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25 years later, Russian speakers still the ‘other’ in Israel

Ksenia Svetlova recently wrote a moving personal account on the 972 website marking the 25th anniversary of her aliya at age 13 with her mother and Holocaust-survivor grandmother. Upon her arrival, “wherever I went people asked me whether I was Russian. I was never Russian before, I was Jewish and Soviet. Only in Israel I became Russian.”

Then, she was a just a girl, modestly dressed on the way to religious school in Jerusalem. “I have long blond hair; obviously I look Russian. I was walking on the street on Ben Yehuda and [was] called a Russian whore,” she said. Today, as a Russian-speaking politician, she still hears xenophobic slurs. In December 2015, MK Menachem Mozes, a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, singled her out as “Ktenia, Slevtania, this one, I don’t know what she’s called, Tania.” But now she can use the weight of the Israeli political system to fight back.

Politician is a dirty word

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, some 900,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union came to Israel in the 1990s, constituting the largest immigration influx since the mid-1950s. These FSU immigrants joined the 170,000 who had immigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Today there are some 1.3 million Russian-speaking Israeli citizens, and immigration from FSU countries is again on the raise. According to the CBS, in 2015, 53% of immigrants to Israel came from the FSU, mostly Ukraine and Russia, representing a 20% rise from 2014 in immigration from Ukraine and a 44% rise from Russia.

In a country of eight million, the Russian-speaking community makes for a powerful voting bloc. “It was never a dream of mine to become a politician. I was appalled by everything that was happening in Israeli politics. Many of our generation feel it is not an honor to be a politician, that it is a dirty word,” said Svetlova, a former journalist. (Full disclosure: In a previous position, this writer commissioned and edited articles from Svetlova, who, fluent in four languages, reported in English on Jewish communities in Arab lands.)

After 13 years as the Arab affairs reporter for Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9 television, Svetlova is a household name in the Russian-speaking community. Ahead of the 2014 elections, she was courted by several parties, but was only tempted when approached by Tzipi Livni, whom she admires.

Unlike many Russian-speaking politicians, including those in Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s sectarian Yisrael Beytenu party, Svetlova is not a political hardliner. Rather, as illustrated by last weekend’s visit to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, which she reported on Facebook (Hebrew), she sees a partner for peace and vocally supports immediate negotiations for a two-state solution.

As a journalist Svetlova met with numerous Palestinian and Arab states’ officials, including PLO founder Yasser Arafat. As a politician, she maintains good relations with Middle Eastern leaders, including Saudi princes, and, praising their efforts toward peace, urges Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come to the table.

And, while fervently hoping for a change in government, she calls Netanyahu on the carpet for what she perceives as a blatant disregard for non-Orthodox world Jewry, his failure to provide incentives to increase immigration to Israel, and his failure to help veteran immigrants from the former Soviet Union out of abject poverty.

In struggling to maintain his rightist, religious coalition, Netanyahu has sold out the Diaspora and FSU immigrants, Svetlova charged. “Netanyahu is not irreplaceable,” she said, quoting an old Russian saying: “The graveyard is filled with people who thought they were irreplaceable.”

Not a sectarian politician

Many Russian-speaking politicians, including current head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky, broke into the Knesset through a party dedicated to Russian causes. Svetlova, as a member of the biggest left-wing party, took a different route. “I do not believe in sectarian parties. We’re already divided as we are. We are Israelis, we are not Russian. It’s like having a Yemenite party today — does that make sense?” she asked.

But in many ways, Svetlova is the perfect champion for the variegated Russian electorate, whose concerns often center around pension reform and religious freedom. Earlier this month, she was labeled the “top Russian MK” by the Israeli News1 website (Hebrew), which reported that the first-time Zionist Union MK proposed more bills than any other Knesset member to aid the Russian-speaking community.

Some of her work is on behalf of the approximately 400,000 immigrants and children of immigrants who are not recognized as Jewish according to the Israeli rabbinate. They immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which, in accordance with the Nazis’ definition of Jewishness, allows the aliyah of anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent. Today, some 80,000-90,000 such citizens, mostly children of immigrants, are under 18 and grew up in Israel.

As a consequence, although they were considered Jewish in their native countries — and in Israel likely celebrate the Jewish holidays, attend Jewish schools and serve in the IDF — these “non-Jewish” immigrants are listed as of “no religion” on their state IDs, and cannot be married or buried in the state. “If they want to convert, they go through abuse from the rabbinate,” she said, asking, “What does it mean that the citizens of Israel cannot get married as they want in Israel?”

Svetlova, who is halachically Jewish, said she was also “very motivated” when she came to the Knesset to work on issues of religion and state because she “knows firsthand” the abuse many suffer at the hands of the religious authorities. ‘What does it mean that the citizens of Israel cannot get married as they want in Israel?’ “I am a victim of the rabbinical courts and I didn’t get my get [writ of divorce] for almost two years,” said Svetlova. “I believe in religious pluralism, and would like to see separation between religion and state. I do believe it is possible and I know many religious politicians who believe it would be good for religion itself not to be contaminated by everyday politics.”

Currently living in Modiin with her mother, who helps raise her twin girls, the 39-year-old is engaged to be married soon to a Jewish Israeli of Russian descent who likewise had a difficult time when divorcing. “I will not get married through the rabbinate ever again. But I will have a Jewish ceremony, on my terms,” she said.

Marrying outside of the rabbinate, a small but growing trend, is not unusual for the insular Russian-speaking community. A recent CBS report said that 72% of FSU immigrants say that their friend group is composed predominantly of other Russian speakers. At the same time, 85% feel Israel is their home and some 96% say they will remain here. However, some 67% of FSU immigrants feel Israelis view them as the “other” — as “Russians,” not Israelis.

A 2013 campaign commercial for Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party Shas clearly illustrates this perceived widespread derision. A couple stands with family under a wedding canopy, with a fax machine in the foreground. The native Israeli groom asks his blonde Russian bride about the oddly placed machine. She tells him that “Beytenu” (a reference to the hardline party led by Liberman) gave it to them as a wedding present, explaining that to get her conversion papers (“You’re not Jewish?!”), you just need to dial *giyur (conversion).

The ad ends, “To guard our heritage, vote Shas.”

Poverty, lack of pensions, and politics

The elderly Russian supermarket cashier and Russian security guard are almost archetypes in Israeli popular culture. But for those living on less than $500 a month, it is no laughing matter.

While younger FSU immigrants are over-represented in many professions (a 2015 CBS survey (Hebrew) found that 17.5% of Russian-speakers work in health and medicine, versus 9.8% of “veteran” Israelis), the community’s elderly struggle. Before the dissolution of the USSR, many were forced to give up their citizenship and pension upon leaving. Likewise, until recently Israeli pensions were based on the number of years of work, meaning relative newcomers would receive less.

Today, while they do receive a basic National Insurance subsidy, many who spent their entire adult lives working in the USSR are now forced to continue to work in Israel to put food on their tables. As the elderly die off, so too the problem: according to the CBS, in 2003, 21% of the Russian-speaking community were under the national poverty line; in 2013, it was 15%, (versus 11% in the general population).

Liberman, upon recently joining the coalition, secured an additional NIS 1.5 billion (Hebrew) for immigrants’ pensions, bringing the monthly stipend from the National Insurance up to a meager NIS 1,900 ($500).

Svetlova feels the 17-year-old Yisrael Beytenu party led by Liberman has not brought solutions to the problems besetting the Russian-speaking community. “He got this position as minister of defense and we all should be jolly about it that ‘one of us’ became minister of defense. I only care that there will be a good minister of defense. This is my main concern, not that he’ll be from the Russian community,” she said.

Since joining the coalition, when voting on matters of religion and state, Yisrael Beytenu MKs — who proposed similar bills while in the opposition — now leave the hall, she said. The pension plan, to her, is likewise too little, too late. “It’s nothing. Divide that by 300,000 elderly Israelis and it’s a small rise. We need real reform and pension stability for all Israelis, old and new,” she said. (She said the Zionist Union is currently working on a comprehensive proposal for reform.)

‘Aliya should be our first, second, and third priority’

At a recent Knesset Diaspora Affairs committee meeting, the normally even-tempered Svetlova berated Yisrael Beytenu MK Sofa Landver, who has served as the minister of Immigrant Absorption since 2009, except for about a year when her party was out of the coalition. “Of course I’m frustrated… After your party has been for 17 years, more or less, key partners in the coalition, you cannot say nothing happened and that we need this new government to make reforms. You have to take some responsibility that there haven’t been reforms,” Svetlova said of Yisrael Beytenu to The Times of Israel last week.

As anti-Semitism rises and economies decline, French, Ukrainian and South African Jews are looking for a new place to settle. It is time, she said, to adapt to and attract a new kind of immigration — an aliyah that sees Israel as more attractive than other existing destinations. “We know things are not easy in France right now. The South African community is basically sitting on their bags. So let’s bring them here,” she said.

French Jews, for example, are looking at England and Canada as viable alternatives to security-challenged, economically difficult Israel. “We don’t want them to consider Canada. We want them to consider Israel, so we need to pass legislation that will allow more perks to the olim [immigrants] — [and] not only for the first year in which they come,” she said.

Among other pending bills, Svetlova has proposed legislation for better tax incentives, especially for those who have existing businesses and professions. It will come up for a vote in November. “The only capital that Israel has, basically, is human capital. Aliyah should be our first, second, and third priority — bringing here educated people who are able to contribute to this country,” she said.

Amanda Borschel-Dan