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Lily Galili on 'The Russians in Israel'

Haaretz senior features writer Lily Galili, who has been covering the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union since it began in 1989, answered questions on 'The Russians in Israel' live online on August 7. We thank the thousands of readers who participated. Galili, who writes about social trends, has documented the political, cultural and social development of "the Russians," as they are known in Israel, within the context of the broader society. Galili began working at Haaretz in 1981, and covered the emergence of extra-parliamentary groups which grew out of the protest movements that coalesced around the Lebanon War. In 1998-99 she was a Neiman fellow at Harvard University.


As a criminal defense attorney in Chicago, I have represented many Russian immigrant teens and young adults who are addicted to heroin (for some reason they gravitate to this drug). Do you see the same problem in Israel?
Evan Winer
Chicago, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
Yes, we do. The percentage of drug users among immigrant teens is significantly higher than their proportion in Israeli society. This phenomenon is attributed to age, immigration crisis and the lack of an appropriate framework to deal with this issue. More specifically, it's becoming a growing concern among school drop-outs, 43 percent of whom use drugs.
As a Jew who identifies with Israel and has Jewish relatives who made aliyah from Russia to Israel, I feel very uncomfortable with the label "Russians." Why do you label Russian Jews who finally come to their homeland Israel as "Russians"?
Daniel Krygier
Copenhagen, Denmark
Lily Galili:
You're absolutely right about that. We try to avoid the term "Russians", although it's the immigrants themselves who refer to themselves as such. It all depends on the context.
I would like to know if by having everything posted (ads, store names, TV ads, etc.) in Russian you think this helps Russian people to become more Israeli? Sometimes when I walk in Haifa I feel as if I am in Russia, because all the ads posted on the street are in Russian. We should ensure Hebrew is maintained in Israel.
Carmen
Chesterfield, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
It's an intriguing issue, with no simple answer. Preserving Hebrew is very much part of the Zionist ethos, but so is observing the needs of over a million people. On a recent trip to New York, I noticed parts of brooklyn look like "little Moscow". I do not think that using the language they know and feel comfortable with , makes them less "Israeli".
How has the massive immigration of Russians affected Israeli culture at large? Are these effects permanent, or do you feel they will dissipate as Russians merge into Israeli society?
Matt Hogan
New York, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
Some of the cultural effects will hopefully stay with us for good - such as the theater, ballet schools, orchestras, etc. On the other hand, I hope for a deeper and broader intellectual and literary interaction in the future. The dozens of newspapers in Russian will probably disappear in about 10 years.
What is your opinion about the functioning of top Russian political activists in Israel? In particular, how do you see the performance of Avigdor Lieberman?
Edi
Petah Tikva, Israel
Lily Galili:
I'm afraid Avigdor Lieberman won't agree with your definition of him as a "Russian activist," since he likes to think of himself as an Israeli leader. After Nathan Sharansky's party merged with the Likud, there are not many "Russian political activists" left. In general, they played a positive role in facilitating the absorption process.
How did the lack of Zionist education and culture in Russia affect the assimilation process of the Russian Jews?
Roi
New York, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
The lack of Zionist education plays an interesting role in the process of absorption. Facing the crisis of immigration with no previous ideological background, many of the immigrants resort to national or even nationalistic symbols to restructure their identity.
Do you think there is a possibility that the Law of Return will be changed in this present government and do you think that there will be an aliya of Russian Jews who have gone to Germany?
Avrom Zvi
London, U.K.
Lily Galili:
I do not believe the law of return will be changed in the near future. The issue is too sensitive to be dealt with in the midst of an unresolved conflict and security problems. As to the Russian Jews who chose Germany, as an Israeli I can only regret that choice. Still, for obvious reasons, Germany is being very nice to them. I do not believe they will end up in Israel- moving once is hard enough. Plus, the local Jewish community in Germany is making every possible effort to integrate them. They also want to grow.
How many non-Jewish Russians are there nowadays in Israel? How will they integrate into Israeli society? Is it true that some of them are frequently involved in anti-Semitic acts?
Tomas
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Lily Galili:
According to unofficial data, there are about 300,000 non-Jewish Russians currently living in Israel. Most of them do integrate into Israeli society. Of course, there are exceptions of individuals or groups who are becoming hostile to the state. Some of them, not many, get involved in anti-Semitic activities, such as graffiti or neo-Nazi websites. Since both phenomena are illegal, they should be dealt with as such.
In what ways does the Russian community in Israel remain monolithic and isolationist? Does it see itself integrating more fully into Israeli society? With what culture do the Russian immigrants most identify?
Noga Barocas
Montreal, Canada
Lily Galili:
Most of the immigrants enjoy the luxury of belonging to two cultures and integrating at their own pace. The older generation identifies with the Russian culture for obvious reasons; the younger one moves freely between the two worlds. The fact that they have their own media and clubs does not necessarily imply "isolation." In fact, Israel is a very demanding country, and you can not remain "isolated."
There is a widespread belief that Russian Ashkenazi Jews discriminate against Russian Jews from the Caucasus or Asia. Is this a real problem and what is being done to address it?
Endev Morse
Oxford, U.K.
Lily Galili:
Unfortunately, people do have racist instincts. So do the Russians. I don't think it's a real issue, and anyway it falls into the broader category of the complexity of Israeli society, e.g. Ashkenazi-Sephardi Jews. A Caucasian was recently elected mayor of a small town in Israel; many "Russians" voted for him.
Over time, how will 320,000 persons of non-Jewish nationality or whose Jewishness is in doubt be absorbed into Israeli society? Demographically, is this a serious problem for the major Orthodox-controlled sectors of your country?
Dimitri Kaplan
St. Louis, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
These 320,000 non-Jewish immigrants are not a monolithic group, and it is critical to make the distinction between three sub-groups in particular: First, non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages; second, people who are not Jewish according to Halakhic law, but came to Israel under the Law of Return; third, those who came illegally. The first two groups can easily integrate into Israeli society if we make a greater effort to facilitate the process. The third group is a different issue, although most of its members as well identify with the state of Israel. The Orthodox establishment is gradually coming to grips with the changing face of Israeli society.
What percentage of the non-Jewish Russian Immigrants convert to Judaism?
Tony Hernandez
Miami, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
The exact numbers are not available, although the percentage is relatively low. Partly, because of the many difficulties the non-Jewish immigrant faces when it comes to Orthodox conversion. On the other hand, it is important to understand that many of the young people born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers cannot understand how the state can cast any doubt on their Jewishness (while they were considered Jews back in Russia).
Do you believe that there is any kind of Jewish aliyah reserve left in the former Soviet Union?
Shalom Freedman
Jerusalem, Israel
Lily Galili:
Yes there is a reserve of Jewish aliya left in the former Soviet Union, but nobody knows the exact numbers. Still, we have to get used to the idea that Jews in the former Soviet Union are for the first time organizing in communities and restructuring a Jewish life just like that in the States or in Europe. "Let my people go" is not necessarily their motto.
Why are so many Russians opting to immigrate to Germany instead of Israel, and is anything being done to reverse this trend?
Robert Akkerman
Brooklyn, NY, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
Very little can be done to reverse this trend, despite the basic Zionist instinct to bring every Jew to Israel. In fact, the year 2003 is going to be the first in history when the number of Russian Jews going to Germany will outnumber those coming to Israel. This interesting twist in the story has a lot to do with Germany and the Jewish community there, actively encouraging Jewish immigration.
Is it true that the Russians look down - more than other people - on Orientals?
Prof. Richard Millman
Paris, France
Lily Galili:
You cannot make any generalizations when talking about over a million people. Still, it is true that some of them look down on Orientals or on veteran Israelis in general. Sometimes, this type of behavior is motivated by pure racism, sometimes by ignorance, but more often by the deep sense that they themselves have of being "the other" in a new society.
To what extent have Russian immigrants been economically marginalized in Israeli society?
Fred Peal
New York, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
It is safe to say that their mobility within the economic and business sector has been relatively restricted. But, it would be incorrect to state that the Russian immigrants have been economically marginalized. Their leap from the lower social strata to the middle class has been impressively swift. The level of unemployment among immigrants, for instance, is very similar to the national average.
There is a perception that the Russian community is right-wing. Why is the Russian community attracted to the right and is there any chance that the community's views will shift leftward in the future? What implication does this have for the Labor Party?
Shaun Jackson
Melbourne, Australia
Lily Galili:
This is not just a perception, it is the reality: the Russian community is in fact inclined to the right. The reasons for this political behavior are quite diverse. The most important one is the fact that they come from a big and stubborn empire and find it almost inconceivable to make concessions and give away land, especially in a small country. Another reason is their reaction to the socialist system which they rejected. Their views might shift in the future, as they did in the past when they voted for Rabin, then for Netanyahu, then for Barak, and finally for Sharon.
Is it true that the majority of the Russians in Israel are very young and want to try something new and radical, so they voted for Sharon en masse?
Anas Orabi
Sydney, Australia
Lily Galili:
Firstly, most of the Russian immigrants are middle-aged and since they tend to have one or two children only, the average age of the immigrants is relatively high. I assume that coming from the former Soviet Union - a communist country - voting for the right and for Sharon is doing something new and radical.
As a businessman here in Moscow, I am beginning to notice that some Russians who made aliya, even as far back as the 70's, are returning to Russia for jobs and opportunities. Do you feel this is temporary due to the economic depression in Israel (and boom here) or are these Russians representative of a larger group which is unhappy in Israel and misses Russia?
Itzik
Moscow, Russia
Lily Galili:
I think both of your assumptions are correct. Also, sociological studies prove that a certain percentage of new immigrants to any country tend to return to their countries of origin. The number of Russian immigrants returning to Russia does not exceed that average.
Do you think it is wise to encourage Russians and others to make aliyah when the Israeli economy has trouble supporting the people who are in the country already? I understand that aliyah is used to counter the growing Arab birth rates, but can't Israel focus its resources on decreasing the Arab population instead of bringing in new people?
Abe Shack
New York, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
The first part of your question undermines the very core of the Zionist ethos, while the second half of your question is an insult to everybody who believes in basic human rights. Israel is here to provide a home for all who want to make aliyah, providing that we tell them the truth about the economic situation here. Demography is obviously part of the hidden agenda of aliyah, but is not the only motivation. I certainly don't want to be a citizen of a country that focuses its resources on decreasing the birth rate of any given group.
Is it true that Russian immigration has brought with it increased prostitution and mafia activity? Has American televangelist John Hagee given millions of dollars for Russian immigration to Israel?
G. R. Fisher
Brick, New Jersey, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
Yes, it is true. But this immigration also brought increased numbers of engineers, researchers, teachers, musicians, dancers and many other wonderful professions. I don't know about John Hagee specifically, but the evangelists' support for Russian immigration to Israel is not a secret. It serves the purposes of both sides, although not all Israelis are happy with the hidden agenda of the evangelists.
How has Russia's Chechen war impacted on the way some Russian immigrants view Muslims?
L. Grant
London, U.K.
Lily Galili:
Russian history, the Chechen war included, has taught some of the Russian immigrants that conflicts can only be resolved by use of force and that Muslims cannot be trusted. This is certainly not true for all of them, but some do quote this experience and mistakenly translate it into the Israeli reality.
How much loyalty do Russians who are half-Christian and half-Jewish feel toward the state of Israel? Are they willing to serve in the IDF? Are they willingly embracing Israeli culture and traditions?
Raf Nagdimov
New York, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
In the global village, people have learned how to survive with double and even triple loyalties. Since all young people in Israel realize that military service is the entry ticket to Israeli society, they are more than willing to serve in the IDF, even if they choose to make their oath of induction on the New Testament, rather than on the Bible. Most of them are willingly embracing Israeli culture without necessarily being forced to get rid of their old traditions and customs.
Is it true that the Orthodox Christian Churches are growing in Israel due to the massive increase of non Jews amoung the newer immigrants from Russia
Yossi
Brooklyn, NY, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
Yes, it is true. Sometimes the non-Jewish immigrant communities even raise demands to build new churches to accommodate the growing number of members. The state of Israel and Israeli society don't always know how to deal with these issues. On the very basic level, I think it is our obligation to answer the needs of the people who came here within the framework of the Law of Return.
What is the major problem for Russian immigrants in Israel? Are the conflicts between different communities, including Russian, acknowledged and dealt with by the authorities?
Galina Potagal
Boston, U.S.A.
Lily Galili:
The major problem for Russian immigrants in Israel is simply being new in the country. After a decade since the onset of this huge wave of immigration, the Russian immigrants have very few unique problems, other than cultural alienation. Unfortunately, the conflicts between different communities in Israel are acknowledged by the authorities but not necessarily dealt with. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is absorbing all the intellectual and financial resources and there is very little energy left to deal with domestic tensions.
What is the impact of Palestinian terrorism on the Russian immigration to Israel, since many Russians have been killed by suicide bombers and many requested that family members killed in attacks be buried in Russia?
Amir Cohen
Toronto, Canada
Lily Galili:
Surprisingly enough, the defining factor in immigration to Israel is the economic situation and not terrorism. Sometimes, immigrants report that the fact that the community has been victimized by terrorism has strengthened their emotional attachment to Israel. The fact that some choose to be buried in Russia is a very personal choice with no symbolic or national meaning.
Do you agree that today there is ugly discrimination against the Russian immigrants, and that most people in Israel don't realize that they can actually make a great contribution to the future of the country?
Marcelo Ninio
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Lily Galili:
I do agree that there are tensions between veterans and newcomers, enhanced by a stressful economic and security situation. But there is no "ugly discrimination." Most Israelis can by now appreciate the contribution of these immigrants to the future of the country.
Related articles
Young immigrant drug addicts have nowhere to go for help (13/07/03)
4,000 couples a year cannot marry due to halakhic rules (29/06/03)
PM saves immigrant radio from closure (20/06/03)
Operation `Immigrants are Likudniks' (18/06/03)
The new Russian refuseniks (09/05/03)
Questions
As a criminal defense attorney in Chicago, I have represented many Russian immigrant...
As a Jew who identifies with Israel and has Jewish relatives who made aliyah from Russia...
I would like to know if by having everything posted (ads, store names, TV ads, etc.) in...
How has the massive immigration of Russians affected Israeli culture at large? Are these...
What is your opinion about the functioning of top Russian political activists in Israel?...
How did the lack of Zionist education and culture in Russia affect the assimilation...
Do you think there is a possibility that the Law of Return will be changed in this...
How many non-Jewish Russians are there nowadays in Israel? How will they integrate into...
In what ways does the Russian community in Israel remain monolithic and isolationist?...
There is a widespread belief that Russian Ashkenazi Jews discriminate against Russian...
Over time, how will 320,000 persons of non-Jewish nationality or whose Jewishness is in...
What percentage of the non-Jewish Russian Immigrants convert to Judaism?
Do you believe that there is any kind of Jewish aliyah reserve left in the former Soviet...
Why are so many Russians opting to immigrate to Germany instead of Israel, and is...
Is it true that the Russians look down - more than other people - on Orientals?
To what extent have Russian immigrants been economically marginalized in Israeli society?
There is a perception that the Russian community is right-wing. Why is the Russian...
Is it true that the majority of the Russians in Israel are very young and want to try...
As a businessman here in Moscow, I am beginning to notice that some Russians who made...
Do you think it is wise to encourage Russians and others to make aliyah when the Israeli...
Is it true that Russian immigration has brought with it increased prostitution and mafia...
How has Russia's Chechen war impacted on the way some Russian immigrants view Muslims?
How much loyalty do Russians who are half-Christian and half-Jewish feel toward the state...
Is it true that the Orthodox Christian Churches are growing in Israel due to the massive...
What is the major problem for Russian immigrants in Israel? Are the conflicts between...
What is the impact of Palestinian terrorism on the Russian immigration to Israel, since...
Do you agree that today there is ugly discrimination against the Russian immigrants, and...
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