear political stances that not only simplify the complex territorial conflict but also justify daily difficulties.”
The “enemy,” according to Michael Philippov, author of the study and a PhD candidate in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is clearly the Arabs – and not just those outside Israel.
“Seventy-seven percent of FSU olim say they want Israeli Arabs to leave,” the Ukraine-born Philippov, who came to Israel in 1992, tells The Report. “I don’t think it’s racism. It’s just the way they see a Jewish state. They dream of a monolithic state and social solidarity.”
This figure – which is some 27 percentage points higher than the corresponding proportion of veteran Israelis who say they’d prefer an Israel without Arabs – comes from “Democracy Index 2009,” a publication of the Israel Democracy Institute that Philippov co-authored with Asher Arian and Anna Knafelman. The report, which examines indices of democracy and democratic behavior among the general population, focuses in large part on immigrants, primarily those from the FSU, who, the IDI study makes clear, often feel mixed emotions about their absorption and their social and economic standing.
“Most of them assert that their socio-economic status declined after immigration,” the study report says. “They work in jobs unsuited to their education and qualifications, and report many problems related to low salaries and discrimination at the workplace. Moreover, most immigrants are concentrated in the Israeli periphery, a fact that affects the accessibility of jobs suited to their education.”
It’s their location in the periphery that sets the leitmotif for much of their anger, says Philippov, for it is also people in these areas – closer to Gaza and Lebanon – who suffer most from tensions with Hamas and Hizballah.
“They’re the ones who have the rockets raining down on their heads,” he tells The Report. “It’s a combination of disappointment with Israel and the security situation. The minute they don’t feel secure, they start to ask questions. And the minute they feel a threat, they react with strength. That’s the Soviet way.”
This “strength” directly manifests itself in the immigrants’ attitudes toward Arabs, especially Israel’s one million Arab citizens, who also tend to live in the periphery.
“Homo Sovieticus sees the world in a binary fashion: us vs. them,” says the Gildenhorn Institute’s Peri. “In Russia, the ‘them’ was the gentiles; in Israel it’s the Arabs. In addition, the immigrants remember the huge size of the ‘old country.’ Suddenly they come to a very small country like Israel and they’re stunned that Israelis are contemplating giving away territory that leaves them with even less strategic depth than the little they have now.”
It’s attitudes like these that place olim from the FSU squarely on the right of the political spectrum.
In a December 2010 survey, the Tel Aviv-based Smith Research Center, one of Israel’s top polling groups, found that fully 70 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union describe their political outlook as center-right to far-right, compared to about 50 percent among veteran Israelis. The figures are similar for those describing themselves as centrists (28 percent and 26 percent, respectively). And while 20 percent of veteran Israelis describe their stance as center-left to far-left, only 5 percent of the immigrants say this.
“This is not surprising considering the fact that when asked about the performance of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, 42 percent of the immigrants described it as ‘good or better,’ compared to only 25 percent among the veteran Israelis,” Rafi Smith, the center’s director, tells The Report. “And when asked how many years they thought it would take before there’s peace, 58 percent of the immigrants said they never expect to see peace, compared to just 40 percent among veteran Israelis.”
SUCH VIEWS DO NOT COALESCE ENTIRELY BY THEMselves, and immigrants from the FSU are no less consumers of news than are Israelis, who are among the world’s leaders in this sphere.
“Russian olim are real readers,” says Peri. “They needed [print media] and brought it with them. They followed the tradition of Russian newspapers. For example, there is little differentiation between news and editorial content. Also, many journalists, at least back at the beginning, received payments [from interest groups] to editorialize on public affairs. It wasn’t corruption, just a different culture.”
mostly from the Hebrew-language media, while 56 percent were still receiving it from Russian-language media, which “tends to be more right-wing than the Israeli media, in general.”
Max Lurie is a veteran journalist who made aliya from Uzbekistan in 1990. He worked for the daily “Vesti” from 1993 to 2002, when he was hired away by the smaller daily “Novesti” as editor-in-chief. Since 2005, he’s been editor-in-chief of “Kursor,” a Russian-language news website belonging to the Moses family, owners of the Hebrewlanguage daily “Yedioth Ahronoth.”
“In the 1990s there were five Russian-language dailies, and another 55 weekly or monthly publications,” Lurie tells The Report.
“Readers were generally 30 years old and over. Most of these have now moved to the Internet, leaving older people, those primarily 60 and over, as newspaper readers.”
“Vesti” is now the country’s sole Russian-language daily, and its readership, estimated to have peaked at about 200,000 in the late 1990s, is said to be barely 50,000 today. More popular, along with Russian-language websites, is TV’s Channel 9 and two radio stations.
“Young people who grew up or were born here may or may not be less right-wing than their elders,” says Lurie, “but they’re more ‘Israeli’ and less ‘Soviet,’ and the current media reflect this. But older olim, the ones still reading newspapers, are staunchly anti-Communist and very deeply entrenched in their Soviet mindset. So, too, are these papers.”
He points to the recent transit of the Suez Canal by two Iranian naval vessels, something that was featured in detail in virtually all the Israeli media.
“While the event was reported more or less soberly in the Hebrew press, even in the tabloids, the headlines in Russian-language publications were more sensationalist, even alarmist. One chose to quote an Iranian official with the stark headline: “Iran prevails over Israel at sea,” Lurie says. “To many people who once lived under Soviet rule, if you aren’t the winner, you’re the loser.”
Critics of this approach accuse the Russian-language media of fostering mistrust and even incitement. “Our Heritage – The Charter for Democracy,” a non-governmental organization made up mostly of Russian-speakers who are eager to foster intercultural tolerance and equality for all Israeli social sectors – including Arabs – monitored the media from March through July 2010.
“We discovered that there were headlines that could clearly be considered incitement,” Michael Rivkin, director of Our Heritage, tells The Report. “The Russian-language media culture is vastly different from that of the Hebrew-language media in Israel. The top editors – they’re part of the old guard. It’s a case of Homo Sovieticus: They’re here, but their mentality is stuck in the Soviet Union.”
In late February, Rivkin’s group took its findings to a meeting of the Knesset caucus against racism. It also brought samples of threats sent to its chairwoman, Alla Shainskaya, a scientist at the Weizmann Institute; the hate mail, all in Russian, ran the gamut from “You are a red bitch and we will kill you” to “Our dogs wouldn’t even eat your meat.”
“The language that was used is shocking,” Shainskaya relates to The Report. “It is terrible – although, to be honest, it’s not that much worse than some of the things you read here in the Russian-language press. Still, we received many [sympathetic] replies on the Internet, and we noticed many more in talkbacks on news websites. We pushed a button. People are talking about this.”
SEVERAL KNESSET MEMBERS SHOWED UP FOR THE meeting; most were from the left and a few were from centrist parties, but there was no one from the right, not even from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu faction, the only party – despite its mix of immigrants and veteran Israelis – considered to be the party of olim from the FSU.
“I didn’t go to that Knesset meeting because their agenda was clear,” Anastasia Michaeli, a Knesset Member from Yisrael Beiteinu, tells The Report. “When we know we have to defend Israel, we rely on the tools we brought from the FSU. The left tries to calm us after terror attacks with talk of coexistence. We can’t afford that. We must be on our guard.”
Michaeli, a former Miss St. Petersburg, made aliya in 1997 and became a journalist and television host on the local Russian-language TV station. After an unsuccessful run for Knesset on then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s new Kadima list in 2006, she was awarded the ninth slot on the Yisrael Beiteinu slate, which in 2009 went from 11 seats to its current 15.
“I’m sure that my views are no different from those of many people arriving in Israel from other lands, even from the West,” she insists.
Analysts believe that Yisrael Beiteinu’s electoral strength among immigrants from the FSU has peaked, with older olim dying off, and younger people tending to identify less with sectorial parties and more with traditional parties like the Likud.
“About a million olim arrived from the FSU, but only 800,000 and perhaps less remain due to deaths and emigration,” says researcher Philippov. “With a typical voter turnout of 65 percent, which is similar to that of veteran Israelis, this population can account for 16, maybe 17 mandates out of 120, with several of these going to mainstream parties.”
With this apparent decline in his Homo Sovieticus electorate, Lieberman, a man tailor-made for its tastes and predilections, may soon have to start looking elsewhere for votes.