By Avi Pikar | 04/03/2010
The mass immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union has realigned Israeli society. The large number of immigrants has brought about far-reaching demographic and cultural changes. Avi Pikar analyzes the impact of this massive immigration on Israel's development towns
The massive immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union has generated considerable confusion with regard to the identity and classification of sectors in Israeli society. Prior to the last wave of immigration, there was a clear correspondence between religion and nationality among Jews in Israel. However, today, a new phenomenon has arisen: the emergence in Israeli society of a large segment of individuals who can be labeled “Jews with a Moscow religious affiliation.” These are Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizens who serve or have served in the Israel Defense Forces and who, according to Jewish law (halakha) cannot be defined as Jews. A variety of views have already been expressed on this phenomenon; however, the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union has shattered an entire series of social conventions.
In the 1980s, frequent mention was made of a “dichotomous split” dividing Israeli society. The rightists were, for the most part, Sephardi Jews, whose religious observance could be defined as traditional and who belonged to the lower income brackets and resided in Israel's periphery. The leftists, on the other hand, represented a reverse mirror image of the rightists: The leftists were Ashkenazi Jews, who were secular and who belonged to the upper income bracket and resided on kibbutzim or in prestigious urban neighborhoods. There were, of course, exceptions to this rule. For instance, the members of the Religious Zionist camp, which was Ashkenazi in terms of culture and, to a large extent, in terms of its composition. However, this group did not have a dramatic impact on the statistics.
The strong correspondence between political, religious, ethnic and class frictions did not do too much to promote social cohesion in Israel. Given this situation, there were those who quipped that, in the event of violent confrontations due to religious or political differences, it would be easier for religious Jews and Jewish settlers to recruit the Sephardi, religiously traditional residents of Israel's poorer neighborhoods, for the struggle against the “millionaire kibbutznikim with the swimming pools” and the leftist secular Jews from Herzliya and Akeka. Similarly, the leaders of the Labor Zionist movement would find it relatively easy to mobilize their supporters against the “Khomeinists” (codeword for barbaric, warmongering, religious, Sephardi Jews).
The million immigrants who have arrived in Israel over the years have completely confused Israelis because these immigrants are poor, right-wing, secular Ashkenazi Jews who have a host of internal contradictions. For instance, immigration from Russia installed a highly unusual figure in the Israeli social landscape: right-wing intellectuals. The appearance of that figure put an end to the idea that all rightists were in the same camp as far as issues of religious observance, religious coercion and religious identity were concerned. Another idea that ended with the arrival of this wave of Russian immigration: Sephardi Jews were no longer the sole inhabitants of one of the lower levels of Israel's social pyramid (where they were positioned slightly above Israeli Arabs) because they were now joined by immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were Ashkenazis and residents of the country's development towns and who were well-represented in the world of crime and prostitution, a world that, prior to the 1990s, had been totally identified with Sephardi Jews.
A request from the Black Panthers in Israel
In the early stages of the most recent wave of immigration from the Soviet Union, in late 1989, when Israeli Jews were very excited about the prospect that immigration to Israel from Soviet Russia would be renewed, one of the former leaders of the Black Panthers in Israel sent a telegram to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with the request that Gorbachev halt any further Jewish immigration from his country to Israel. The former Black Panther leader explained that the reason for his request was the current economic situation in Israel. The telegram received extensive media coverage; clearly a major deviation from the rules of the game as far as Israel was concerned, it was widely condemned by representatives of nearly every political and cultural segment in Israeli society. The request made by this Sephardi Jew (I believe that it was Kochavi Shemesh) was a single voice in the wilderness; it did not generate any positive response in Israel, and most of the Sephardi Jews who participated in the public discourse in Israel – politicians, writers and newspaper columnists – were opposed to such a stand.
The fact that a member of the Black Panthers spoke in such negative terms of Russian immigration to Israel, should not really have surprised anyone in Israel. In the 1970s, both Jewish immigration from Russia and the preferred conditions offered to these immigrants were one of the factors behind the eruption of protest from the Black Panthers.
The V-sign that Russian immigrants made after emerging from the plane that had brought them to Israel (to symbolize their victory over the Communist regime) was cynically interpreted as a demand for a villa and a Volvo. The immigrants who arrived in Israel in the 1970s were sent to housing units in central Israel, and former immigrants from North Africa still remembered how they were sent to homes in Israel's periphery.
In the early stages of the last wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, the gap between the conditions enjoyed by the new immigrants and the situation of former Sephardi immigrants was narrower than what many people assumed. Although the immigrants who came to Israel in the 1990s received an “absorption package” of benefits to make their acclimatization easier, the economic situation of Sephardi Jews in Israel had already vastly improved by that time. The material benefits provided to the immigrants did not place them above Sephardi Jews but rather positioned them alongside Sephardi Jews and even on a lower rung. If there was any bitterness about the state's discriminatory attitude toward Ashkenazi immigrants, the reason was not the present gap but rather the historical one: “Why have the immigrants been given nice apartments, while our parents were sent, in the 1950s and 1960s, to dwell in tents and transit camps?”
The gap between ideology and practice
Israeli author and satirist Ephraim Kishon succinctly defined the the attitude toward aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) in Israeli society: “We love aliyah but not the olim [Jewish immigrants to Israel].” Although aliyah was always considered a central ideal in Zionist ideology and the rhetoric of the Zionist movement's leaders expressed a positive attitude toward aliyah, the reality in the field sometimes gave rise to a negative attitude toward the olim. The resources allocated to them were at the expense of the other strata in Israeli society. Those who needed public resources – the poor and other weak members of society – feel the impact of this situation. The olim, anxious to become part of Israel's labor market, vie for jobs with vatikim (veteran Israeli residents). Ethnic differences are as important in this social conflict as economic considerations. In the 1990s, as in the 1950s, vatikim sensed that the current wave of immigration that was bringing a new breed of immigrant to the country could change the character of Israeli society.
Surveys that were conducted in the early stages of that wave of immigration and which focused on the attitude of vatikim toward aliyah revealed that the gap between ideology and practice created a wide range of responses to questions related to such issues as the importance of aliyah, the difficulties that aliyah creates for vatikim as far as housing and jobs are concerned, and the priority given to olim in terms of the allocation of state resources. Israelis whose position on these issues was based largely on their identification with Zionist ideology saw aliyah as a positive factor and did not attach too much importance to the difficulties that aliyah creates for vatikim. On the other hand, Israelis who felt a weaker commitment to Zionist rhetoric did not attach too much importance to aliyah and instead stressed the difficulties of vatikim.
According to a breakdown of the responses by sector, it was found that university-trained Askenazi Jews who were middle-aged and older and who earned a good income had a favorable attitude toward the olim, whereas young Sephardi Jews in a low income bracket and with fewer years of schooling felt a certain hostility toward the olim. While a positive attitude toward the olim seemed to be prevalent among those Israelis who were defined as the “salt of the earth” (or mainstream members of Israeli society) and who sensed a link with and a commitment toward Zionist ideology, Israelis who lived on the margins of society felt alienated by that ideology and were thus more antagonistic toward the olim. However, ideology explains only part of the story as far as attitudes toward aliyah and olim are concerned, because these attitudes are also affected by material and economic considerations. Generally speaking, affluent Ashkenazi Jews live in upper-scale neighborhoods where the price of an apartment is usually beyond the economic capacity of the olim. Furthermore, mass immigration poses no threat to the job security of these Ashkenazi Jews because most of them are employed in the so-called liberal professions (law, accountancy, etc.) and are in positions of management. It could even be said that, in many cases, the sole form of contact between olim and this group of Israelis is the philanthropic activity undertaken by the members of the latter group.
In contrast, Sephardi Jews in the lower income brackets are in closer contact with olim. Both groups live in the same neighborhoods and in the same development towns and sometimes vie for the same jobs. What is most important here is that these Sephardi Jews sense that the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union is again pushing them into the margins of society, in both economic and cultural terms. As was the case in the early 1970s, Russian immigrants are again bypassing Moroccan Jews. The conflict between the two ethnic groups is particularly apparent in the geographic area where they are both concentrated: Israel's development towns.
In contrast with the 1970s, many of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Israel in the 1990s were placed in housing units in the country's periphery. However, in light of the changes that Israeli society has undergone, the process of population dispersion in the 1990s is very different from the process applied to immigrants from North Africa in an earlier era. Given the mood of the 1990s, the idea of instantly transferring immigrants to some development town in the periphery, forcing them to live in designated locations and sometimes even using an element of deception in the process was totally out of the question. Immigrants arriving in Israel in the 1990s were given a choice as to where they wanted to live. Supply and demand in the job market and the size of the package of immigrant benefits were prime factors in the immigrant's choice of location. The state's influence in this area was downsized and the government chose to encourage and even subsidize residential construction projects in the periphery. Because of the relatively small number of apartments available in central Israel, real estate prices in that part of the country often exceeded the ceiling of government assistance (as provided in the package of immigrant benefits) in the purchase of a home. Two factors encouraged many Russian immigrants in the 1990s to prefer a home in a development town: the greater availability of apartments in the periphery and the possibility of acquiring a more attractive apartment there instead of having to settle for a more modest home in a socioeconomically distressed neighborhood on the outskirts of one of Israel's major cities. Today, the percentage of Russian immigrants in Israel's development towns is double their percentage in the total population, and, in some development towns, olim account for 40 percent of the local population.
In light of this new pattern of population distribution, the sense of alienation among vatikim in the periphery has again become a serious problem, just as it was during the absorption of North African olim in the 1960s. Dramatic changes have taken place in Israel's peripheral communities over the past decade: new neighborhoods and highways have been constructed and shopping centers have sprouted in many places. Although the chief reason for this surge in development has been the arrival of olim from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the primary beneficiaries of this change have been the veteran residents of the periphery, most of whom are Sephardi Jews. Apartments in public housing projects that nobody wanted to buy before and which for years were rented out at ridiculously low rates suddenly became a hot item and were rented out to the new immigrants or they were sold to them at prices that were sometimes ten times their original value. Many veteran residents sold their old apartments and increased their quality of life with the purchase of a detached or semi-detached home. Furthermore, the improvement in quality of life is visible in other areas as well.
However, along with the development of the periphery and the correction of many of the injustices of the ethnic discrimination that began in the 1950s, the population distribution pattern of the 1990s has created new social frictions. The Russian olim have begun to compete with Sephardi Jews for resources. They are vying with them for the same jobs and pose a threat because Russian olim are willing to do any sort of job and to settle for low wages if necessary. They are also competing with Sephardi Jews and are even beginning to surpass them in the classroom. In the eyes of many veteran residents of development towns, the olim are undermining the small-town feeling of local solidarity that had existed prior to the mass wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. The opening of butcher shops selling unkosher meat and pork has aroused antagonism among members of the veteran population toward the olim.
The development towns have also become an arena for political struggles. Parties catering to a Russian constituency have made major inroads in local politics and are now threatening the veteran population's hegemony in development towns. In Kiryat Gat's municipal elections in 1998, a smear campaign was conducted when a Russian candidate faced off against a Sephardi candidate from the veteran population for the post of mayor. Derogatory references to “massage parlors,” “mobsters,” and “pork butcher shops” sullied the atmosphere of this election campaign. After the rival camps came to an agreement, the smear campaign against the Russian candidate ended. Six months later, in 1999, during the Knesset election campaign, the conflict spread to the national arena. In the course of the Knesset elections, voters suddenly began to hear slogans and phrases that would have been considered unacceptable only a decade before. The conflict between Shas and the Yisrael B'Aliya party, which was dubbed “Shas control versus Nash [“our” in Russian] control,” became a media war of national proportions that shed light on the many local conflicts in the periphery between Sephardi Jews and Russian olim, two groups that have a similar standing in social class terms. While Shas propaganda described immigration from the former Soviet Union as the import of Gentiles to Israel, Yisrael B'Aliya countered with depictions of how Shas's control of the Interior Ministry was allegedly leading to the mistreatment of Russian immigrants. In the eyes of Shas's politicians, the party's religious mantle legitimated the propaganda that sharply distinguished Sephardi Jews from the Russian olim. In the eyes of Yisrael B'Aliya's politicians, the party's mantle of liberalism and the right of all Jews to immigrate to Israel legitimated its propaganda, which sharply distinguished Russian olim from Sephardi Jews and which was also characterized by an arrogant attitude toward the latter. Among many “white,” European Russians, this propaganda awakened memories of a derogatory racist attitude toward residents of the Caucasus regions of the former Soviet Union and toward other “Asiatics.”
The processes of integration and segregation in Russian society play an important role in the relationship between Russian olim and Sephardi Jews. The entry of the Russians into the country's middle class will increase the distance between them and the Sephardi Jews living in the periphery, who will thus remain on society's sidelines. If the Russians remain members of the lower class, there will be an increase in the economic conflict between the two groups as their respective members vie for the same jobs. Nevertheless, a greater sense of solidarity in development towns because of the fact that both groups share the same social class and are in the same geographical region could actually create stronger ties between Sephardi Jews and Russian olim.
The economic, religious and cultural conflicts in Israeli society today are often intertwined. The widening of socieconomic gaps in Israeli society and the weakening of the sense of solidarity in that society, as forecast by various doomsday prophets, could increase conflicts between the different ethnic groups comprising Israel's Jewish population. The contact points – which are also possible friction points – between Sephardi Jews and Russian olim are exposed nerves as far as the cohesion of Israeli society is concerned.