Russians In The Holy Land
By Israel Shamir
Israel Shamir, a director of Deir Yassin Remembered, is also a Russian-Israeli intellectual, writer, translator and journalist, author of The Pine and the Olive and Travels in Japan.
Quarter of a century ago (time runs fast!), when Israel was far more intimate than it is today, when we did not value privacy and did not know how to spell it, I left my kibbutz in the Galilee and moved into a house in Jaffa to share it with a few families. Such an arrangement was quite common those days.
Once Jaffa was called the Bride of the East and it competed with its neighbours, Beirut and Alexandria. Surrounded by fragrant orange groves, this city of one hundred thousand inhabitants boasted the first cinema in the Levant and housed the headquarters of European companies. Americans and Germans built their red-roofed houses on its outskirts and, in 1909, East European Jews established Tel Aviv further to the north. But Jaffa's days of prosperity were long gone in 1948.
In my days it was (and still is) a dilapidated seaside village to the south of the big city. Bulldozers have torn down every second house and given the town its jagged look. They have also dumped building waste on the seashore, in preparation for big real estate development. Salinger's Esme would love this place of squalor. Still, it is a good place, reminiscent of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Drug dealers' big Cadillacs cruise its unpaved streets; kids in long galabie dresses play on the streetcorners; the bells of St. Anthony's Catholic Church blend with those of St. George's Orthodox Church and with the muezzin call from the nearby Ajami Mosque; fishermen carry their catch to the seaside restaurants for diners from Tel Aviv; Palestinian women crack seeds and chat outside their homes; the smell of fresh falafel comes from market stalls; ten stray cats stare down a king-size rat; the French ambassador returns to his residence; a film crew shoots a Beirut scene. We lived together, one of the few desegregated communities, in a small sliver of land between the road and the sea, a remainder of Jaffa of old.
We lived in a crumbling pink mansion built by a Palestinian trader in the 1920s. It was a classic Arab house: yard-thick walls of soft local kurkar stone blocked out the hot easterly wind, wide and high doors allowed bringing in a grand piano without much difficulty, the rooms were spacious, and a broadleaved shesek, a native tree with sweet apricot-like fruits, besieged our window. Ceilings painted by Egyptian craftsmen rose six yards high above its Italian marble floors. The count's coat-of-arms adorned the front door, as the trader received this title from a grateful Vatican in 1928.
The only entrance to the house led into a spacious hall, big enough for Scarlet O'Hara's maiden dance and, from there, six double doors opened into six big rooms, where we lived: a Moroccan family, owners of a small garage, an Armenian guide, a Russian painter who helped us find the place, a Bulgarian family who ran a small burekas stall. The owner's family lived there as well, but now they kept only one room for, in 1948, a Colonel Arad, an old officer in Yitzhak Rabin's command, took over the house.
The Colonel held the legal title to the central hall and was responsible for the rent, paid to the state authority. He had a lot of fun making our life difficult; he did not allow us to pass by "his territory" after eleven o'clock, interfered with our guests, incited quarrels, and carried out the traditional policy of divide et impera. He was an East European who set Russians and Bulgarians against Moroccans and Palestinians, a man from the cultured elite against the count and the Russian painter, and a Jew against the count and the Armenian. His strategy worked for a long while-the Moroccans loved to belong to the ruling class Jews; the Palestinian elite was happy to be considered part of the "elite"; and the Russians were rather lost and confused and ready to take up any offer.
Our Israeli lifestyle reminds me of this old Jaffa house. In the center, there are the military and political elites of the land, descendants of the pre-war settlers from Eastern Europe, generals and media barons, the families of Sharon and Barak, Moses and Schocken, Netanyahu and Peres. The side rooms are for the "minorities": Russians and Moroccans, native Palestinians and Orthodox non-Zionist Jews, Ethiopians and Bulgarians. The "minorities" together represent a majority, and a huge one, but the old colonel succeeded in keeping us in eternal strife. One of his preferred tools was "the Jewish State," a device to separate and split the minorities.
We, the dwellers of Israel, never describe ourselves as "Jews," but refer to our community, eidah in Hebrew; the only Israelis are the native-born children of the pre-war settlers, but a native-born son of Moroccan, Kurdish, Iraqi Jewish immigrants remains a Moroccan, a Kurd, an Iraqi. "Jews" is an identification used against "Palestinians," as "Ashkenazi" is identification against "Sephardi" or "Mizrahi." Thus, a Jewish state means a state where East European Jews are on the top, native Palestinians are on the bottom, and other communities vie for their position in between by stressing their Jewishness. This can be seen in shares of property and power: "Israelis" own eighty percent of private property, and hold eighty percent of government ministries, professorial positions in universities, and leading positions in the media.
This stable situation changed with the arrival of the Russians, for one simple reason: many of this community of 1.2 million are not considered "Jews" by the religious law which is the law of the land. Russian Jews intermarried with Russians as much as American Jews with their fellow Americans. What is more important, in the Soviet Union, since the days of Lenin and Trotsky, there was a vast effort to assimilate Jews and it succeeded to a large extent. Russian Jews became Russified, while Russian elites became Jewified.
Russians in Israel (whether of Jewish origin or not) speak Russian, read Russian newspapers, watch Russian TV, and eat Russian pork sausage with Russian beer. What made these ordinary Russians seek the light of Zion?
In Russia, as in the U.S., there are probably at least twenty million people entitled to become Israeli citizens. One does not have to be Jewish. If your daughter from a first marriage was married to an adopted grandchild of a Jew, you can go to Israel with your new family. The former Soviet Republics are in dire straits. Their workers get no salary for months, so many families send their old folk away to Israel, where they get a few thousand dollars upon arrival, a small pension, and public housing, if they are lucky.
The majority of arrivals have had no exposure to, nor were they interested in, Judaism or Jewish culture in Russia. Their Israeli ID cards bear the inscription "ethnic origin and religion uncertain." They are not considered "real Jews" and their dead are buried beyond the fence, in a special plot for those of "dubious origin." The dreadful explosion in the Dolfin discotheque created a visible problem: the religious undertakers refused to bury the dead Russian girls in a Jewish cemetery, even as the Israeli government was bombing Palestinians "to avenge Jewish blood."
In the blessed air of the Holy Land, many of them look for spiritual and religious revival. Judaism attracts only a few, while others turn to the Church for comfort. It is a risky enterprise; by Israeli law, they can be deported for their belief in Christ. They gather and pray away from prying eyes, but on holidays they throng the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the Nativity Church of Bethlehem, St. George's of Lydda, and St. Peter's of Jaffa.
In 1991, when Russia's future was exceedingly opaque, Israel received a lot of young blood from there. Israel supporters in the U.S. media carried out a two-pronged campaign: they warned of forthcoming pogroms and they promoted the idea of a beautiful, easy life for immigrants. Newsweek and Time concentrated on the neo-Nazi Pamyat group and rampant anti-Semitism. At that time, I was reporting for the Ha'aretz from Moscow and interviewed Pamyat leaders. I found this sinister organization to number about as many members as the Flat Earth Society. Still, a nice Russian Jewish filmmaker and his wife came to our countryside house to arrange for protection in case of a pogrom. I tried to calm them down, but I could not fight the mighty media machine alone. Ten years later, I met a Russian Jewish lady writer in Jerusalem who told me that she had initiated the rumor of pogroms.
"You Israelis should erect a monument to me," she said.
"Certainly," said I, "any particular reason?"
"I brought you a million Russians-I announced on Moscow Echo Radio that there will be a pogrom."
I hadn't the heart to disabuse her. Her announcements would have had no effect if Israel's American friends hadn't amplified them. Anyway, the frightened and seduced Russians rushed for visas to the American embassy and, at that moment, Israel requested the U.S. stop granting them visas. The U.S. gates were closed and this mass of people on the move was forced to go to Israel.
They had a hard time, for the Israeli elite subjected them to the unique Israeli method of "de-development" (as one might call it), a method already tried out on Oriental Jews and Palestinians. The Israeli media described them as a bunch of criminals and prostitutes; they were required to sign contracts and promises in Hebrew which they did not understand; their specialists were sent to sweeping streets or picking oranges. Their rate of divorce skyrocketed and their children were pushed into drugs. In 1991, Israel ceased employing the Palestinians from the occupied territories and yesterday's Russian elite was expected to take their place in low-paid menial jobs. But sheer mass allowed the Russians to create their own state-within-a-state, complete with its own media, shops, and mutual assistance. The Russians survived and figured out the game. The clever ones went back to Moscow, the adventurous left for the U.S., the peaceable ones departed for Canada. Since then, Israel has been getting mainly old folk, single mothers, and the desperately unemployed.
The Russians are a nice, hard-working, but confused community. They hardly understand where they have landed and incessantly try to compare their situation with that in Baku or Tashkent. A perusal of Russian newspapers shows people at a loss. One writer demands that Palestinians be castrated in order to solve the demographic crisis. Another blames everything on religious Jews, describing them as "blood-sucking parasites." A third accuses the Oriental Jews of failing to live up to his expectations. They are being taught a brief version of the modern Jewish faith and its single commandment: "Thou shalt hate Arabs."
Now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intends to import another million "Russian Jews." It is possible that, if the American Jewish Friends of Israel put a harder squeeze on Ukraine, ten million Ukrainians may suddenly recover their "Jewish roots." But it is possible that, in his greed, Sharon will completely undermine the Jewish state, for the Jews/non-Jews dichotomy is not the only possible one. "Jews" in Israel are not an ethnic, cultural, or religious unit, but rather an amalgam of immigrants from various countries, divided by mutual dislike and distrust and united by a mighty propaganda machine which promotes eternal and innate hatred of gentiles. Such a structure has no real life force and can easily break down.
The population of the Holy Land could be subdivided and classified by "Jewishness" into Jews and non-Jews or by country of origin: native or adoptive citizens of European, Asian, American, African stock; or by relation to Christ, into those who accept that Jesus is Christ and those who reject it; they can be divided by class, into poor and rich, working class and exploiters; by language-Palestinian Arabic, Mughrabi Arabic, Modern Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, English, French, Amharic speakers; or by confession-Orthodox, Catholic, Uniate, Monophysite, and Protestant Christians; Sunni, Ahmadie, Alawi, Druze Muslims; Bahai; Sephardi, Iraqi, Yemenite, Ethiopian, Hassids, Litvak and Kookite Jews; or by profession or by place of residence. In other words, "Jewishness" is not the only natural criterion.
For all but the elites, the best solution is the creation of a non-racist, democratic state, in which "Jewishness" has no legal value and provides no privilege and where to be or not to be a Jew is a personal matter of no civic importance. As the majority of Russians in Israel are not considered "Jews," even if they have Jewish-sounding last names, they suffer many legal and illegal disabilities in the Jewish state. The Russians have no advantage in the Jewish supremacy in Israel, i.e., the supremacy of a certain socio-economic group, of the wealthy Ashkenazi establishment, whose neo-liberal position is unsuitable for the socially weaker Russians. These people have a strong personal reason to support the idea of "a state for all its citizens," as opposed to the present concept of "the state of and for the Jews wherever they are."
For the transformation of Jewish supremacy into democracy for all its citizens, these non-elite groups have to ally with native Palestinians and here the Russians can play the role of avant-garde. Some Russians came to this understanding. Last year, their representatives entered besieged Ramallah and met with representatives of the native Palestinians. If this initiative had been well met, the mass immigration of the Russian "Jews" to Israel would have become the Trojan Horse of Equality in the Jewish state.
But this understanding did not penetrate Palestinian thinking yet. The "Israelis" represent the elite group and native Palestinian elites prefer to deal with Israeli elites. "Israelis" are active in Peace Now, Gush Shalom, and other left-wing groups, while Oriental Jews and Russians are perceived as "anti-Palestinian." But it is an erroneous vision. In reality, the liaison between non-elite groups is the way to deal with the entrenched ruling minority. The native Palestinians should open direct channels of communication with Russians, Moroccans, Orthodox Jews, etc., instead of empowering the Israeli elite.
Actually, the true interests of the Russians and the Palestinians coincide. For both communities, one democratic state is the solution and the only way to achieve it is to give full citizenship rights to the three million presently disenfranchised native Palestinians. In the democratized Palestine/Israel of nine million citizens, the concept of a Jewish State will follow its twin, the Aryan State, to oblivion. Much depends on the political maturity and wisdom of Palestinian leadership and the remnants of the Israeli left. If all the pro-equality forces were to unite in our version of the South African A.N.C., they could bury apartheid. This union of nonelite groups would be able to change the political map of Israel, if properly supported and nourished.
In the transformed state, there will always be an important place for the Hebrew-speaking Palestinian community, while the present "Israelis" are the nearest equivalent of the South African Boers. While their supremacy is unacceptable, their equal status is guaranteed. The Hebrew speakers are an integral part of Palestine-not because they are Jews, but despite the fact that some of them identify themselves as Jews. (Likewise, the Boers are South Africans not because of their white skin, but despite the fact that some of them attach importance to it.) Indeed, one of the "Asli Israelis" ("pukka Sahib"), the famous painter Shimon Tsabar, described himself as a "Hebrew-speaking Palestinian." The Hebrew speakers' desire for cutting ties with World Jewry and for their nativization in Palestine blossomed in the 1950s with the Canaanite Movement, but was crushed by Ben Gurion's Secret Police. Now many Israelis have petitioned the Supreme Court demanding to replace the "Identity: Jew" line in their ID cards with an "Identity: Israeli/Palestinian" line.
Thus the transformation we seek is not directed against the Hebrew-speaking or, indeed, Yiddish-speaking groups, but against their special and privileged legal position based on the concept of the Jewish State. This concept turned Israel into a colony of World Jewry. The removal of the special ties between Hebrew speakers in Palestine/Israel and the Jews abroad is, in a way, a true declaration of Israeli independence. It does not preclude some future contacts, as the American Revolution did not preclude "special relations" with England after a hundred-year-long separation. But, at this stage, we need to cut off the umbilical cord of Jewishness, to reject the smothering care of American Jews, so the child won't suffocate. The settlers should go native.
The Americans may support this initiative, for it will usher in peace in the Middle East and stop the outflow of their money to the Jewish State. What we do not need is the support of organizations like "Jewish Friends of Palestine," who bring back the ties with Jewry through the back door. Likewise, Mandela would not be interested in an organization called the "White Race Friends of A.N.C." There is no problem with a person who may be considered a Jew (or white), but there is an insurmountable problem with organized Jewry and White Race groups. An American Jew has absolutely no standing-qua Jew-regarding Palestine. Being a Jew is not a qualification any more than Philatelists for Palestine.
Such separation will do a lot of good to members of the Jewish faith abroad: they will be free to deal with the most important thing for every religious man, i.e., with their adoration of the Creator, with their prayers, with their spiritual improvement, and with the study of the Torah. Hopefully, people who tend to consider themselves "Jews" but do not accept the Jewish faith will recognize their mistake and seek their way to God in the way they find fit, for "irreligious Jew" is a concept that survives due to the existence of the Jewish state, as otherwise it would be as meaningless as "atheist Catholic."
The religious Jewish communities in the Holy Land will prosper as well, for their religious needs won't be intertwined with the civic burden. Without a state-imposed "Chief Rabbinate," they will be able to worship God the way they find fit, be it Conservative, Liberal, or any other Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox school they prefer. In the present setup, the Orthodox Jews are discriminated against, forced to go to the army, and their chance of finding a profession is severely curtailed, while the Oriental Jewish communities are forced to accept ways of worship which are foreign to them. The Ultra-Orthodox Jews were always against the Jewish State, for they considered it a revolt against God. Thus, even for religious Jewish groups, the democracy option is the solution.
Probably the united Palestine will not remain a laical state of individuals forever. The fire of the prophets is not dead there. But instead of infighting, the people of the Holy Land will look for an all-embracing way to serve God. To those who say, "But you are dreaming," we shall reply with the words of Sami Aldeeb, who presides over the Association for One Democratic State in Palestine/Israel: "Do you prefer the present nightmare?"