Backlash to the Kingmaker

What the rise of Avigdor Lieberman means for Russians in Israel.

Avigdor Lieberman. Click image to expand.
Avigdor Lieberman

TEL AVIV, Israel—In Israel, calling an immigrant from the former Soviet Union “Russian” is an insult; the preferred term is repatriate, someone who has returned home. Russian refers to ethnic Russians, and in Russia, Jews were constantly reminded that they were not Russian. Having experienced institutionalized anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, the 1.2 million Soviet immigrants who flooded Israel in the 1990s were shocked when they were accused of not being Jewish enough by the local population. Whenever I am in Israel, I am constantly corrected by the repatriates themselves when I use the term “Russian immigrant.”

Over the last 20 years, the repatriates have integrated into Israeli society; their children serve in the army, speak fluent Hebrew, and watch Big Brother VIP. Repatriates assure me that society has begun to accept the quirks of Russian immigrant culture—drinking vodka on a cold day, eating Russian food, tuning in to Russian-language television and radio—but repatriate Avigdor Lieberman’s recent emergence as the kingmaker of Israeli politics comes with a cost. Although it signifies Russian political empowerment in mainstream Israeli politics, it has resurfaced some old Russian stereotypes.

Peter Mastovoy, an internationally acclaimed documentary director, will be honored with the Yuri Shtern Medal by the Ministry of Absorption for his contribution to Israeli culture and society on March 29. Over a lunch of borsht, seloydka (pickled herring), Russian beet and potato salads, hummus, and pita, he tried to explain the initial attitude toward the enormous wave of Russian immigrants.

“In Russia, Jews had to work twice as hard as Russians; we had to be smarter and faster, otherwise the Soviet masters would not let us do anything. So, we arrived more educated, a head above native-born Israelis. Still, for some reason there was a stigma,” he observed. “When I first came to Israel, they asked me, ‘Do you know what a refrigerator is?’ They thought we all lived in Siberia with wild bears!”

Peter’s wife, Marina, a journalist with Channel 9, Israel’s first 24-hour-Russian-language TV channel, shared his laughter. Marina and Peter wanted to vote for Lieberman, but instead they chose to cast their ballots for Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud because they worried that supporting Lieberman would harm Bibi’s chance of becoming prime minister.

Lieberman’s rise made international headlines because of his growing appeal among “mainstream”—that is, non-Russian—voters; however, his main support base has been overlooked. Mark Kotliarsky, the press secretary and spokesman for Lieberman’s party, Israel Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home), attributes only four of the party’s 15 Knesset seats to non-Russian voters. Still, Kotliarsky maintains that Israel Beitenu is not a Russian party but “an Israeli party with Russian-repatriate-interest priorities.”

When we met, the party office was buzzing with activity. Kotliarsky’s data suggest that Lieberman received more than 50 percent of the Russian-speaking vote; most of the rest voted for Netanyahu because he had a better chance of becoming prime minister. What would happen if those Russians voted for Lieberman? I wonder. Kotliarsky answered my question in a flash. In the previous election, each mandate was worth about 28,000 votes. If all eligible Russian-speaking voters cast a ballot for Lieberman, their support alone would give him about 20 Knesset seats. If his popularity in the mainstream continues at the expense of other parties, it is possible Lieberman could gain enough mandates to become prime minister. (This chart shows how relatively small shifts in support can affect party standings.)

Lieberman appeals to Russians because he is perceived as an anti-democrat, someone who stands apart from other Israeli politicians who engage in endless, inconclusive dialogue. They see him as a decisive man of action. “Lieberman is the first person to raise his voice against the sacred cow of democracy,” Genadiy Nizhnik explains. Nizhnik moved to Israel at 18 and immediately joined the army; he is now in his late 30s. Wrapped in a woolen scarf to keep out the Jerusalem chill, Nizhnik is a giant of a man who looks more like a lumberjack than the tour guide of Jerusalem’s holy sites that he is.

During our 30-minute conversation, Nizhnik knocked back four shots of Jameson whiskey without batting an eye, as if to flaunt the stereotype of the hard-drinking Russian. “[Repatriates] have been immunized against liberal democracy. … We heard all the leftist fairy tales and lullabies, and we can’t be bought with them. Maybe the locals can, but not us. Don’t get me wrong,” he adds, “I’m not against democracy, just the kind of democracy we have in Israel. Life is too hard here. Life, God, death, and war are always right beside us.”

Nizhnik also takes pride in Israel Beitenu’s success with mainstream voters. He tells me times are changing for Russians—their culture and their political opinions are becoming more accepted by the mainstream. “Russians have stopped being on the periphery here. Our violin joined the symphony and began to play. Now we are part of the Israeli orchestra, because it wasn’t just Russians who voted for Lieberman.”

For all the Russian repatriates’ attempts to convince me they are accepted here, behind closed doors, sabras tell another story. To them, Russians remain outsiders. Young and old alike turn sour when discussing Lieberman’s rise.

I met Danny on a bus in Jerusalem. His views echoed what many other Israeli-born Jews told me. “The Russians? Lieberman? This is an embarrassment. They come here, they eat pork, most of them are not even Jewish!” he exclaimed. “And now they’ve elected him, they will ruin our country.”

It is not only older Russian immigrants who felt alienated upon arriving in Israel. Twenty-one-year-old Yana moved to Be’ersheva from Russia when she was 7. Four years ago, when she moved to Tel Aviv, she changed her name to Lee. “I didn’t want people to know I was Russian,” she explained. “I was tired of being mocked and called a prostitute. I thought life would be easier.” Lee doesn’t “look” Russian—she looks like all the other beautiful girls with hazel eyes and flowing brown hair who roam the city’s streets. Dressed in the latest fashions, she attracted admiring glances from other tables in the coffee shop where we met. “But I’m Russian, no matter how hard I try, I’m Russian here.” She sighed. “I guess things are changing.”

Two years ago, I met Sveta in Nicaragua. She was backpacking after her army service, an Israeli rite of passage. Sveta looks Russian, with long blond hair and bright blue eyes. She moved from Odessa at 13 and considers herself Israeli.

As we chattered away in Russian at a bar in Jerusalem, I glanced around to see if people were looking at us. I detected a faint air of distaste from the next table. Was I just being paranoid? After serving in the army, speaking Hebrew fluently, living and working here, how would it feel still to be labeled Russian? “Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked Sveta.

“Of course,” she replied, dragging heavily on her cigarette, “But that’s reality. The only thing I can do is prove them wrong. I just have to show them Russians aren’t like all the stereotypes.” But with her parents and her friends voting for Lieberman, empowering themselves at the expense of reviving old stereotypes, I wonder if she can.