Russians in the Holy Land
By Israel Shamir
Quarter of a century ago (time runs fast!), when Israel was far more intimate than it is today, when we did not value privacy and did not know how to spell it, I left my kibbutz in Galilee and moved into a house in Jaffa to share it with few families. Such an arrangement was quite common these days.
Once Jaffa was called the Bride of the East, and it competed with its neighbours, Beirut and Alexandria. Surrounded by fragrant orange groves, this city of one hundred thousand inhabitants boasted the first cinema in the Levant, and housed the headquarters of European companies. Americans and Germans built their red-roofed houses on its outskirts, and in 1909, the East European Jews established Tel Aviv further to the north. But her days of prosperity were long gone, in 1948.
In my days it was (and still is) a dilapidated seaside village to the south of the big city. Bulldozers have torn down every second house and given the town its jagged look. They have also dumped building waste on the seashore, in preparation of big real estate development. Salinger’s Esme would love this place of squalor. Still, it is a good place, reminiscent of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Drug dealers’ big Cadillacs cruise its unpaved streets; kids in long galabie dresses play at the corner; the bells of St Anthony Catholic church blend with those of St George Orthodox church and with the call of muezzin from the nearby Ajami mosque; fishermen carry their catch to the seashore restaurants for the diners from Tel Aviv; Palestinian women crack seeds and chat outside their homes; the smell of fresh falafel comes from market stalls; ten stray cats stare down a king-size rat; the French ambassador returns to his residence; a film crew shoots a Beirut scene. We lived together, one of the few desegregated communities, in a small sliver of the land between the road and the sea, a remainder of Jaffa of old.
We lived in a crumbling pink mansion built by a Palestinian trader in 1920s. It was a classic Arab house; yard-thick walls of soft local stone kurkar blocked hot easterly wind, wide and high doors allowed bringing in a grand piano without much difficulty, spacious rooms, broadleaved shesek, a native tree with sweet apricot-like fruits, besieged our window. Ceilings painted by Egyptian craftsmen rose six yards high above its Italian marble floors. Crown of Count adorned the front, as the trader received this title from grateful Vatican in 1928.
The only entrance of the house led into spacious hall big enough for Scarlet O’Hara maiden dance, and from there, six double doors opened into six big rooms, where we lived: the Moroccan family, owners of small garage, an Armenian guide, a Russian painter who helped us to find the place, a Bulgarian family who run a small burekas stall. The owner’s family lived there as well, but now they kept only one room, for in 1948 a Colonel Arad, an old combatant of Yitzhak Rabin, took over the house.
The Colonel had the legal title over the central hall and he was responsible for the rent to be paid to the state authority. He had a lot of fun making our life difficult: did not allow us to pass by ‘his territory’ after 11, interfered with our guests, incited quarrels and carried out traditional policy of divide et impera. He was an East European with Russians and Bulgarians against Moroccans and Palestinians, a man of cultured elite with the Count and the Russian painter, and a Jew against the Count and the Armenian. His strategy worked for a long while: Moroccans loved to belong to the ruling Jews; Palestinian elite is happy to be considered ‘elite’, Russians are rather lost and confused and ready to take up any offer.
Our Israeli lifestyle reminds me this old Jaffa house. In the centre, there are military and political elite of the land, descendents of pre-war settlers from the Eastern Europe, generals and media owners, the families of Sharon and Barak, Moses and Schocken, Netanyahu and Peres; while the side rooms are for ‘minorities’ – Russians and Moroccans, native Palestinians and Orthodox non-Zionist Jews, Ethiopians and Bulgarians. The ‘minorities’ together present majority, and a huge one; but the old colonel succeeded to keep us in the situation of eternal strife. One of his preferred tools is ‘the Jewish State’, a device to separate and split minorities.
We, dwellers of Israel, never describe ourselves as ‘Jews’, but refer to our community, ‘eidah’ in Hebrew: Israelis are only native-born children of old pre-war settlers; but a native born son of Moroccan, Kurdish, Iraqi Jewish immigrants remains a Moroccan, a Kurd, an Iraqi. ‘Jews’ is identification against Palestinians, as Ashkenazi is identification against Sephardis. Thus, a Jewish State means a state where East European Jews are on the top, native Palestinians are on the bottom, while other communities vie for their position in between by stressing their Jewishness. It is seen in shares of property and power: ‘Israelis’ own 80 p c of private property, keep 80 p.c. of ministries in a government, professorial positions in universities, leading positions in media.
The stable situation changed with arrival of the Russians, for a simple reason: many of this 1.2 million-strong-community are not considered ‘Jews’ by the religious law which is the law of the land. Russian Jews intermarried with Russians as much as American Jews with their fellow-Americans. What is more important, in the Soviet Union, since the days of Lenin and Trotsky, there was a vast effort to assimilate Jews, and it succeeded to large extent. Russian Jews became Russified, while Russian elites became Jewified.
Russians in Israel (whether of Jewish origin or not) speak Russian, read Russian newspapers, watch Russian TV and eat Russian pork sausage with Russian beer. What made these ordinary Russians seek the light of Zion?
In Russia, as in the US, there are probably at least 20 million people entitled to become Israeli citizens. One does not have to be Jewish. If your daughter from a first marriage was married to an adopted grandchild of a Jew, you can go to Israel with your new family. Former USSR republics are in dire straits; their workers get no salary for months, so many families send their old folk away to Israel, where they get a few thousand dollars upon arrival, a small pension and public housing, if they are lucky.
The majority of arrivals have had no exposure to Judaism or Jewish culture in Russia, nor are they interested in. Their Israeli ID cards bear the inscription ‘ethnic origin and religion uncertain’. They are not considered ‘real Jews’ and their dead are buried beyond the fence, on a special plot for those of ‘dubious origin’. After the dreadful explosion in the Dolfi discothèque it created a visible problem: the religious undertakers refused to bury the dead Russian girls in a Jewish cemetery, even as the Israeli government was bombing Palestinians ‘to avenge Jewish blood’.
In the blessed air of the Holy Land many of them look for spiritual and religious revival. Judaism attracts but a few, while others turn to the Church for comfort. It is a risky enterprise: by Israeli law they can be deported for their belief in Christ. They gather and pray away from prying eyes, but on holidays they throng the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the Nativity Church of Bethlehem, St George of Lydda and St Peter of Jaffa.
In 1991, when Russia’s future was exceedingly opaque, Israel received a lot of young blood from there. Israel-supporters in the US media carried out a two-pronged campaign: they warned of forthcoming pogroms, and they promoted the idea of a beautiful, easy life for immigrants in the US. Whole issues of Newsweek and Time concentrated on the neo-Nazi Pamyat group and rampant anti-Semitism. At that time, I was reporting for the Haaretz from Moscow, and interviewed Pamyat leaders for it. I found this sinister organisation to number about as many members as the Flat Earth Society. Still, a nice Russian Jewish film-maker and his wife came to our countryside house to arrange for protection in case of a pogrom. I tried to calm them down, but I could not fight the mighty media machine alone. Ten years later, I met a Russian Jewish lady writer in Jerusalem who told me that she had initiated the rumour of pogroms.
“You Israelis should erect a monument to me,” she said.
“Certainly”, said I, “Any particular reason?”
“I brought you a million Russians: I announced on Moscow Echo Radio that there will be a pogrom.”
I hadn’t the heart to disabuse her: her announcements would have had no effect if Israel’s American friends hadn’t amplified them. Anyway, the frightened and seduced Russians rushed for visas to the American embassy, and at that moment Israel requested the US stop granting them visas. The US gates were closed, and this mass of people on the move was forced to go to Israel.
They had a hard time, for the Israeli elite subjected them to the unique Israeli method of “de-development,” (as one might call it), a method already tried out on Oriental Jews and Palestinians. The Israeli media described them as a bunch of criminals and prostitutes; they were required to sign contracts and promises in Hebrew which they did not understand; their specialists were set to sweeping streets or picking oranges. Their rate of divorce skyrocketed; and their children were pushed into drugs. In 1991, Israel ceased to employ the Palestinians from the occupied territories, and the yesterday’s elite of Russia was expected to take their place in low-paid menial jobs. But sheer mass allowed the Russians to create their own state-within-state, complete with its own media, shops, and mutual assistance. The Russians survived, and figured out the game. The clever ones went back to Moscow, the adventurous left for the US, the peaceable ones departed for Canada. Since then, Israel has been getting mainly old folks, single mothers, and the desperately unemployed.
The Russians are a nice, hard-working but confused community. They hardly understand where they have landed, and incessantly try to compare their situation with that in Baku or Tashkent. Perusal of Russian newspapers shows people at a loss. One writer demands that Palestinians be castrated in order to solve the demographic crisis. Another blames everything on religious Jews, describing them as “blood-sucking parasites.” A third accuses the Oriental Jews of failing to live up to his expectations. They are being taught a brief version of the modern Jewish faith and its single commandment: “Thou shalt hate Arabs.”
Now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intends to import another million “Russian Jews.” It is possible: if the American Jewish friends of Israel will put a harder squeeze on Ukraine, ten million Ukrainians may suddenly recover their “Jewish roots.” But it is possible that in his greed Sharon will completely undermine the Jewish state, for dichotomy Jews-non-Jews is not the only possible one. ‘Jews’ in Israel are not an ethnic, cultural or religious unit but rather an amalgam of immigrants from various countries divided by mutual dislike and distrust and united by mighty propaganda machine promoting eternal and innate hatred of Gentiles. Such a structure has no real life force, and it can break down.
The population of the Holy Land could be subdivided and classified by ‘Jewishness’ into Jews and non-Jews, or by the origin: native or adoptive citizens of European, Asian, American, African stock; or by relation to Christ into those who accept that Jesus is Christ and who rejects it; they can be divided by class, into poor and rich, working classes and exploiters, by language – Palestinian Arabic, Mughrabi Arabic, Modern Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, English, French, Amharic speakers; or by confession – Orthodox, Catholic, Uniate, Monophysite and Protestant Christians; Sunni, Ahmadie, Alawi, Druze Muslims; Bahai; Sephardi, Iraqi, Yemenite, Ethiopian, Hassids, Litvak and Kookite Jews, or by profession or by place of residence. In other words, ‘Jewishness’ is not the only natural criterion.
For all but the elites, the best solution is creation of non-racist, democratic state, in which ‘Jewishness’ has no legal value and provides no privilege; where to be or not to be a Jew is a personal matter of no civic importance. As majority of Russians in Israel are not considered 'Jews', even if they have Jewish-sounding last names, they suffer of many legal and illegal disabilities in the Jewish state. The Russians have no advantage in the Jewish supremacy in Israel i.e. supremacy of a certain socio-economic group, of wealthy Ashkenazi establishment whose neo-liberal position is unsuitable for the socially weaker Russians. These people have a strong personal reason to support the idea of 'a state for all its citizens', as opposed to the present concept of 'the state of and for the Jews wherever they are'.
For transformation of Jewish supremacy into democracy for all its citizens these non-elite groups have to ally with native Palestinians, and here the Russians can play the role of avant-garde. Some Russians came to this understanding. Last year, their representatives entered besieged Ramallah and had met with the representatives of the native Palestinians. If this initiative were well met, the mass immigration of the Russian 'Jews' to Israel would become the Trojan Horse of Equality in the Jewish State.
But this understanding did not penetrate into Palestinian thinking yet. The ‘Israelis’ present the elite group, and native Palestinian elites prefer to deal with Israeli elites. ‘Israelis’ are active in Peace Now, Gush Shalom and other left-wing groups, while Oriental Jews and Russians are perceived as ‘anti-Palestinian’. But it is an erroneous vision. In reality, liaison of non-elite groups is the way to deal with entrenched ruling minority. The native Palestinians should open direct channels of communication with Russians, Moroccans, Orthodox Jews etc – instead of empowering the Israeli elite.
Actually true interests of Russians and Palestinians coincide. For the both communities, one democratic state is the solution, and the only way to achieve it is to give full citizen rights to the three million presently disenfranchised native Palestinians. In the democratised Palestine/Israel of nine million citizens the concept of a Jewish State will follow its twin, the Aryan State, to oblivion. Much depends on the political maturity and wisdom of Palestinian leadership and the remnants of the Israeli Left. If all the pro-equality forces were to unite in our version of the South African ANC, they can bury apartheid. This union of non-elite groups will be able to change the political map of Israel, if properly supported and nourished.
In the transformed state, there will be always an important place for the Hebrew-speaking Palestinian community, present ‘Israelis’, the nearest equivalent of South African Boers. While their supremacy is unacceptable, their equal status is guaranteed. The Hebrew-speakers are an integral part of Palestine - not because they are Jews but despite the fact that some of them identify themselves as Jews. (Likewise, the Boers are South Africans not because of their white skin, but despite the fact that some of them attach to it importance.) Indeed, one of the ‘Asli Israelis’ (‘pukka Sahib’) the famous painter Shimon Tsabar described himself ‘a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian’. The Hebrew-speakers’ desire for separation of ties with World Jewry and for their nativisation in Palestine blossomed in 1950s (Canaanite Movement) but was crushed by Ben Gurion’s Secret Police. Now many Israelis petitioned the Supreme Court of Israel demanding to replace the ‘Identity – Jew’ line in their ID cards with the ‘Identity – Israeli/Palestinian’.
Thus the transformation we seek is not directed against the Hebrew-speaking, or indeed, Yiddish-speaking groups, but against their special and privileged legal position based on the concept of the Jewish State. This concept turned Israel into a colony of World Jewry. Removal of the special ties between Hebrew-speakers in Palestine/Israel and the Jews abroad is, in a way, a true declaration of Israeli independence. It does not preclude some future contacts, as the American Revolution did not preclude ‘special relations’ with England after a hundred-year-long separation. But on this stage, we need to cut off the umbilical cord of Jewishness, to reject the smothering care of American Jews so the child won’t suffocate. The settlers should go native.
The Americans may support this initiative for it will usher in peace in the Middle East and stop outflow of their money to the Jewish State. What we do not need is the support of organisations like 'Jewish friends of Palestine', who bring back the ties with Jewry through the back door. Likewise, Mandela would not be interested in organisation called 'White Race friends of ANC'. There is no problem with a person who may be considered a Jew (or White), but there is an insurmountable problem with organised Jewry / White Race bodies. An American Jew has absolutely no standing - qua Jew - regarding Palestine. Being a Jew is not a qualification; not more than Philatelists for Palestine.
Such separation will do a lot of good to the adepts of the Jewish faith abroad: they will be free to deal with the most important thing for every religious man, i.e. with their adoration of the Creator, with their prayers, with their spiritual improvement and with the study of Torah. Hopefully, people who tend to consider themselves ‘Jews’ but do not accept the Jewish faith will recognise their mistake and seek their way to God in the way they find fit; for ‘irreligious Jew’ is a concept that survives due to the existence of the Jewish state, as otherwise it would be as meaningless as ‘atheist Catholic’.
The religious Jewish communities in the Holy Land will prosper as well, for their religious needs won’t be intertwined with the civic burden. Without state-imposed ‘Chief Rabbinate’, they will be able to worship God the way they find fit, whether Conservative, Liberal, or any other Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox school they prefer. Now in the present setup the Orthodox Jews are discriminated against, forced to go to the army, their chances to find a profession is severely curtailed; while the Oriental Jewish communities are forced to accept foreign for them ways of worship. The Ultra-Orthodox Jews were always against the Jewish State for they considered it a revolt against God. Thus, even for religious Jewish groups the democracy is the solution.
Probably the united Palestine will not remain a cold laic state of individuals for ever. The fire of Prophets is not dead there. But instead of infighting, the people of the Holy Land will look for all-embracing way to serve God. To those who say, “But you are dreaming,” we shall reply with words of Sami Aldeeb, who presides over the Association for One Democratic State in Palestine/Israel: “Do you prefer the present nightmare?”
Courtesy Israel Shamir and shamireaders
Last updated 03/01/2005