Russian Jews in Israel: Between Word and Deed

Yakov Rabkin
January 2004

January 2004

Russian Jews in Israel: Between Word and Deed

By Yakov M Rabkin[i]

On a bright December day, I climbed the slope of Masada. A kind and attentive young man rented me an audio guide and, as I was drinking water to fill up after the hike, he volunteered to tell me the story of Masada. We spoke Russian. His version of the story was rather patriotic, in the romantic style of the Zionist pioneers. He sternly told me that the State of Israel would stand firm forever and would rather die (and bring down its enemies with it) than surrender to the enemy. He was somewhat taken aback when I pointed out the incontrovertible fact that none of us could possibly race our lineage, biological or spiritual, to the heroes of Masada or, for that matter, of Jerusalem under Roman siege.  Rather, we all descend from “traitors,” Jews like Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai  who abandoned the besieged Jerusalem and settled down at Yavne to study Torah and transmit it to future generations. Moreover, I added, we know the story of Masada only thanks to the literary effort of another Jewish “traitor”, Josephus Flavius. My words obviously befuddled him.

This conversation did not surprise me; it confirmed some of my previous observations. I am often struck by the brash nationalism of the Russian-language press during my rather frequent visits to Israel. Whatever their critique of the host country and its Zionist ethos, formerly Soviet Jews appear to fit the concept of the State of Israel exceptionally well. The notion of Jew as a nationality – an important innovation made by the early Zionists as well as by the Socialists in imperial Russia – is natural to them. They evacuate Judaism from the definition of Jew as a nationality to the extent that they naturally accept as a Jew someone converted to another religion. Moreover, they routinely quantify Jewishness. If Jew is essentially an objective racial attribute, it is natural to define people as half- or quarter-Jews.

The rather low incidence of observant Jews among the Russian Jews is to a large degree due to this racial definition of a Jew, a definition devoid of any normative dimension. They come to Israel to live as a truly “free nation in our land,” free not only from oppression by other groups but also from any obligations imposed by the Jewish tradition, which most of them first meet in the uniquely Israeli guise of “religious coercion”. It is no wonder that many Russian Jews find it natural to preserve their dietary habits, quite at variance with the laws of kashruth.  While a Sabra would eat pork usually conscious of the offence this act represents for many Jews, a Russian Jew would not initially understand why anyone would object to his gastronomic preference.

Having experienced the inferior status conferred on them by their Jewish nationality in the 1940s-1980s in the Soviet Union, they warmly welcome the opportunity of joining the superior nationality in Israel. This also helps to assuage grievances related to inferior social status or underemployment. Rather than longing for equality, many of them embrace the chauvinistic ethos that relegates the essential “other” – the Arabs – to an inferior status. A Jew, even though he occupied a high-status position in the Soviet Union was invariably aware of his inferior national status. Becoming a street sweeper in Israel, he is, however, imbued with a sense of superiority as member of the master nation or, to use a Russian cliché, “the root nation”.

In Israel’s Russian press the spade is invariably called a spade. Political correctness not being a salient virtue of the post-Soviet Jews, Russian-language press in Israel frequently refers to Arabs in most disparaging tones.  The Arabs are often described as sworn enemies and bloodthirsty savages who fail to appreciate the benefits of civilization that Israel was bringing them. Arab citizens of Israel are lumped together with Palestinian Arabs while the words “Arab” and “Muslim” have become largely interchangeable. Russian-language discourse in Israel routinely refers to the clash of civilizations, in which the Jews, i.e. Israeli Jews, play the noble role of bulwark against “Oriental barbarism,” the latter term often encompassing not only Muslims but also Jews of Arab descent. In Russian, one dares say things that most Israelis keep to themselves, even though they may occasionally act it out. The murder of several Arab citizens by Israeli police in the course of a demonstration in the Galilee at an early stage of the Intifada may be just one example of acting out some implicit assumptions that Russian media bring to the surface.

Bitter calls for revenge and racial slurs are commonplace, and there are no Amira Hesses or Gideon Levys to tell the other side of the story. Indeed, Russian Israelis seem to have suffered disproportionately in the current Intifada. Beneath the bilingual monument to the mostly Russian victims near the Dolphinarium lies a plaque inscribed in Russian only: “This is our home.” This suffering is an important reason for the sharp tone of the Russian-language media in Israel. I sometimes wonder if some of the epithets applied to the Arabs in Russian would have been found illegal in Israel had they been proffered in Hebrew or in English.

This verbal violence has deep roots in political violence. One may recall that initially, since the end of the 19th century, the Russian Empire was the only country in which a substantial number of Jews embraced the idea of political violence and recourse to force for the specific benefit of their own “national” group.  This Russian Jewish heritage had an important role to play in the formation of Israel’s dominant culture as well as, ironically from today’s perspective, in the transfer of terrorist tactics to the Middle East. However, this patriotic rhetoric may not necessarily represent either the views or the behaviour of the Russian Jews in today’s Israel.

It may appear paradoxical that a Russian Jewish woman is more likely than an average Israeli Jewish woman to marry an Arab. Most Russian Jews would not view such a marriage as a sign of defiance: mixed marriages were common in the Soviet Union and rarely provoked disapproval. While rhetorically Russian Jews in Israel appear more racist than the average Israeli Jew, in practice they may be more open to individual Arabs. They do not seek separation from the Arabs to the extent this is done by their secular peers born and bred in Israel. At the same time, they feel quite at ease with inequality; apartheid is not a word of opprobrium in their vocabulary.

Romantic nationalism is rather common in Russian-language discourse in Israel. They easily accept the mystical and typically Russian concept of “moledet”, quite a departure from the concept of “eretz ha-kodesh.” Devoid of Judaic background, most Russian Jews are unaware of the revolutionary nature of the Zionist enterprise, of the rupture it constitutes in the Jewish continuity imbued with the pragmatic Jewish tradition initiated by Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai. Many Russian Jews readily voice this romantic nationalism. According to Dimitry Shumsky, a perspicacious scholar at the University of Haifa, the Russian Israelis seek to preserve “the ethnonational Jewish character of the State of Israel, while blocking the expansion of Israeli Arabs’ civil rights and collective rights”. Yet, it should come as no surprise that tension between rhetoric and reality would be acute for Jews accustomed to the propaganda of Soviet media.

When I returned the audio guide a couple of hours later, the Russian-speaking attendant said that he was still thinking about my comment. Without a pause he added that his son had just been drafted. “I told him that we never had heroes in our family and that he should not try to become one”. My interlocutor was a changed man. His violent rhetoric was nowhere to be found in the stern sunlit expanse of Masada.

[i] Yakov Rabkin is Professor of History at the University of Montreal. This article benefited  from most informative and pleasant conversations he had with Yulia Lerner, graduate student at the Hebrew University and his former compatriot from St Petersburg, Russia.

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Russian Jews in Israel: Between Word and Deed