Terra Incognita: Russian Israelis and the sacred cows

From the NGO funding law to the bill that would limit decibel levels for Muezzins, Russian Israelis view things differently than their native-born and Western-born countrymen.

Russian flag 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Russian flag 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
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 columnist Chemi Shalev, who recently wrote, “Many [members of Israel’s ruling coalition] hail from distinctly non-democratic backgrounds and represent expressly anti-democratic constituencies.”
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 negative contribution.”
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.
For 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 naïve comments.
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 world.
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 discrimination.
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 national religious.
From their perspective a country shouldn’t take three years of someone’s life and then throw them out on the street.
Many 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 quo.
When it comes to encouraging ex-Israelis to return to Israel, the Russians are also accused of doing terrible things. New York Times columnist 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 “ultra-nationalist.”
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 Americans.
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 Studies.