At Bar Putin, in the heart of Jerusalem, you can down vodka shots in homage to the former Russian president. In Ashdod – also known as Little Moscow – you might pop into the Tiv Ta’am supermarket for pork and black bread. On Israeli TV there’s Channel 9 if you want to watch broadcasts in the mother tongue round the clock.
The million-plus citizens of the former Soviet Union who migrated to Israel in the past 20 years have not only made new lives of their own but they have transformed their adopted country. They have influenced the culture, hi-tech industry, language, education and, perhaps most significantly, Israeli politics.
Jews in the former Soviet Union were largely banned from making aliya – migrating to Israel – before the collapse of the empire. But from 1990 onwards they came in their thousands, and they now constitute around 15% of Israel’s 7.7 million population.
Strictly speaking not all of them are Jewish. In traditional Judaism only someone whose mother is Jewish or who has undergone a formal conversion to Judaism is a Jew. But from 1990 anyone from the former Soviet Union who had a Jewish father or grandparent, or who was married to someone meeting those criteria, was granted Israeli citizenship under the country’s law of return.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics around 30% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s were not Jews or not considered Jewish under Orthodox law. In 2005 that figure leapt to 59%. Only around 5% of the non-Jews have converted.
Some came to pursue the Zionist dream; some came to escape antisemitism; and a large number came for better economic prospects. They brought culture – art, theatre, music – and a new entrepreneurialism.
But they almost overwhelmed Israel, causing a severe housing crisis. Many eventually settled in Russian enclaves in cities such as Ashdod, Petah Tikva and Haifa –
and in expanding West Bank settlements, such as Ariel.
“It was a very different type of immigration,” said Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist writing a book about the impact of the tidal wave from the former Soviet Union. “They didn’t want to integrate. They wanted to lead. They changed the nature of the country.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Israeli politics, particularly in the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Moldova-born foreign minister, and his far-right party, Yisrael Beiteinu. Now the third largest force in Israeli politics and a key member of the ruling coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu has enjoyed success mainly as a result of its support among Russian-speaking immigrants. Lieberman and his party have pursued a relentlessly rightwing agenda, opposing concessions in peace negotiations with the Palestinians, supporting settlement expansion, seeking to curb the rights of Israel’s 20% Arab population and attacking leftist NGOs and campaigners.
“Unfortunately they [immigrants from former Soviet states] have changed the nature of democracy in Israel,” said Galili. “There’s a certain amount of exaggeration – many things may have changed without them. But they have a different concept of democracy. And they have strengthened and given confidence to the [homegrown] secular rightwing.”
A year ago the former US president Bill Clinton caused a furore when he said Russian-speaking Israelis were “an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians”.
Russian immigrants were among “the hardest-core people against a division of the land… They’ve just got there, it’s their country, they’ve made a commitment to the future there.