Russian migrants seek louder voice in Israel

Politics/ new party planned

"THOUSANDS of Russian Jews do not come to Israel because of the problems we get here," says Natan Sharansky, once the Soviet Union's most famous Jewish dissident. Now he believes the dissatisfaction of the 640,000 immigrants already in Israel is strong enough to support a new political party and decide who wins the 1996 Israeli election.

At a meeting of immigrants in Tel Aviv last week, Sharansky rehearsed their grievances over jobs and housing. But the heart of his message was that "Russian immigrants want to become Israelis, without leaving their culture at the airport".

Sharansky, 47, his small form bouncing with energy nine years after he was freed in a prisoner exchange in Berlin in 1986, is the catalyst for what is likely to become a new party and the one figure who might make it work. Labour won the last Israeli election in 1992 by taking more than half the Russian immigrant vote. But recent polls suggest that the Russians - as they invariably remain known in Israel - are now disillusioned and 45 per cent say they would vote for a new immigrant party.

It is not difficult to see why they are upset. They are a highly educated group - more than 60 per cent have college degrees compared to 25 per cent of Israelis - and there was no way, for example, that Israel could find the 13,000 immigrants who had worked in the arts the same jobs as they had held in the old Soviet Union. The same is true of the 61,000 engineers, often with specialities such as railway and bridge building, not much needed in Israel.

Helen Sholk's experience is typical. She arrived with her husband, Igor, from St Petersburg in 1990. Both had skills which were peculiarly difficult to transfer: he was an art historian specialising in Rubens and she was trained for the theatre. Arriving in Jerusalem with $500, he went to work on a construction site and she became a hotel maid. They started a theatre project but it foundered. Then Igor found a job in a shop, says Helen: "It was a good salary and he liked it but he sprained his back lifting a box and he has not worked in a year."

But for the great majority of immigrants, well ahead of economic motives or to escape anti-semitism, it is for the good of their children that they came to Israel and the experiences of Helen's sons at school, being called "dirty Russians", proved the final straw. She is returning to St Petersburg at the end of June to live with her parents and look for a job.

Other Israelis are often irritated by the complaints of Russian immigrants. Ministry of Absorption spokesman Amnon Beeri says that some 30 per cent of the Russians are working in their original professions while another 40 per cent are in related professions although at a lower status: "An X-ray doctor might be an X-ray technician."

Among Israelis facing competition from the Russians, irritation is replaced by real anger and often racist stereotypes. "Crime, prostitutes, alcoholism - that is what the olim (immigrants) have brought to Beersheva," said one local councillor. Tsvi Na'im, a councillor from Afula in northern Israel, said: "Russian women are just prostitutes, causing divorces and not serving in the army." And Labour and Social Affairs Minister Ora Namir seriously damaged his party's standing among the immigrants by saying last year that it was just the elderly and sick who were coming to Israel.

Immigrants quote police statistics showing that Russians are less likely to commit crime than other Israelis. Some members of the "Russian mafia" do live in Tel Aviv, and Israeli banks are used extensively for money laundering, but there is little sign of the mob operating here. Russian prostitutes usually stay for four or five months, then go home.

Will the anger of immigrants produce political action? In 1992 a small immigrant party called Da stood in the election and got nowhere. Russians then felt the ruling right-wing Likud had done nothing for them and 54 per cent voted for Labour, giving the party a crucial edge. Current polls show that two-thirds of the immigrants now favour Likud and right-wing parties.

Sharansky wants any new party to have a broader ideology than bread-and- butter issues. He told last week's meeting in Tel Aviv: "In the nine years since I came to Israel the government has only tried to solve the problems of the state and not of society." His aim is to create something more pluralistic. In his last column in the fortnightly Jerusalem Report, he attacks the Zionist idea of the new Jew which "meant rejecting the culture that each successive wave of immigrants brought with it".

Culture here means more than Russian libraries, theatre, films and television. A major point of friction between the incoming immigrants and Israelis is that the Russians are profoundly secular and they are entering a Jewish state where marriage and burial are handled entirely by the Rabbinate. Helen Sholk says that one of the reasons her family was unhappy is that her husband is Jewish but she is not - in Judaism the woman's faith is especially important. The Ministry of Absorption says 13-15 per cent of immigrants are not Jewish according to the Rabbinate, so this is a common problem. A political colleague of Sharansky, Eli Kashdani, says that a Russian immigrant "who gets killed in battle in the Israeli army might not be able to get buried".

By the end of the century one in six Israelis will have come from the former Soviet Union and their impact is bound to be profound.

Some may be hesitating in Moscow or St Petersburg, deterred by others' experiences, but thousands more are coming from Ukraine and Central Asia.

"We are not like a transfusion of new blood into Israeli society," said a doctor at the Tel Aviv conference. "Russian immigration is more like the transplant of a new organ which may be accepted or rejected by the patient."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory