By Yury Polyakov
The voting patterns among the Russian-speaking people in Israel. Part 1.
The Russian Speaking Israeli people have voted differently in all Israeli General Elections. The primary reason for several switches from one side to another was that the Russian speakers were vulnerable to propaganda. Not all Russian Speakers are ethnic Jews because the non-Jewish family members could migrate to Israel alongside their Jewish spouse. Thus, this article will cover the issues in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles inside Israel.
The State of Israel recognises that the protection of interests of all Jews is its raison d’etre. No matter where the Jewish people live, they can commit Aaliyah to the cradle of their historical roots. The immigration from the former Soviet Union was the third major immigration wave, and it occurred throughout 1990’s. In 2013, Benjamin Netanyahu said that the arrival of a million Russian speakers was a miracle that enabled Israel to extract the new benefits that highly educated Olims could offer. 25,000 nurses, 108,000 engineers, 21,000 artists and 50,000 teachers have not entirely gotten jobs in their spheres, but the Soviet education system alongside the state initiatives such as language courses, land allocation and scientific programmes increased their mobility within the Israeli job market. As of 2017, the Russian-speaking Jews are well-integrated into the Israeli society. However, they did not cut their roots with the countries of their birth, whereas the previous European and Arab immigrants sacrificed their cultural and linguistic roots.
Yitzhak Rabin shakes hands with ‘Olims’ in 1994. Source: Livejournal.
The BBC and Guardian have described the Russian vote in Israel as primarily right-wing. Moreover, they have often added that the right-wing parties were so successful because the Olim accounted for a high portion of its electoral support. On the one hand, Russian-speaking communities are indeed more likely to vote for the right-wing parties if they live in the Western societies. For example, over 70 percent of Russian Americans voted for Donald J. Trump in the most recent US elections. Israel is not an exception because the number of Russian Jews who would vote for the right-wing parties increased after several clashes of the IDF with Lebanese in 2006 and Palestinians in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Initially, the Israeli right wing parties were thrilled about the inflow of the people from the former Soviet Union because they assumed that they were largely anti-communist. However, discrimination practices in the exodus country have mostly affected the pre-Perestroika generations of immigrants, whereas the fresh wave left the Soviet Union alongside the Independent Republics because of the economic decline. That is why the 200,000 eligible “Russian” voters gave Likud only 18 percent of the votes because they supported the center-left camp such as Labor and Meretz in 1992. It could be said that Likud lost the election mainly because people perceived them negatively after the housing crisis that affected Israel in April 1992. Likewise, the financial problems damaged the job market, and it persisted throughout the election time, showing its 11 percent ratio steadily since 1989.
The high-scale of immigration has scared the Sabra (Israelis who are native-born), and they blamed Likud for bringing the corruption into practice while they were building the new houses for immigrants. Besides that, the TV advertisings and other campaigning methods of left-wing parties such as canvassing as well as phone calls convinced Russian Jews to switch their traditional allegiance to the Right. Perhaps, Alek D. Epstein is right because he asserted that the majority of Russians were vulnerable to the new sources of propaganda, and the abundance of the Russian and Hebrew press that was left-wing was the primary mechanism that influenced them upon the election. Anton Nossik described his time at Maariv newspaper as a constant battle with left-liberal journalists who demanded from its editor Dov Yudkosvky to ban the use of religious symbols such as kippot because they saw it as provocative. Maariv was the influential force that led the Labor Party to the victory in 1992.
The same paradox happened again when Russian Jews supported Ehud Barak’s One Nation in 1999. One Nation was a coalition of the left-wing parties that comprised the Labour, Meimad and Gesher politicians. Moreover, 61 percent of the Russian Jews voted for Barak at the PM’S election in 1999. Russian-speakers backed Barak because Labor Party structured the campaign primarily around his person. For instance, the Labor party spent the significant funds on the Russian-language radio broadcasts that Netanyahu’s Likud failed to take into account. Moreover, Sharon and Barak appealed to Russian veterans and acknowledged the contribution of the Soviet Army to the victory against the Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Since most Russian Jews obtained the Russian mentality, the personality traits and historical values played up a vital role in forming the electoral preferences. Therefore, Barak realised that he could portray himself as more powerful and charming person than Netanyahu and it had its payoffs despite his weak stance on Syrians and Palestinians. Hence, the first generation of Russian voters selected Barak because they were still integrating into the Israeli society.
Ehud Barak holding an antitank missile launcher in 2012 Source: VosIzNeias
The so-called ‘Russian’ parties are also a product of the swing vote days. Firstly, Yuli Kosharovsky formed the Democracy and Aaliyah party that performed badly in 1992 Elections. Secondly, the former Soviet dissident and the ‘prisoner of Sion’ Natan Sharansky established the Yisrael BaAaliyah party that won seven seats in the Knesset in 1996 elections and six seats in 1999. Furthermore, they started to lose their support because the immigration from Russia and the former Soviet Union began to decline in 2000’s. Thus, Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky decided to merge into Likud party in 2003. Thirdly, the Kishinev-born politician Avigdor Lieberman created the Yisrael Beytenu party that aimed to advocate the interests of those Russian-speakers who advocated the hard-line stance in negotiations with Palestine authorities. Lieberman understood that the Russian Jews had a tendency to disapprove the two-state solution because most of them saw Israel as a sacred land. This view is similar across the Russian Jewish diaspora in the US, Germany, Russia and Canada where people think negatively about the Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese governments because they are afraid that they can destroy their primary attachment to the Jewish identity. Indeed, as an Orthodox Jew, Lieberman still targets the secular people because he is aware that the Russian Jews were deeply assimilated into the Russian culture. By far, Yisrael Beytenu has been the most successful ‘Russian’ party in Israel, and their best result is the 15 seats that they won in 2009.
Bill Clinton argued that the Russian Jews who form 17 percent of the Israeli population are the main obstacle to the peaceful resolution in the Middle East. Certainly, Clinton’s caused much outrage among different groups of the Israeli society. There is a possibility that the statement was a turning point that convinced Benjamin Netanyahu to state that without Russian Jews, Modern Israel would never have gotten as many achievements as it has.
PM Netanyahu feels that he needs to appeal to Russian-speaking Jews because Russian and Israel have still got a plenty of room for discussion. The bilateral relationship between Israel and former Soviet Republics has never been as good as it is at the moment. However, Israel perceives the instability in the Middle East as a threat to its integrity and existence. Moreover, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have also received diverging answers among the Russian-speaking people of Israel as well as its political establishment. Lastly, the majority of Israeli people feel an isolation from the rest of the world. In other words, they suppose that the Western states demonstrate solidarity with Palestine rather than Israel. Hence, the disenchantment with the peaceful settlement solution is quite common among the Russian Jews who mostly completed the shift to the right wing after the Gaza Strip conflict that started in August 2014.
5. Jones, C. (1996). Soviet Jewish Aliyah, 1989-1992: Impact and Implications for Israel and the Middle East. Psychology Press.
6. Elazar, D. J & Sandler, S. (1995). Israel at the Polls, 1992. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
8. Ghanem, A. (2013). Ethnic Politics in Israel: The Margins and the Ashkenazi Centre. Routledge: Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics.
4 thoughts on “Russian Israelites, Are They Voting “Right”?”
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