Russian Immigrants in West Bank Stay for Ideology — or Economics

Irina Raginskaya and Anna Rosenshtein are both immigrants from the former Soviet Union who live in the West Bank — but there the similarities end.

Raginskaya made aliyah in 1994 with her family. Since then her husband died and her only son returned to Moscow.

She says she wants to leave her modest apartment in the growing settlement of Adam, in part because of the fervently Orthodox views of many of her neighbors.

“I would have moved to Jerusalem long ago,” she says. “I just can’t afford an apartment there.”

Rosenshtein, who lives in the West Bank for ideological reasons, wants to stay put.

The daughter-in-law of Itzhak Kogan, a former refusenik currently serving as a Lubavitch rabbi in Moscow, she lives with her husband and six children in a mobile home in Tel Rumeida, a Jewish neighborhood of Hebron.

For the 74 Jewish families here, life is perilous.

Rosenshtein shows a tiny hole in a window, caused by a bullet shot from an Arab house several hundred yards away. The bullet damaged the refrigerator.

“Well, we got the insurance and changed the refrigerator,” she says.

What about the kids?

“It’s just fascinating to them, all this shooting,” she says. “It’s dangerous of course, but we are not going to move them away.”

In both their beliefs and their reactions to the violence, Raginskaya and Rosenshtein represent the two opposite poles of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the West Bank.

The Russians in the settlements fall into two groups, according to Dov Kontorer, a leading political analyst with ties to Natan Sharansky’s Russian immigrant political party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah. The first includes Orthodox Jews or ardent Zionists, corresponding to the non-Russian mass of settlers.

The second part consists of people who moved to the settlements in the 1990s for economic reasons, attracted by low housing costs and other benefits. After the violent Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, some of these people began leaving the West Bank.

“The Russian population in the settlements is extremely polarized,” says Kontorer, 44, who moved to Israel in 1988 and eventually settled in the West Bank city of Ma’aleh Adumim, which has some 30,000 residents.

Kontorer made the comments recently in his spacious apartment, sitting over a big bottle of vodka, eating pickled cucumbers and chain-smoking — a typical scene in Russian households in Israel.

Russian immigrants make up 10 to 12 percent of the roughly 220,000 Israeli settlers. That’s less than their proportion in Israeli society, where the approximately one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union make up about 15 percent of the population.

But settlers are disproportionately represented among the Russian political and ideological elites. Both Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the immigrant party Israel Our Home, and Yuli Edelstein, the No. 2 man in Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, are settlers.

Where the Russian community is concerned, the settlements are like the old days of the kibbutzim, which produced an disproportionate number of top soldiers and politicians during the pre-state years and the early years of Israel’s history.

Unlike the kibbutzim, however, which were ardently left wing, residents of the settlements generally have right- wing political views.

Israel Lugovskoy, who made aliyah from Russia in 1987 and lives with his wife and five children in Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement next to Hebron, says his kids are not frightened by the frequent sound of gunfire from Hebron.

“Our dog gets nervous; the kids don’t,” he says. The windows of the family’s apartment overlook a narrow valley separating the Arab part of Hebron from the settlement.

Recently, a bullet recently shot from an Arab house 300 yards away wounded the neighbors’ 10-year-old daughter in the shoulder, Lugovskoy says.

Some of the Russians who make up nearly a quarter of Kiryat Arba’s population of 12,000 are pulling out, Lugovskoy says, but others are moving in. In general, he says, life in the settlement is stable.

His wife, Rachel, says she feels safer in Kiryat Arba than in Jerusalem. She travels to Jerusalem nearly every morning in a bus with bulletproof windows, to work as a secretary and translator.

“In Jerusalem, I feel afraid of a bomb literally everywhere. When I get back to the settlement I feel at home and safe,” she says.

Lugovskoy, who is not religious, predicts a big war in the near future.

“The Israelis will have to realize that there are only two options to fight and crush” the Palestinians, “or perish as a state and as a people,” he says.

But two miles away, in Hebron, Hava Shmulevitch, an Orthodox mother of two, has faith that God will not forsake the Jews.

Near her house is a playground full of Jewish kids. Last week, somebody — apparently from nearby Palestinian apartments — threw a bottle of strong acid into the playground. No one was seriously hurt.

Several weeks ago, Shmulevitch says, she was shot at while walking near the same playground. The bullet scratched a stone block a yard away from her.

“It will be very bad,” she says, “or there will be a miracle.”

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