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Israel: Russians rule!

The sounds of church bells in the old town of Jaffa mingled one Sunday not long ago with the muezzin’s call to prayer and the merry shouts of an orthodox Jewish engagement party on the beach nearby. This almost idyllically multi-cultural scene sounds too saccharine to be true but nevertheless it is. The supposed Jewish state is a lot more diverse than most other countries in the Middle East.

In Jaffa, part of the greater Tel Aviv metropolis, stockily-built bright blonde women on Sunday mornings hasten to the Russian Orthodox church, which is housed in a former monastery by the sea. They belong to a growing number of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, collectively called Russians.

Especially in Tel Aviv, or basically anywhere outside holy Jerusalem and other ultra-orthodox enclaves, they reinforce the existing secular tendencies among a large part of the population, for example adding to the already healthy demand for pork, euphemistically called white meat and which is not kosher under Jewish dietary law. The some 300,000 non-Jewish Russians, together with their Jewish fellow-immigrants, often support the fiercely secular Israel Our Home party of Avigdor Lieberman, the new Foreign Minister who made big gains in February’s elections.

And relatively more non-Jewish immigrants are coming as the strictly Jewish stock runs out. Some three-quarters of the strongly reduced flow is not Jewish according to strict ‘halachic’ rules, it is estimated now.  Not everybody is very happy with the growing number of non-Jewish immigrants. Israel’s religious parties, who claim divine guidance and derive their power from telling the rest of the country how to live, would like to keep out the goys and tighten the law of return, which is framed in rather generous terms.

The Palestinian Arab population is not very happy with the influx either, into what it sees a its birthright but in their case it hardly matters whether the newcomers are Jewish or not. Although, as Lieberman shows, the Russians in general are tough when it comes to other minorities and from their Soviet past retain a knee-jerk hatred of anything smelling of Left wing politics, which is the preserve of the now-defunct peace camp.

Extremely right wing as Lieberman is, he does oppose the influence of Israel’s Jewish orthodox establishment, which would be happiest if the country were turned into an Iran-style theocracy. He defends the rights of his constituents and pushes for example for civil marriage and transport on the Sabbath. Crucially, Lieberman also wants to break orthodoxy’s stranglehold over the conversion process, which would make it easier for ‘non-Jewish’ Russians to convert, should they so wish.

Many familiar with the Russian community say that the Jewish establishment has done much to alienate it. “We cannot use another minority”, say some politicians who regard the ‘Christian’ Russians as a possible 5th column, just like the Palestinian Arabs in Israel. Israel is about 75 per cent Jewish and the Arabs, Muslim and Christian, make up about 20 per cent. The non-Jewish Russians account for most of the rest.

Many Russians retain a strong tie to their language, their community and their home country. There are even signs of interest from the Kremlin in keeping some influence in Israel’s Russian community. One academic says that there are a growing number of Russian clubs, such as the “Slavic Union”. There are “persistent rumours” that these get funding form Russia.

Much of the feeling of alienation, which has been expressed even in anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi incidents, is the fault of the state, which has “dealt incredibly stupidly” with the immigrants, according to the academic who specialises in the Russian community. One spokesman for the Simon Wiesenthal centre is not surprised by the incidents. “If you’re looking for the most sensitive issues to hit, here in Israel those are the holocaust and Judaism.” He blames the Ultra-Orthodox establishment in the country for becoming more extreme and less sensitive to the needs of immigrants.

But in the mould of Lieberman, many of the immigrants display an aggressive outlook, not only towards Israel’s Arabs but also towards its Jews. “Many Russians are highly educated and regard all Israelis as weak and stupid,” says the academic who specialises in the community.

A muscular 24-year old bodyguard and bodybuilder attending Sunday mass in Jaffa says he has no interest in becoming Jewish. “I don’t believe in anything, so why convert?” He says that all Russians, Jewish and Christian, will always be second class citizens in Israel.

The ultra-orthodox Shas-party that sits in the new coalition government together with Lieberman wants to keep people such as the bodybuilder out of the country, even though he has served in the army and does have distant Jewish family members. “Only real Jews should be allowed to immigrate,” says a spokesman. But the law of return is unlikely to change, say people in the know, because that would lead to a clash with the American Jews, who wield a much broader definition of who is a Jew. “And nobody can afford that right now,” says the academic.