We're just not Jewish enough

Russian Jewish immigrants are being courted for their votes in the Israeli elections. But, they say, they're still outsiders.
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The Independent Culture
AHARON NAKIMOV, a Russian Jewish PhD student who moved to Israel eight years ago, is exasperated. He is battling with the bureaucrats in the Israeli Interior Ministry, housed in a grim building in the centre of Jerusalem. He says: "It is very like in the old Soviet Union. It opens at 8am but, if I want to talk to anybody, I must be there at 5am to put my name on a list."

So far Aharon, a highly intelligent 32-year-old metallurgist from Moscow, has made the morning trek to the ministry half a dozen times. He will need to go there again because in February he married Julia, an accountant from Moscow who is not Jewish and has a seven-year-old son, called Nikita, by a previous marriage.

"It is the first time I have had a problem with the government and it is all to do with the status of my family," says Aharon, sitting in a small, shared apartment in Jerusalem near the university where he now studies. He admits to being soured by the experience, adding: "They allow us to live together. Thanks a lot."

Julia, a computer specialist who speaks no Hebrew, explains that she and Aharon had their wedding in Moscow "because it is impossible for us to get married here because I am not Jewish". She is trying to get Nikita a place in a secular school. She and Aharon want to start their own family, but because she is not an Israeli citizen they worry about medical insurance, education fees and the right to work.

The Nakimovs' problems are not unique. There are about one million Russian Jewish immigrants in Israel, which has a population of six million. Three-quarters came in the past decade; many of them the cream of the Russian intelligentsia, including 78,000 engineers, 36,000 teachers and 16,000 artists and writers.

Aharon says that as a Russian Jew he had always wanted, in general terms, to come to Israel. He taught Hebrew in Moscow in the Eighties, while studying at a top metallurgical institute. The immediate reason for his immigration was the economic crisis and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

At first he took manual jobs in Israel, working in a car repair shop and pharmaceutical plant. He did not know people in his own profession in Israel. He accepts that such frustrations are the lot of immigrants in any country. Finally, a friend suggested he apply to Hebrew University, where he is writing a thesis on "the electrical and optical properties of thin polymer films". He says this is "a hot topic in my field".

Aharon voted for Binjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu as prime minister in the last election, in 1996, along with 68 per cent of the Russian Jewish community. He felt that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995, and his successor Shimon Peres, were moving too fast to give up parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords. He liked the idea that "Bibi would implement Oslo but not in a rush".

In the past three years, Aharon's political opinions have changed. Next Monday he will vote for Ehud Barak, the Labour party leader, as "the least evil choice" to be prime minister. For the Israeli Knesset he will support Yisrael Ba'aliyah, the Russian party led by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident.

His change in views is largely motivated by the difficulties he is having because Julia and her son are not Jewish. He says that a reason he and his wife are so anxious is that they cannot find out from the Interior Ministry what rights they have. For this he thinks there is a reason: "They cannot publish the rules. On the one hand Israel speaks of being the `only democracy in the Middle East', but this democracy is not exactly a democracy. It depends on whether you are Jewish or not. Arabs here don't have the same rights as Jews."

Nor is the line between Jew and non-Jew easily defined. The question of "who is a Jew?" is almost as old as the state of Israel. Anna Chlenova, a psychologist, a close friend of the Nakimovs, had been listening intently to Aharon's account of his problems over Julia's status in Israel. She said she came from a Zionist family in Moscow, taught Hebrew, but "my mother is not Jewish". In the eyes of the Israeli state she and her three children are Jewish, but not according to the orthodox Rabbinate for whom Jews' status descends through the mother. A school in Jerusalem refused to enroll one of her children because of this.

Many other Russians in Israel have suffered similar slights. In a notorious case, the mother of an immigrant serving in the Israeli army was sent back to Russia because the Interior Ministry decided she was not Jewish. The Russians see themselves as the targets of unfair discrimination. Aharon says: "In Russia they call us Jews and here they call us Russians." He is intensely conscious of being Jewish, but for him this does not imply religious belief and he seldom visits a synagogue.

The grievances of the Russian community were always there. But they have exploded in the last month of the Israeli election campaign. Mr Sharansky decided to make the takeover of the Interior Ministry from Shas, the ultra- orthodox party of the Sephardi Jews from the Middle East, a prime aim of Yisrael Ba'aliyah. Leaders of Shas counter-attacked viciously. Eli Suissa, the Interior Minister, said the Russians were afraid he would "close the stores that sell pork and shut the churches that have risen up among the new immigrants". He later said many immigrants were call girls and mafiosi. Aharon calls the remarks "disgusting".

The row between the Russians and the Sephardi is so ferocious because ethnic, religious and cultural differences combine. Moroccan Jews who arrived in Israel in the Fifties were slowly improving their status. Suddenly they are being out-competed by highly educated Russians. The Sephardi see Judaism in religious terms, while the Russian Jewish identity is also national and cultural. Shas campaign videos sometimes show a symphony orchestra as a sign of westernised Ashkenazi (Jews from Central and Eastern Europe) ways.

The Russian community in Israel came in two waves: in the late Seventies and after 1989. The first migration was more ideological; the second moved more by economic motives. There is a division also between the Zionist activists and the less political. Maya Fullmacht, a woman in her sixties, was a Refusnik (a Soviet Jew refused a visa to go to Israel) who now lives in Neve Ya'akov, a settlement in north Jerusalem. She has written her autobiography and a fairytale, both in Russian. She believes the secular trend has gone too far.

Mrs Fullmacht says: "A lot of people from Russia who are here don't know Jewish traditions and religion." She looks from her window at the West Bank, which she sees as the land God gave to the Jews and says: "I love to look at this, but there are people here who are yearning to see Russian forests." Nevertheless she is impressed by the number of Russian immigrants now in Neve Ya'akov. Travelling on the bus, she used to be asked to help a new immigrant by translating Russian into Hebrew. Now she is more likely to help a Hebrew speaker by translating his words into Russian.