«Jewish Observer»
October 2002
5763 Cheshvan

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The Israeli life of immigrants from the former USSR has been described and studied for over ten years. Friends and relatives, who emigrated ten years ago, work according to their speciality for long, have purchased cars, flats, ceased complaining of a hostile attitude on the part of locals. It seems "Russians" have successfully integrated into the Israeli society. Is it really so?

Dr. Eliezer Feldman, co-director of Israeli institute for alia studies, is considered a leading sociologist in the Russian street of Israel. Is there anybody else to better describe an objective picture?

- How do you study a Russian community, how does it change in the course of time?

- Israel's Russian-speaking community is a unique object for study. Why? Israel tries to be a monoethnic state. But this is hardly possible: its population consists of many communities and ethnic groups. I don't mean now Arabs, Druzs and Cherchesses, I mean the Jewish population which is also diverse.

- Over twenty years ago the country refused from the idea of a melting boiler, and any culture received a right to existence and an opportunity to get developed after its own laws.

Most lucky here became Sefards -it was they who insisted on a subethnic group's emerging inside the Jewish nation.

They, first of all, succeeded to agree on one Chief Sefard Rabbi. Probably, they managed to get united due to their acute feeling of discrimination on the part of the ruling Ashkenazi community.

- What was Sefards' offer?

- This may be best illustrated by a subculture autonomy created on the basis of Russian-speaking community. Russian-speaking Israelis and emigrants from Eastern Europe, probably, longer than other repatriates tried to integrate into the Israeli society: they would refuse from the language of their former country, stop using it even at home, refuse from the culture trying to adopt a local way of life etc. This tendency was started by Bulgarian, Polish, Romanian communities and continued by Russian-speaking repatriates of 1970's.

But when in 1990's Israel became home to almost half a million Russian-speaking immigrants this integration mechanism collapsed and a mighty process of autonomization of Israel's Russian-speaking community began.

- How is it going on and why is it important to study this autonomy?

- Russian-speaking Jews constitute 14% of the entire Israel's population and nearly 20% of all Jews. During elections and in the army their share reaches 25%: Arabs and ultra-religious Jews either keep aloof or behave rather definitely which means they are subject to no influence. That's why candidates wrangle for votes of the remaining electorate. The Russian-speaking community is the only one to have completely separated itself from the Israeli society.

First, this is full autonomy in the field of culture, categorical non-participation in the cultural life of the country. This is due, first of all, to a huge number of artists on tour and amateur culture practices.

The second direction of self-isolation is creation of a self-sufficient system of media in Russian: from small local newspapers to TV and radio and Internet editions - all in all over 120 names. Today we witness stagnation among the young, too. For example, there are schools where majority of teachers and pupils are Russian-speaking. We already have youth groups and collectives with a Russian-speaking domination. As a result, the army experiences new problems: conscripts badly speak Hebrew after six years in Israel. And this is not surprising. They spent these six years, i. e. all their conscious life in Israel, in Russian-speaking surroundings - within territorial ghettos that had sprang up throughout the country: in Ashdod, Buei-Aisha, Ofakim, Natsrat - Ilit and so on., - and in schools with purely Russian-speaking collectives (there are nearly 30 such schools).

Only four years ago we were confident a youth stratum of alia would dissolve in Israel's society. Today we are not at all sure in this.

But let's return to five directions of autonomization.

The third is education. The ground was laid by creating a system of evening schools MOFET that resorted to the experience of famous Soviet physic-mathematic schools. This was followed by schools "Shuvur" (religious Russian-speaking schools financed by Lubavichi Hasids) and ORT schools providing vocational technical training.

The fourth trend is absolute consumer's self-sufficiency. A Russian-speaking Israeli unable to speak Hebrew can solve all his problems - from the Bar to medicine, do shopping in supermarkets where only Russian is spoken.

And, finally, I want to mention political municipal component of self-isolation. At present, Russian-speaking Israelis take different positions: from heads of departments at municipal services to vice-mayors, Knesset deputies, vice-speakers and ministers.

Self-isolation has been developing during ten years and it is possible today to affirm Russian-speaking Israelis have created cultural consumers' autonomy.

This autonomy is grounded on a particular mechanism of social interrelationships among subethnic groups - pragmatic isolation. The community is ready to isolate itself for the sake of its comfort. It has built in Israel its rather comfortable home, but the doors and windows remain open for any person to be free to leave it. This is in no case a ghetto. The latter is shut off with blind walls. Anybody going beyond its boundaries is driven away from the ghetto. Whereas anybody penetrating into the Israeli society becomes community's pride.

- Comfort is a good explanation for self-isolation. But, probably, we have here the same phenomenon as in the case with Sefards. Wasn't Russian-speaking population pushed to isolation by discrimination on the part of native inhabitants?

- Undoubtedly. Pragmatic isolation has several reasons. The first is demographic. Israel at once became home for very many people of one culture and life experience who suffered a linguistic shock. The second - a social shock. Russia is a feminine state whereas Israel is a masculine one.

Russia absorbs frontier regions. Russia is the country where mildness, collectiveness are brighter social phenomena than in Israel. Israel fosters a cult of force, aspiration to oppose, to struggle, not to surrender. In this sense Israel and, for instance, Germany are masculine states whereas Russia and England - feminine.

All this put together has led to what is called in Germany a foreigner's complex, which comprises language incompetence, loss of social status and professional decompensation.

It is manifested in fear of contacts - with officials, doctors, neighbours. This results in rejecting a surrounding society. A Russian-speaking Israeli is devoid of contacts in professional or cultural midst. Whereas he has to deal with bureaucrats from the very moment he arrives in the country. A repatriate always asks for something from bureaucrats. That is, these contacts cause his rejection. Beside demography and foreigner's complex, the pragmatic isolation is promoted by a phenomenon we call a "complex of root anchors". These are certain mechanisms preventing a Russian-speaking Israeli from leaving his surrounding. The most characteristic example is television. Deprived of watching local TV in Russian, a Russian-speaking Israeli is forced to watch Russian TV-channels. Thus, a very big group was made to live by the problems of Russia, a faraway country, and not by the problems of the country they now reside in. A TV-set for them is a window to the world. They see Israel namely through this window, not through the window of their flat. They know the name of the governor of Saratov region but have no idea how a mayor of their own town is called.

To be continued
Interview by Natalia Zubkova
"Inostranets", Moscow

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