What Clinton got Right about Israeli Russians

I have a new piece up on Foreign Policy, discussing what US former president Bill Clinton got right in his comments about Israeli Russians being, well, Right. The story of Israeli Russian’s – Israel’s largest minority, most significant recent immigrants, who make up a considerable part of our infantry brigades, and so on and so forth – is complex and many layered; far too little has been written on them in English. Furthermore, as is often is the case in Israel’s community politics, they are seen mainly through the prism of the influence they wield in their struggles to the top of Israeli hierarchy, rather then on their own terms and needs as a community.

But the macro approach is unavoidable in an international conflict situation, of all the issues surrounding the Israeli Russians, it is our overwhelming leaning to the right of the poltical map that is most crucial to the role we play in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle. To give you a taste of the views rampant and unchallenged in the community, here is a selection of comments on a recent news piece published by Russian-Israeli portal Zman.com. The piece, based on wacky old Irish Sun, alleges the Palestinian Authority was sanctioning uterus removal for mentally incapacitated women who might pass on their condition to their children. Here is what Zman.com readers had to say:

“Good, just cut out the wombs for the lot of them.”

“Why not just cut off her head instead?”

“So we gently agreed that it’s simpler to cut out all they got. And better yet to cut them out. And then bring NAPALM and concrete. And it will be quiet and well. And we’ll get an extra beach in Gaza. Why doesn’t the government listen to the people?”

Goodness, what are you even arguing about! Of course, remove and the more the better. Less retards to explode. On the contrary, they should be supported in that [action].”

What’s striking is not so much the nuttiness of the comments, but that these go completely unchallenged and practically unvaried by other points of view. A less anonymous example of legitimized radical-right views comes from Alexander Nepomniashiy, a Technion mathematician and founding chairman of the MAOF group, an ultra-right think tank. He is writing in the wake of the murder of two fellow members of the Russian blogosphere. Though written in mourning, the statements are made by a public figure on a public forum:

The enemies are the murderers who yesterday executed defenseless people, and their handlers who sent them, and the crowds that support them, rejoicing today on the streets of Ramallah and Akko, giving away candies in the universities of Gaza and Haifa – all of them executed their own right to that land. They have drowned it in our blood, in the lies and the obscenity of their schemes. They have lost their right for compassion and mercy, the right for a future for their children, and for even one grain of that land.

We will not forget or forgive. Never and no one. Not the enemies from the governments of states that support our enemies directly and behind the scenes – bowing before them to the ground, selling them modern weapons and guaranteeing them political support; not our own spineless, senseless and meaningless politicians, whose immediate personal profit and cowardice obscures the national interest; not the enemies who have lost any right to a land and to a future. But before all elese, we will not forgive this murder to those who betrayed their people – for money or for their own stupidity. We will not forget and we will not forgive.

We will retain the land of our country, whether in open war or in everyday persistent fight for every centimeter of the Motherland. And may the pain and despair that consume us burn in the clear, cold flame of fury. A fury that will no longer allow us to forget clear and simple truths. All of this land is ours forever. All of it and forever… and those who will dare to argue about it and interrupt with us is a coward and a traitor, and there shall be a curse upon his name, his children’s names, and the name of all of his subsequent generations.

I am bringing these quotes not to point fingers at crazy Russians, but just to illustrate the extremism of Israeli Russian right-wing rhetoric; Nepomniashiy’s comments are a particularly good example, because they illustrate not just a decidedly genocidal mindset- which again, goes fairly unchallenged – but also to what extremes people are pushed by political violence affecting their community. The pain under the rhetoric should not be sneered at, but the rhetoric itself is unjustifiable and dangerous in the extreme.

In my Foreign Policy piece I lay the emphasis on the Israeli circumstances of the Russian immigrants community – on which also books can and should be written, especially the failure to absorb thousands of skilled professionals into jobs even remotely related to their fields and creating a wholesale underpaid, underrated and overeducated middle class. I do not address one of the key theories about the origins of the right-wing tendencies of the Israeli Russian community: Their “undemocratic roots” in the Soviet Union.

While the deterministic theory holds some ground – there is no widespread tradition of democracy or critical opposition in the former Soviet Union – it seems to me more important that the immigrants arrived into a country where democratic tradition is extremely weak. Ours is a democracy consumed with violent traumas and consistently amplified existential fears; it is willing to sacrifice liberties for security at the drop of a hat, and does so every day. The immigrant community was particularly well placed to calling the bluff of pro-democratic hair pulling on the one hand and utterly undemocratic methods of enforcement on the other – and, feeling particularly under threat, to demand an end to the former and a boost to the latter. One influence of the old country I would not discount so much, however, is the rise of nationalism in the post-Soviet space – the Russian Israeli ultra-patriotism can certainly be seen as a manifestation of the same phenomenon, the boiling over of national identities long suppressed by the Soviet regimes.

Having said that, I do need to point out some of them most actively engaged community and direct-action activists I know come from the Israeli Russian population. But we are a minority within both minorities. I make a couple of observations in the FP piece on why that is – how both mainstream Left and the post/anti/non Zionist left completely missed the train on engaging with the Russian community, especially missing out that the deconstructionist facade of the center-Left and the deconstructionist essence of the “far” Left is doomed to clash with the immigrants’ determination to construct a local identity ans a sense of home. If any hope of such engagement in the future exists, it would necessitate more listening than preaching, and trying to find what answers to the community’s needs the Left can offer – rather than what it can do to educate, patronise, shock or guilt them into liberalism.

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