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FEATURE-Israel's "Russian vote" feeds right-wing parties
By Michele Gershberg

ASHDOD, Israel, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Russian immigrant Grigory Zlatkin despairs of the food, culture and politics of his adopted home in Israel, but says he would still be ready to die for the country.

Despite feeling like outsiders, many Russian immigrants have been swept by a wave of Israeli nationalism and back a tough line against a Palestinian uprising. Their votes are expected to help propel the Israeli right-wing to what could be a decisive victory in a general election on January 28.

"People came here from Russia with a desire to be Jews, excited to be here, but found a society that couldn't absorb them," said Zlatkin, director of a community theatre in the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod.

"The dream has evaporated. But we'll die for this land tomorrow if we have to. We won't run away, because there is nowhere to go and because deep down we still feel this is our homeland even if here they tell us we don't really belong."

More than one million Jewish immigrants and their relatives have arrived from Russia and other former Soviet republics since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, changing the social fabric of a country with fewer than seven million citizens.

In previous elections, the so-called Russian vote has benefited the largest parties -- from the 1992 election, when their votes helped the centre-left Labour win, to the 2001 poll which brought Ariel Sharon and the right-wing Likud to power.

Political commentators say Russian immigrants are likely this time to divide their votes between a handful of parties rather than rally en masse to a particular political group.

But the common denominator for most "new" Israelis, whether from Moscow, Kiev or Tashkent, is support for candidates on the right of the political spectrum who urge a hard line against the Palestinian uprising for an independent state.


Backing for the Likud remains strong, but analysts predict that Russian votes will also boost the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu led by fellow immigrant Avigdor Lieberman and the secular rights party Shinui which sympathises with the Likud.

Yisrael B'Aliya, a self-declared immigrants' party headed by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, seems poised to lose part of its support base as Russian voters shy away from an ethnic labelling to focus on broader political issues.

"The Russian sector is undergoing a process of fragmentation," said Eugene Seltz, head of the news desk at the Russian-language newspaper Vesti. "There is a disbanding of opinion...and the winners are Likud and Shinui while Labour and (left-wing) Meretz are the losers."

Many Russians express distaste for Israel's left-wing, whose socialist roots are perceived as too similar to the Communist leaders of Soviet days.

They also voice suspicion of the accords Labour signed with the Palestinians in the 1990s to give back occupied land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in return for peace.

But the right-wing's appeal also appears a throwback to the yearning of some Russians for a strong leader who would pull no punches in quelling the Palestinian uprising and halt any further territorial compromise.

"For thousands of years people around the world have died for land. Whoever doesn't understand this is simply outside of history," Larisa Gerstein, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who came from Kyrgyzstan, told Reuters.

But many 20- to 40-year-old immigrants underline the importance of higher quality and lower cost education, better housing and liberal immigration policies towards non-Jewish family members left behind, analysts say.

Yet the focus on security in the face of Palestinian suicide bombings which have killed scores of Israelis, including immigrants, remains paramount among Russians despite a host of other social and economic woes.

"When we talk about security issues...then most of the immigrants are in the nationalist and right-wing camp," said Gerstein, a member of Yisrael Beiteinu.

"No matter how often people say that Jews from Russia came here for economic reasons...the most important reason was national honour."


In the Ashdod market by the sea, vendors spoke of their admiration for the Likud and for Lieberman as they hawked birdcages and tarnished samovars, beetroot and leather boots.

"People will vote for the Likud because we can win only by using power," said Aharon, a clothes vendor originally from Georgia. "The Likud makes no compromises with terror."

But in the same breath, he faulted Sharon's government for a "terrible economic situation -- we need to let Israelis work and kick out the foreign workers."

Locals say that at night, Russian pensioners come to salvage cast-off oranges and day-old bread from rubbish bins at the market, bearing testimony to the hard times they face during a recession that has worsened under Sharon's tenure.

Russian immigrants feel alienated in a city where many non-immigrants have not heard of Russian cultural icons such as the 19th century writer and poet Alexander Pushkin and look on in disgust at delicatessens which offer smoked ham and sausages -- anathema to Jewish dietary law.

The cultural divide glares in neighbourhoods where Israelis hailing from tightly-knit Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East one or two generations ago live next to new immigrants who may not speak Hebrew and know little about their religious past after decades of Communist education.

Many shop fronts in the centre of Ashdod sport signs solely in Russian, as do city taxis and nightclubs.

"There's a bit of a Russian ghetto, with all of the Russian-language newspapers and television stations," said Zlatkin. "There are many things we don't share with Israelis, whether it's the culture, the food, the theatre."

This community maintains a strong pride in its own cultural heritage and tradition of rigorous education which they say has left its mark. Israel ranks as having the most engineers per capita, largely due to the Russian influx.

"When we came, lawmakers walked around in short pants and sandals," said Zlatkin, referring to the informal style of veteran Israelis originally from eastern Europe who built the country's political establishment.

"Now you see them putting on suits and ties -- that's because of the Russian influence. Even here in Ashdod there is now an opera house and a ballet corps."

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