Who are the Russian-Israeli Voters and How did they Affect Israel’s Elections?

Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu party

Since Avigdor Lieberman broke with Netanyahu’s Likud party after Israel’s May elections, the major political parties have been trying to court the Russian-Israeli voters, many of whom have been loyal to Lieberman. Yair Lapid, now part of Blue and White, went so far as to record a campaign video in broken Russian.

In the meantime Israeli media has been raising questions about identity of the “Russian” voter: is there in fact a so-called “Russian Voice,” or are Russian-Israelis, most of whom have lived in the country for many years, too diverse to form a single voting block?

Although I left Israel for the U.S. some 20 years ago, I sometimes still see myself as part of that demographic. As I watch interviews with Russian-Israelis of my generation, I’m not surprised to find their stories painfully familiar. Like me, many of them arrived as young children and faced an intense pressure to assimilate.

Back then, in the 1990s, claiming an immigrant identity wasn’t an option. You could become a sabra Israeli, or be the butt of an insult: a dirty Russian, a stingy Yemenite, a knife-wielding Moroccan. No matter how hard you try to conform, even the trace of an accent or a different skin color made you an outsider. My “Yemeni” and “Moroccan” classmates — all born in Israel — knew this all too well.

For newly arrived Russian Jews such othering was bewildering. As one interviewee puts it, “I didn’t know I was Russian until I came to Israel.” In the former Soviet Union, of course, we weren’t Russians; we were Jews. Easily spotted by appearance, and carrying identity cards stamped with the word “Jew” in the box for “nationality,” Jews were subject to all manner of humiliation and discrimination.

For immigrants of my parents’ generation, who’d experienced the full force of Soviet anti-Semitism, Israel was supposed to be a sanctuary, a true Promised Land. Instead they were confronted with a new string of indignities. In addition to the stereotypes, there was the infantilization of having to learn a new language, the apathy of Israel’s bureaucracy and the brutality of its growing capitalism.

My grandmother, sister and I, along with another immigrant family in Tel-Aviv, 1989.

The power of Orthodox Judaism was also a baffling. In Israel the Orthodox hold sole authority over marriage and burial in the Jewish sector. For them, the only Israelis who count as Jewish and can have access to those rites are those who can prove matrilineal Jewish ancestry or ones who’ve converted.

On top of that, the 1990s were a tumultuous decade. Newly arrived immigrants were shocked to find themselves in the midst of the Gulf War, and then, after a brief hopeful interlude of the Oslo Accords, in a situation when bus- and café- bombings were part of everyday life.

When Lieberman formed the Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel, Our Home”) party in the late 1990s, he appealed to the Russian immigrants’ anxieties and frustrations. Lieberman combined a promise of a more secular Israel with a hawkish, hardline stance on national security.

Lieberman’s strategy worked. After holding various senior positions in Netanyahu’s government, Lieberman brazenly broke with the party in May, demanding to end the exemption of Orthodox Yeshiva students from Israel’s mandatory military service.

Now, in the unprecedented repeat election that his break triggered, Lieberman’s party holds eight seats, a large number for Israel’s balkanized political system. These seats are likely essential to the formation of a new coalition, thus putting Lieberman in the position of a kingmaker.

So did the Russian-Israeli voters cast the deciding ballots for Lieberman? Many of them, especially those of the older generation, likely did. But, according to a Haaretz article, so did some leftists, who saw a vote for Lieberman as a way to defeat Netanyahu.

And what about the Russian-Israeli millennials and post-millennials? Immigrants who, like myself, grew up in the 1990s or the 2000s? In the interviews that I watched and read these younger “Russians” tend to identify with Russian culture and vote for right-wing parties — though not necessarily Lieberman’s.

Had I stayed, would I have been picked for such interviews — one of which takes place at a Russian-language stand-up night, another on the streets of the southern town of Ashkelon? Maybe, but probably not. Growing up in a liberal middle-class town, I supported Avodah, and, despite the piguim, the terror attacks, in the late 1990s, I believed that peace was possible. I have no way of knowing what or who I would have become had I spent the last 20 years in Israel instead of the U.S., but it’s likely that I would have assimilated further and came to hold a political view that had nothing to do with my Russian background.

Whether Lieberman supports Gantz or Netanyahu, commentators agree that the new government isn’t likely to bring much change. There may be a greater push for secularism, but the Ultra-Orthodox parties still hold a great deal of power. If change is to come from any direction, it will be from the Palestinian (Arab-Israeli) Joint List, which holds fifteen seats.

Stepping aside from politics, one positive takeaway is that, today, Russian-Israelis do have a voice in Israeli politics and culture. That wasn’t the case in the late 1980’s when my family and I arrived, or any time in the 1990s. Today, young people can more easily claim Russian language and culture as a positive part of their identity, and being part of the Russian community doesn’t make you an outsider.

Israeli society has always been diverse, with Jews arriving from different countries, and Palestinians who’ve always lived here. Now perhaps it is starting to embrace at least some elements of its diversity, instead of seeing it as a threat to the country’s outdated ideal of a homogenous national identity. Maybe some day the Knesset will also reflect this change.

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I write about tech, women, culture and the self. Book: Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work. https://polinakroik.com/

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Polina Kroik

Polina Kroik

I write about tech, women, culture and the self. Book: Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work. https://polinakroik.com/

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