Russian diaspora

A Memoir of Misadventures in Moscow

Guest: Michael Idov on Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Barak Turns to Putin’s Playbook

With Labor set to go down in flames in next month’s parliamentary elections in Israel, what is a beleaguered Ehud Brarak to do to pump up his tough image among crucial Russian voters?  Why, “Putinize” himself, of course. As Lily Galili reports in Haaretz:

In a bid to gain the vote of the Russian immigrants in the elections, Labor leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will quote Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statement about killing Chechen terrorists “on the toilet.”

“As you people say, they should be whacked when they’re on the toilet,” Barak will say in a radio election broadcast intended for Russian speakers. Labor, which is launching its campaign among the Russian speakers this afternoon, will ask them to support him, as they did when he last ran for prime minister 10 years ago.

Galili goes on to explain that Barak’s Putin plagiarism is his way of “fashioning his image after that of an aggressive leader whom many Russian immigrants see favorably.”

Until a few weeks ago, Barak didn’t have a chance among Israel’s Russian population.  But what a difference a brutal invasion of Gaza makes, and as Defense Minister Barak hopes to reap the political benefits. As one Israeli political commentator told Galili:    “Unlike the failed Lebanon war, the war in Gaza was brutal enough and successful enough to score points for Barak.” “Barak is lucky,” he added. “Most Russians see this war as a failure, but Barak is identified with the military victory, not with its political failure.”

Galili explains further:

Under the halo of a military victory, Barak’s messages in his address to the Russian public will be much more radical and aggressive than those in his Hebrew campaign. Russians are assumed to love power and to be looking for a strong leader and Barak will present himself as an answer to both these needs.

Nice. Apparently, if several hundred to over a thousand Palestinian deaths (depending on who you listen to) are needed to give those so-called power loving Russians a strong leader, then so be it.

Red Army WWII Vet + Zionism = Marxist Likudnik

Meet Don Kozlents. This octogenarian medal of valor holder is one of the millions of Red Army veterans of WWII. Like so many others, most of his family perished at the hands of the Nazis. He fought in the Battle of Kursk, where he was wounded when he crawled out of a pit to reconnect the wires of his primitive radio. A shell hit him, shattering his arms. Ironically, the very faulty radio equipment that brought him out of his hole was the very thing that protected him from the shell’s fatal blow. To this day shrapnel from the shell float in his body. As Kozlents spreads his metals out on his kitchen table in his apartment in Rishon Letrzion in Israel, he tells Haaretz‘s Lily Galili, “I did good work as a soldier. I was there for Russia, but as a Jew for Russia.” After the war he continued this good work by developing drug patents for the Soviet state.

Indeed, Kozlents was a “Jew for Russia.” Like so many WWII vets, Kozlents’ identity is irreducible. Like his father, also a Red Army officer, Kozlents was and remains a Zionist. By the 1970s, he joined thousands of refusniks, Soviet Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel but were denied. Success finally came when his son Mark managed to immigrate. The elder Kozlents followed shortly after thanks to a Canadian “kibbutznik” and the personal intervention Margaret Thatcher.

Also like his father, Kozlents was a die hard communist. And remains so to this day. “I worked in the plant from morning until evening,” he says as he shows Galili a certificate signed by Stalin thanking him for his pharmaceutical work. “We sent the drugs to Africa and Asia. I worked to achieve a better world. I wanted to change the world.” But even Kozlents’ Marxism is difficult to categorize. As Galili writes,

He remains a fervent communist, but over the years he has also become a loyal “Bibi-ist.” According to him, Benjamin Netanyahu is following in the path of Karl Marx, more or less, and if we fail to understand this, that’s our problem. Kozlents says he is a real Marxist, just as he is a real communist, a real Jew and a real Likudnik – he sees no contradiction among these elements.

A Marxist Likudnik? I shutter to think. But who am I to say who is and who isn’t a real Marxist. “In Russia, the communists weren’t real communists,” he explains to Galili, “certainly not the counterfeits of Lenin and certainly not Stalin. I’m a real communist. Marx wasn’t a Bolshevik.” He doesn’t waver in this view when the Haaertz reporter points out to him that Marx wasn’t a member of Likhud either. But her question of how the two–Marxism and Likudism–mesh goes over his head.

“Read this,” he says, pointing to one of the volumes of Das Kapital. “The rules written here are Marx’s economy. Bibi understands these rules. More or less.” A remark that Bibi is a capitalist does not sway him. “So was Marx,” he claims, without showing any confusion.

And so when you put it all together Kozlents is a symbol of two events being commemorated this week: the Soviet defeat of the Nazis and the 60th Anniversary of Israel’s independence. For him the two are in an eternal dialectical relationship. “Without our victory over the Nazis, there wouldn’t have been a state,” he proudly tells Galili. “Everything is connected.” Such is the happy life of a Red Army veteran, Zionist, and Marxist Likudnik. Happy Victory Day and Independence Day, Don.

The Right but not the Desire to Return

Russia and Israel have a rather interesting relationship.  Political relations between the countries have been cool for decades, but the increase of Russian immigration and travel to the Jewish nation has inevitably complicated the two nation’s cultural and social ties.  It’s estimated that well over a million Russians have immigrated to Israel since the collapse of Communism.  The reasons have been economic and cultural.  Many Russian Jews fled the collapsing economy of the 1990s.  Some were pulled to Israel out of Zionist dreams. Fewer left Russia out of fear of antisemitism.  Many more were pulled by Israeli policies that expanded the Right of Return, a move from the Israeli perspective was a means to offset the its demographic imbalance with the Palestinians as well as replace Arab cheap labor with Russian immigrant cheap labor.

However, the Russian diaspora in Israel has increasingly found it difficult to integrate into Israeli society.  They are often caught between two worlds.  In Russia, they were Jews.  In Israel, they are Russian. The results of this can be quite bewildering, if not shocking, as the growth of neo-Nazi groups in Israel attest.

Neo-Nazi groups in Israel may be the most surprising outcome of Russian-Israeli relations, but it’s not the only one.  A few weeks ago, the Russian and Israeli governments abolished visa requirements for travel between the two nations.   This was  surprising move considering the belief among many that all Russians bring to Israel is violence, drunkenness and racism. The visa turnabout appears to be spurred by economics.  The Israeli Tourism Ministry was the main lobbyist for abolishing visa.  It estimates that over 100,000 more Russian tourists will visit as a result.  The Israeli Public Security Ministry opposed it, arguing that “eliminating visas would make it too easy for Russian criminals to enter Israel.”

Perhaps most surprising, at least to Americans like myself, is that Russia abolished visa requirements for Israelis.  Israeli tourists can not travel without restriction to Russia.  The Russians have always maintained their their visa policy has been in response to the restrictions countries put on their citizens.  This is why, the Russians argue, visa restrictions for Americans have tightened.  Perhaps the US should follow the Israeli example and seek some visa detente.

Another surprising development in Russian-Israeli immigration is how many more Russians are going back to Russia.  This is not limited to Israel.  As Yelena Biberman notes in her “Heading Back Home” Russians are repatriating in increasing numbers.  As she notes,

A leading expert on Russian repatriation from the European University at St. Petersburg, Alexander Kurylev, said that in the 1990s the major factor driving contemporary Russian repatriation was political openness of the country and its emerging market, but “now Russia’s spectacular economic growth is probably one of the most influential factors.” He adds that this factor could become more influential were Russia to become more deeply integrated into the global economy.

Elson points out that those most likely to thrive in the Russian market for mid to senior level jobs are those who have been successful in the West, and can easily reintegrate into the Russian society. The job categories that experience the biggest shortage of labor supply in Russia include legal, retail, business to business, accounting, marketing, and investment banking front office positions.

Apparently the pull back to Russia is so strong that a recent Israeli campaign to woo Russian-Israelis back to Israel was an utter failure.  As Lily Galili explains in Haaretz, even though the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign was a success in convincing Israelis in Europe and the United States to return,

the Russians, however, are not coming back. The young, successful people who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s and chose to return to the former Soviet Union – the campaign’s main target – largely ignored the whole thing. Most did not even click on the ministry’s ads to see what was being offered. Only 80 or so of the tens of thousands of former immigrants living in the major cities of Russia and Ukraine heeded the call to return home.

In fact, as Galili argues, the lack of interest in Russian-Israelis to return to Israeli is emblematic of how the Zionist “emotional appeal” for Israel doesn’t work for Russian speakers.  “For some,” she writes, “Israel never became home, or Russia never stopped being home. Almost none consider it a contradiction to live in both worlds.” Ironically, while Israel was seen as a “developed country” by Russians in the 1990s, now it appears, in the words of Professor Zeev Khanin of Bar-Ilan University, as “a provincial country between Africa and Asia.”

Now that is an opinion I would have never expected.

Reconcilable Contradictions

Russian youth’s embrace of Nazism doesn’t just happen in Russia. It’s also happens where one might not initially expect: Israel. Haaretz reports that Israel’s Interior Ministry arrested eight members, all aged 16 to 21, of a Nazi gang in Petah Tikva, a suburb outside of Tel Aviv. The arrests are the result of a year long investigation into street attacks and vandalism of the suburb’s Great Synagogue. The group, who is responsible for attacks on religious Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, homeless, and drug addicts, which they filmed, was found in possession of Nazi literature and posters, five kilos of explosives, a pistol, and an M-16. The M-16 was acquired when one of the youths was drafted into the IDF. He has since fled Israel back to Russia, leaving the rifle with his comrades. The Israelis plan to seek his extradition. Six of the eight have confessed their crimes to police. One of the two holding out is the gang’s leader, Eli Boanitov, who told police, “I won’t ever give up, I was a Nazi and I will stay a Nazi, until we kill them all I will not rest.”

Reports on the story are quick to deny the perpetrators’ “Jewishness.” Haaretz states that all eight youths “have distant ties to Judaism and nonetheless immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return.” Y-Net states that all but one are “are non-Jewish immigrants” from Russia. The Jerusalem Post also emphasized that the youths were “immigrants” and not bona fide Jews. Such assertions have led Israeli politicans to call for a tightening of the definition of the Law of Return. Some are considering to revoke the youths of their Israeli citizenship. Parliamentarian Effi Eitam, a member of the right wing National Religious Party, said that the Law of Return has allowed Israel to become “a haven for people who hate Israel, hate Jews, and exploit the Law of Return to act on this hatred.” Another deputy, Eli Yishai, the ultra-Orthodox Minister of Trade and Industry told reporters, “We have to rid ourselves of this Satan who lives in the heart of Israel.” This is despite statements from Prime Minister Olmert that the incident shouldn’t be used to “criminalize an entire population nor make generalizations.” Instead, he said, “Israel, as a society, failed in educating the youths discovered to be neo-Nazis.” Other commentators were quick to stress that the incidents were isolated and not indicative of a wider trend.

While this may be true, the uproar such an isolated incident has caused signifies the youths’ apostasy. And the fact that the gang’s leader, Eli Buanitov is in fact a Jew makes his sin all the more significant.
Eli Buanitov told police “I won’t have kids. My grandfather is half yid, so that this piece of trash doesn’t have ancestors with even the smallest percent of Jewish blood.” In interview with Israel’s Channel 10, Buanitov’s mother denied that her son was a Nazi and that “he is simply a boy and maybe he didn’t fully understand what [Nazism] is and maybe for him it was like a game.” She also emphasized that her son was indeed Jewish. “He was born in a Jewish family and was raised in a Jewish family. And he knows a lot about the war.” In response to a question about whether her mother was a Holocaust survivor, she replied, “Yes. When he was young he heard a lot of stories about it. And he knows very well how terrible it was. And how many Jews were killed.” As far as his Nazi tattoos, Mrs. Buatinova explained that they read in Yiddish, “God is with us.” In addition to his mother’s statements, Buatinov’s lawyer attempted to boost his client’s patriotic credentials. He stressed that the Buatinov family immigrated eight years ago, his client even has a brother serving in IDF combat units, that Eli attended a yeshiva high school for a twelfth grade, and has been working in a “security office in a very sensitive position” for the last year.

What is interesting about this case is not whether the youths indeed committed the crimes or if they sincerly embraced neo-Nazism as an ideology. What is at issue is whether the perpetrators are Jewish or not. The fact almost all of the youths are Russian immigrants with dubious Jewish connections allows many Israelis to rest easy. They can reason: Neo-Nazism is not some homegrown phenomenon but a disease injected into the body politic by the infiltration of some outside Other. But Buatinov’s existence threatens to rock the conceptual foundation of Jewishness itself. The idea of a neo-Nazi Jew is such an anathama that Israel has no law against it. If a Jew can also be a neo-Nazi, and worse become one in Israel, then what does that say about the conceptual coherency of Jewishness itself? The fact that Israeli society could breed its very negation seems to call into question the stability of its justification for existence. Put simply, the gang’s existence posits the question: in a post-Holocaust world, can a Jew be a Nazi?

The question, it seems, is too horrifying to ask, let alone answer. And this is why the gang’s non-Jewishness and antisemitism is being emphasized and not the fact that non-Jewish immigrants were also their victims. After all, Israeli racism against immigrants, especially Asians, Africans, and Russians, is common. The idea that Nazism could be embraced as an expression of that racism toward reveals the fact that two absolute contradictions–Jew and Nazi–are perhaps not so absolutely contradictory after all.

But these questions are likely to be ignored. If reader responses are any indication, targeting Israel’s Russian immigrant population as the breeding ground for wayward youth seems to be the comfortable route. Somehow, however, I doubt explaining racism with racism will do much to alleviate the problem. It will only shroud it further with nationalist fetishisms that will only inflame calls to exact the Russian cancer from Israeli’s otherwise healthy body politic.

Maya Haber provided all Hebrew translations. 

We’re Not Nazis, We’re Punk-Anarchists

“We’re punks!” declare immigrant teens mostly from the CIS who hang out at Petah Tikva’s Gan Yehonatan club in Israel. They are also skinheads. But skins come a various types. You have anti-racist skins, Nazi skins (or boneheads as anti-racists call them), and apparently a new type, one that fits well in Israel: “radical right wing Islamophobes who believe in the working class,” according to one youth who talked to Moti Katz for his article, “We’re Not Nazis, We’re Punk-Anarchists” in Haaretz.

One might be surprised, even shocked, to learn that there are neo-Nazi youths in the Jewish state. But events over the last year, one of which included vandalizing a synagogue with swastikas, show that not all Russian immigrants experience a Jewish rebirth upon arrival to the homeland. Many don’t even identify themselves as Jews. Others, who attempt to assimilate, are rebuffed by the locals. “Some of the youths,” writes Katz, “regard Israelis with anger and distrust. They are a close-knit group, but complain that Israelis treat them with contempt and see them as stereotypes. Most of all, they say they don’t belong.”

Extremist groups tend to be havens for such outcasts. But it is not so much the ideology that attracts them, though left and right wing radicalism can be magnets to the disaffected. It is more the codes and symbols that are the glue to tight knit social groups. Katz’s article seeps with such markers of identity:

“You must distinguish between two groups of skinheads,” one [youth] says. “There are good skinheads and Nazi skinheads, called boneheads.” (Nazi skinheads are often called boneheads by traditionalist skinheads and Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice.)

“The boneheads shave their heads and wear white suspenders with jeans or military trousers, sometimes with a white collar,” one boy says. Most of them are over 18 years old, some even serve in the military, and they advocate typical Nazi ideology, based on hatred of Jews and Israelis, he says.

“A few months ago, the boneheads held a ceremony to mark Hitler’s birthday in one of the cemeteries,” a boy says.

Irena, 18, from the central region, has spent some time with the Nazi boneheads.

“I was a skingirl – that’s what you call the Nazi skinheads’ girls,” she says.

Irena’s boyfriend was the group leader, dubbed the “Fuhrer.”

“We were a bunch of immigrant Russian boys and girls, and we had a certain dress code. The boys usually shaved their heads and wore military pants.

“On weekends we’d meet in parks, where we’d drink and smoke and listen to Nazi music. Nazi music isn’t Rammstein [a German band that incorporates elements of metal/hard rock, industrial metal and electronic music],” she says with a smile. Some evenings fights would break out between her group and others who met in the parks. Irena’s boyfriend, the Fuhrer, was involved in fighting among the groups.

One group at odds with the Nazi skinheads is the “good” Nazi skinheads, as the youngsters call them. The good skinheads are not Nazis or Jew haters – “they are radical right wing Islamophobes who believe in the working class,” a youth says.

There are many shaven heads among the good skinheads, who wear jeans, sometimes bleach-stained, red suspenders and red laces on their military boots. One boy says that he was beaten up once by the Nazi skinheads for wearing red suspenders. “The red symbolizes Communism to them, and the Communists defeated the Nazis,” he says.

Most of the youths in Gan Yehonatan categorize themselves as punk-anarchists. “We, the punks, usually wear tight black trousers and various Mohawk hair styles,” he says. “We also have metalists, who listen to heavy metal music, wear lots of earrings and rivets, army boots and are into piercing.”


The Russian Diaspora in Israel

According to my unscientific survey, the Russian diaspora in Israel is an under reported topic in blogs on Russia. I present excerpts from two articles from Haaretz in hopes of beginning a discussion. The first tells of Russian anti-Semitism toward Orthodox Jews in the form of neo-Nazis, while the second reports on the Israeli oppression of Russians because of their adherence to the Orthodox faith. Both point to the contradictions the post-Soviet aliyah to Israel that began in the 1990s. Excerpts are below.

“Fear and loathing in Petah Tikva / Neo-Nazi gangs assaulting ultra-Orthodox Jews”
By Moti Katz
Haaretz, May 11, 2006.

A week after the desecration of the Great Synagogue in Petah Tikva, nothing remains of the horror the worshipers encountered there last Thursday when they arrived for morning prayers. The walls, which had been sprayed with swastikas and blasphemy, have been newly painted, the floor polished and the curtain covering the holy ark replaced.

However, the danger is far from over. For the past two years the ultra-Orthodox community there, which includes some 5,000 families and 300 synagogues, has been subjected to incessant attacks by street gangs from the former Soviet Union (FSU). The gangs have been beating ultra-Orthodox men, hurling curses at them and desecrating synagogues.

“These youths feel out of place in the Russian community they belong to, but they are not accepted in Israeli society either,” says Bella Alexandrov, the director of the multi-disciplinary youth center in Petah Tikva. She distinguishes between two kinds of immigrants – punks and skinheads.

“The skinheads buy Russian videos about ‘white power’ that call for cleansing Russia of Jews. They don’t get it from home. It comes from not belonging and not finding answers to their distress.”

On Sukkot eve last year, a number of teens bearing knives burst into the big Lithuanian yeshiva Or Israel on Rothschild Street in the city center. They started beating pupils, and throwing prayer books and scriptures on the floor.

Yeshiva head Rabbi Yigal Rozen has no doubt that these incidents are anti-Semitic.

“Persecution only strengthens us”
By Lili Galili
Haaretz, June 6, 2006.

Vladimir Gridin, a professor of solid-state physics, is certain that the fact our meeting took place last Sunday, on Pentecost, the day believed to mark the birth of the Russian-Orthodox Church, was no coincidence. Nor did he believe that it was coincidence that the church where we met, at the end of Hagai Street in Migdal Haemek, was vandalized right before the sacred holiday. “Divine providence,” he says. Even if one can ascribe a degree of divine providence to the timing of our meeting, it’s doubtful the youths who desecrated the church and the adjacent priests’ graves a few days before the holiday were so attuned to the nuances of Russian Orthodoxy that they specifically picked that day to commit their act of vandalism.

“A pogrom in the church,” was the cry that echoed from the small community whose spiritual life is centered on the Church of St. Nikolai. What took place wasn’t quite a pogrom, but it was the latest in a series of attempts to damage a holy place. On Friday morning, when they arrived for services, the congregants found the church windows broken, the icons overturned, a cross uprooted from a priest’s grave and the edge of the grave ruined. A lot of effort went into shattering the windows, which were protected by a dense metal screen. A particularly malicious hand had to work hard to get in between the spaces to break the squares of thick glass one after the other. And yet, the police, whose local headquarters are very close to the church, insist the vandalism was just a prank by a bunch of 8- and 9-year-olds. “We’ve gone back to the early days of Christianity,” said Gridin sadly. “Christians are being persecuted again.”

A somewhat unusual group gathered this week at the door to the church. Unusual, both because of the way they’d broken with convention in the choices they’d made in their lives, and because they were all situated on the delicate seam between the Law of Return and the rules of halakha (Jewish law). This is the congregation of Father Romanus, a 46-year-old Arab Orthodox priest from Haifa, who is just as fluent in Russian as he is in Arabic and Hebrew. He learned the language while studying at a Russian theological seminary in the U.S., and founded his community here.

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