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Still on the Sidelines (part 1): Russian Olim Adjust to Israel, but Still Recent Stereotyping

Nearly seven years after the former Soviet Union opened its gates for large- scale Jewish emigration, many of the more than 600,000 immigrants who have made their home is Israel are still struggling to feel at home.

“Things are extremely tough. I can’t find a job as a music teacher, so I am working as a sales clerk,” says Natalya, who came here five years ago and, like many newcomers, is reluctant to share her full name. “If it weren’t for the children, who are doing so well here, I think we would go back to Belarus.”

Like the millions of immigrants who arrived before them from other countries, the olim from the former Soviet Union are attempting to cope with a new language, a foreign culture and the stress that accompanies radical transitions.

They must also cope with Israel’s unique security problems and the fact that negative stereotypes of Russian immigrants abound in the Israeli media and in society as a whole.

But not all of these newcomers share Natalya’s opinion; ask a random group how they are adjusting to life in Israel, and the answers are surprisingly varied.

“Life is good,” says 21-year-old Ludmilla, who works at a supermarket checkout counter. “My husband and I have a new baby and just bought an apartment in the Katamonim [a working-class neighborhood in Jerusalem]. We’re hopeful about the future.”

“Life is what you make of it,” says 50-year-old Gregory, a physician who is working in his profession.

“Sure, Israelis assume I’m not a good doctor because I received my medical training in Russia, but once I treat them they give me a lot of respect.

“My son just graduated from university and got a good computer job. That compensates for any difficulties my wife and I have experienced here.”

From a purely statistical standpoint, “this aliyah is a great success story,” says Edith Rogovin Frankel, a senior political science lecturer at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“On the one hand, more than 90 percent of the olim are employed, and most own their own apartments.

“This is very admirable, but on the other hand, you have the experience of an immigrant who was a doctor or lawyer in the former Soviet Union who is now working as an orderly or selling shoes. For him, that’s not a success story.”

Much, Frankel says, depends on the immigrants’ expectations.

“The Russian-speaking population isn’t a monolithic group. There are the older people, retirees, who never expected to get a job in Israel. There are middle- age people, some of whom get jobs in their profession and some who don’t.

“Then there is the younger generation – soldiers, university students – who within a short time will be reading [the Israeli daily newspapers] and will be watching Hebrew programs on television. As a group, they are less disillusioned than their older relatives.”

With the exception of the young people, Frankel adds, immigrants from the former Soviet Union “tend to group together, but often this is because new immigrants, regardless of background, gravitate to outlying areas, where apartments are available and less expensive.”

As part of their effort to create a Russian subculture in Israel, the emigre community publishes more than a dozen Russian-language newspapers and has founded a Russian theater company and several orchestras.

But unlike some Israelis, who view these efforts as “un-Israeli,” Frankel views the trend as “a fairly normal phenomenon.”

“It’s the same thing as when English speakers join the AACI [Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel] or seek out the English-language events at the Israel Festival.

“It’s just that because the Russians are such a large group, their tendency to stick together is seen in an exaggerated form.”

While the older generations do indeed cling to Russian culture and take advantage of the many Russian-language services provided by banks and government offices, the younger olim soon become largely Israeli in appearance and outlook.

Although those who came from the former Soviet Union share many of the same problems as other immigrant groups, they also face some unique challenges, said Rinat Cohen, spokeswoman for the Zionist Forum, an advocacy organization.

“The Russians are the best-educated group of immigrants to ever come to Israel, and are top-heavy with professionals – doctors, scientists, engineers. The country simply can’t absorb them all.

“While 91 percent of the immigrants are employed, only 30 percent work in their chosen professions. Many earn low salaries and are understandably frustrated.”

Another cause of frustration: the negative stereotypes many Israelis have of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Frankel says: “This group is definitely receiving worse press than other immigrant groups had to contend with. This is partially due to the sheer size of the aliyah.

“In addition, Israelis sense that the newcomers aren’t here for ideological reasons.”

In the past, Frankel adds, “immigrants, including the Russians who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s, made aliyah because they felt strongly about Israel, not because they couldn’t go anywhere else.”

“With this group there is a different motivation: uncertainty about life in the [former Soviet Union],” Frankel also says. “This dictates how they feel about Israel, and how Israelis feel about them.”

Cohen maintains that “the more successful the immigrants become, the more Israelis feel threatened by them.

“This is a high-quality aliyah, many people have 13-plus years of education,” Cohen says, adding that Israelis view the immigrants “as competition for housing, jobs.”

“It’s not anyone’s fault, really. It’s very hard on both groups,” Cohen says.

Ida Nudel, former Prisoner of Zion, sees the competition as regrettable but inevitable. “The newcomers have a different culture and value system. It creates resentment, and the politicians use this natural fear to pit one group against another.”

Galaina Nabati, a music teacher who immigrated 17 years ago, feels that “the Russian immigrants in this country get no respect.”

“The media spreads negative stereotypes, painting Russian olim as criminals, prostitutes and members of the [mob],” Nabati says. “Criminals account for something like 3 percent of the olim population, which means that 97 percent are law-abiding citizens. But you never read about the 97 percent who are doctors, engineers, scientists.”

Still others, like Lev Elbert, insist that given time, most of these immigrants will be completely absorbed into Israeli society.

Sounding every inch a native Israeli himself, Elbert, a former Prisoner of Zion who now works as a civil engineer, says, “It’s unjust to give immigrants subsidized mortgages when native Israelis who have served in the army and paid their taxes don’t receive one.

“This is something you learn when your own children, who are Israelis, go into the army and want to buy an apartment.”

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