Behind the Headlines: Yisrael Ba’aliyah’s Success Uplifts Spirits of Immigrants

With seven of their own now sitting in the Knesset, many immigrants from the former Soviet Union are holding their heads a bit higher.

Dogged by feelings of alienation from mainstream Israeli society, on May 29 the immigrants took their grievances to the voting booths — and emerged stronger politically than ever before.

Seemingly as surprised as other Israelis to learn that Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah party had garnered seven seats in the 120-seat Knesset – - most pollsters predicted the party would win three or four seats at most – - the olim say they feel both vindicated and empowered.

The 400,000-strong Russian voting bloc, nearly half of whom supported Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, proved to themselves — and others — that they have the political clout to get things done.

“It’s like we’ve been put on the map, as if we suddenly count,” says a hairdresser who identified herself as Irina.

“With seven voices in the Knesset, and Bibi [Netanyahu] in power thanks in large part to Russian support, perhaps now we will be able to get affordable apartments and jobs in our profession.”

This newfound feeling of empowerment is manifesting itself in subtle but important ways, according to Tanya Weinraub, a veteran immigrant who works with new olim.

Prior to the elections, Weinraub says, “Russian olim suffered not only from the difficulties associated with entering a new culture, but also with nasty stereotypes. We heard that Russians are mafiosos and prostitutes, that doctors aren’t really doctors, that engineers aren’t really engineers.

“They were made to feel that they weren’t Israelis or even Jews. They were told they didn’t belong.”

Although the stereotypes have not disappeared, she says, “since the elections, Israelis have begun to treat the olim with new respect.

“On the street, when an Israeli realizes that the person they’re dealing with is Russian, he’ll often say, `Kol hakavod l’chem’ — Good for you, you did it – - and the olim cherish this new respect. Suddenly, they don’t feel like second- class citizens.”

More than anything, Weinraub says, “this past election was about respect. When the immigrants voted in seven [Knesset members], two of whom received Cabinet posts, they gained power, strength. Israelis respect strength and the people who command it.”

Natan Sharansky was appointed minister of industry and trade and Yuli Edelstein, also of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, was named absorption minister.

Just how much power Russian immigrants will be able to wield “is still unknown,” according to Arnon Mantver, director general of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s office in Israel.

“It’s still too early to judge, but one thing is certain: How the government proceeds, especially on budgetary matters, will greatly affect the most vulnerable part of the Israeli population.

“Although the majority of Russian olim are middle-class, 20 to 25 percent, many of them elderly or single parents, are on different levels of the lower class. Another 10 to 15 percent are pre-pension, aged 45 to 60, and are suffering hardships because they can’t find work in their fields.”

According to a source in the Absorption Ministry, the expectations held by many immigrants are “somewhat unrealistic.”

While the source acknowledged that the immigrants “have every right to want decent housing, employment, and a good education for their children, [Edelstein] can’t find a solution if he doesn’t have it.”

“Much will depend on the budget cuts just announced by the government,” the source adds, referring to the decision by the Cabinet earlier this week to slash some $1.6 billion from Israel’s 1997 budget.

The fact that their representatives in the government — including those Knesset members from the Likud, Labor and other parties who were voted into power with help from the Russians — may not be able or willing to solve their problems has not stopped the immigrants from expecting results.

“Before, the immigrants would come into our offices and ask for an apartment in the center of the country. The clerk would put their name on a long, long list, and usually they simply walked away dejected,” notes the source. “Now they feel as if they have a leg inside and are acting more assertive.”

This is not to say that Russian immigrants have suddenly become power hungry, stresses a computer programmer named Uri.

“Israelis can be very assertive, even pushy, and in this society that’s what works. While we would stand in line at the post office or bank, Israelis would push ahead and get serviced first.

“We’re finally learning to act like Israelis, which isn’t such a bad thing, is it?”

There are those immigrants, of course, who are unhappy with the election results and feel anything but empowered.

“Sure, it’s nice to have compatriots in the Knesset, but they’re accountable to Bibi Netanyahu and I for one did not vote for him or Yisrael Ba’Aliyah,” says a Labor supporter named David, who declined to give his last name.

Like many immigrants, David is concerned that the three religious parties, which won 23 Knesset seats, will try to maintain sole Orthodox jurisdiction over marriage and divorce, and may even try to revise the Law of Return, which now enables immigrants with one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse to immigrate to Israel.

“My wife isn’t Jewish, so my children aren’t Jewish according to Jewish law,” he says. “What happens when they want to marry?

“God forbid, if one of them died, they wouldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. We need to have civil marriage, divorce and burial in this country, and I don’t think even Natan Sharansky has the power to enact it.”

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