Cablegate: Russian Immigrants in Israel: Cultural And

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A

1. Summary: During a recent meeting with PD staff,
Professor Marina Nizhnik of Tel Aviv University
discussed the Russian immigrant community of Israel,
with particular emphasis on differences between the
more established community that has resided in Israel
for the past 10 years and the recent arrivals. End

2. On Friday, November 12, the Assistant Information
Officer and the Cultural Assistant met with Dr. Marina
Nizhnik, a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv
University whose research deals with the Russian
immigrant community in Israel. The Counselor for
Public Affairs also participated in the meeting. Dr.
Nizhnik spoke about the disparate Russian immigrant
communities in Israel, contrasting those immigrants who
have been here for at least 10 years with those who
have arrived within the past 5 years.

3. Although the Russian immigrant community is
typically treated as a monolithic unit within Israeli
society, Dr. Nizhnik pointed out that there are many
different groups which compose this community. The
Russian Israelis are a heterogeneous group from all 15
of the former Soviet republics, and come from a wide
range of economic, educational, social, cultural, and
religious backgrounds. The most important key to
understanding differences within the Russian Israeli
community is looking at the time period during which
they immigrated, although this is a sensitive question
which Dr. Nizhnik admitted is not very politically

--------------------------------------------- -------
"Non-Russian Russians; Non-Jewish Jews"
--------------------------------------------- -------

4. The earliest waves of emigration took place during
the Soviet period, and while each emigre had his or her
own reasons for leaving, a rising tide of anti-Semitism
in the Soviet Union combined with the pressures applied
on the Soviets to grant exit visas to Jews and the
prospect of better economic conditions abroad to create
strong incentives to leave. Israel, with a multitude
of state-funded programs to assist new arrivals, was
the easiest place to resettle. The Israeli Law of
Return, one of the first pieces of legislation passed
by the State of Israel, guarantees to any person who is
Jewish the right to live in Israel and acquire Israeli
citizenship. This right extends to persons with at
least one Jewish grandparent, as well as spouses of
Jews and their offspring. According to Israeli
official data cited by Dr. Nizhnik, 96% of the
immigrants from the Soviet Union in 1990 were Jewish as
defined by halakhic or Jewish religious law, a stricter
definition than that allowed under the Law of Return,
although only 72% of them were identified as Jews
according to their Soviet civil registrations (which
included "nationality" or "ethnicity" as an
identifier). By 2000, a minority - 45% - of new
immigrants from the 15 former Soviet states were Jewish
according to the strict halakhic definitions, and only
27% were identified as Jews according to their civil

5. Of the most recent arrivals - those who have come to
Israel since 2000 - Dr. Nizhnik observed that the
younger the immigrant, the less likely it is that he
thinks of himself as being Jewish. Many of these
newcomers never identified themselves as being Jewish
before they came to Israel, and many continue to
identify with the dominant religious traditions of
their countries of origin, where various forms of
Christianity have been adopted as state religions (to
various extents) as part of the forging of a post-
Soviet national identity. In further contrast to the
earlier waves of immigrants, the newcomers tend to be
from countries other than Russia (predominantly
Ukraine, with large numbers from Moldova and Belarus)
and frequently do not speak Russian as a native
language. Dr. Nizhnik also noted that these newer
arrivals are far more likely to hail from rural areas
than the earlier immigrants, who were typically from
urban centers.

6. Dr. Nizhnik commented that the average level of
education among immigrants tended to be higher among
immigrants who arrived prior to 1990 than it is among
the most recent immigrants. Earlier immigrants tended
to speak Russian as a native language, because
instruction in the better schools in the non-Russian
republics during the Soviet period was carried out in
Russian. Newer immigrants, identified from the moment
of their arrival in Israel as "Russians" even if they
are Ukrainians or Moldovans by birth, attempt to relate
to the Russian community to the greatest extent
possible. Although they might not be native Russian
speakers, they tend to find Russian an easier language
for practical purposes than Hebrew. And excluded from
native or "Sabra" Israeli culture, they adopt Russian
culture as a part of their own identity. Dr. Nizhnik
observed that the school-aged newcomers in particular
take great pride in their adopted Russian background,
asserting the superiority of Russian culture over what
they view as the "barbaric, oriental" culture of native
Israelis, even though they are frequently quite
ignorant of Russian culture as well. She related a
conversation she had had with a high-school student
born in Ukraine who was boasting in a literature class
about the superiority of Russian authors. When asked
what his favorite work was by the famous Russian author
Fyodor Dostoevsky, the student proudly named [Leo
Tolstoy's classic] "War and Peace."

"Union of Outsiders"

7. The immigrants who arrived in the early 1990's from
the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet states have
largely, though by no means universally, become
integrated into Israeli society. They have daily
contact with other Israelis at work and school and use
Hebrew in their daily lives, although they frequently
continue to speak Russian at home, and their children
are quite capable of moving between the Russian and
Israeli spheres. Those who have arrived since 2000
have generally had a much more difficult time adapting.
With linguistic, social, and other barriers to
overcome, they tend to find it very difficult to enter
the Israeli sphere. In general, the extent to which
parents are forced to rely on their children's language
skills has greatly disrupted the family structures that
these immigrants were familiar with in their home
countries. Dr. Nizhnik commented that in the
interviews she has conducted in the course of her
research, one theme has been that these immigrants have
no particular desire to be in Israel. The major factor
in their decision to emigrate was their hope for better
economic and educational opportunities for their
children, and because of their ability to claim Jewish
ancestry, they are able to come to Israel. Many of
them see Israel as a way station en route to eventual
emigration to the United States or Canada.

8. According to Dr. Nizhnik, the sense of exclusion
from mainstream Israeli society among new immigrants is
a major factor in a developing social trend - the
relations between new immigrants from the former Soviet
states and the Israeli Arab community, which also tends
to be kept on the outside of Israeli society. She
observed that the last few years have seen significant
growth in connections between these two groups. Social
interaction has become increasingly common,
particularly among younger members of the two groups
who use Hebrew as a common language. Dr. Nizhnik also
noted that cooperation in illegal activities between
the two groups has also been on the rise. A November
4, 2004 article in Ha'aretz noted that nearly 30
percent of police investigations opened on youth
involve immigrant youth, even though they constitute
only 12 percent of this sector of the population.

9. Dr. Nizhnik pointed out that although these new
immigrants are able to come to Israel on the basis of
their Jewish ancestry, many of them did not think of
themselves as being Jewish before emigrating, and this
self-image does not change when they come here. She
observed that among some of the younger immigrants she
has interviewed, they not only retain their self-
identity as Christians when they immigrate, they also
retain the anti-Semitic biases that they learned in
their home countries.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
There are Russian Israelis, and then there are Russian
--------------------------------------------- ---------

10. The nature of the relationship between Russian
Israelis who arrived in the early 1990's and those who
have arrived since 2000 depends greatly on where they
live, but overall Dr. Nizhnik described this
relationship as being fraught with tension. Those who
have successfully integrated themselves into mainstream
Israeli society strive to set themselves apart in every
way possible from the newcomers they see as being non-
Russian and non-Jewish. They are also acutely aware of
the general perception of the newcomer population as
bringing criminal activity into neighborhoods and
schools. Dr. Nizhnik also noted that the last general
elections in Israel saw a startling development which,
although quite small in numbers, could be the beginning
of an interesting trend: a very small percentage of
integrated Russian Israelis voted for the ultra-
conservative party Shas because of Shas's objective of
overhauling the Law of Return to make the definition of
who is qualified to immigrate to Israel more strict -
which would disqualify many of those immigrating today.


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