War Forces Russian Israelis to Face Reality of Home — and Their Politics

All Israelis in the North suffered in the recent war against Hezbollah, but immigrants from the former Soviet Union, particularly the elderly, may have suffered more than most. Before Katyusha rockets began raining down on northern Israel, these immigrants made up one-third of the population of many of these communities, such as Haifa. After only a few days of fighting, as veteran Israelis fled to safety elsewhere in Israel, the proportion of Russian speakers in some northern towns increased to as much as 60 percent of the remaining population.

Unlike most native Israelis, some Russian Israelis, like many other immigrants, had nowhere to go or could not afford to leave their homes.

“The percentage of Russians in many communities in the North dramatically increased” during the war, said Ze’ev Elkin, a Soviet-born member of the Knesset representing the ruling Kadima Party. Because the Russian community includes a high percentage of pensioners, the Russian population cannot move easily, he said.

“Pensioners don’t know Hebrew and are often not included in the system of social help,” he said. “This is the most vulnerable part of the population. They are more socially dependent on how the post office or the bank works.”

The financial situation of working Russian families was another factor limiting their mobility. Even among those who work, “an average Russian repatriate lives a little worse than an average Israeli,” Elkin said.

One Russian immigrant agreed.

“Most Russians live on their monthly earnings,” said Viktor List, 33, a computer specialist who hosted two families from the North in his apartment in central Israel during the fighting.

“People may live here for 15 years, but they don’t have any savings,” he said. “They simply cannot afford to not work a month or two.”

Elkin also said Russians appeared to be more prone to panic than many local-born Israelis.

“They are not used to this,” he said of the war. “They have a stronger reflex to leave when the rockets are falling, but fewer possibilities to do so,” a situation he called “schizophrenic.”

“In the first days of war, there was enthusiasm” in the Russian community, he said. It turned out that “the Russian community was craving war, but did not understand that it would take victims on both sides.”

After a few days of fighting, many in the community voiced discontent with the government and the military.

“The Russian community is very much right-wing-oriented, but it is not ready to pay the price for this,” Elkin said, calling the war a “very uneasy test for the right-wing ideology in the Russian street.”

That ideology still has a strong champion in Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu Party. Speaking a day after the cease-fire took effect Aug. 14, Lieberman called for the creation of a new coalition government that he said would bring Israel “a clear victory” in the fighting against Hezbollah.

Lieberman made his comments to a mission of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, a group mainly comprised of Jewish leaders from the former Soviet Union

Right-wing rhetoric is likely to remain a key political characteristic of the Russian community, but for many Russian Israelis, the war changed their perception of Israel.

For most of the Russian speakers, it was the first experience living under the threat of rockets. When Iraqi Scuds were falling near Tel Aviv in 1991, most of today’s Russian Israelis still called the Soviet Union their home.

“For us, ‘the war’ is World War II, which we read about in history textbooks,” List said.

He added: “Of course, when this all started now, we were bewildered. After a few days, bewilderment grew, as we used to think that Israel can decide such problems in five days.”

Younger Russians — especially those who experienced the fighting firsthand — didn’t seem to share these doubts and fears.

“These are all politicians,” said Anton Semin, an Israel Defense Forces soldier and a native of Kazakhstan. “If we were given one more month, we would have solved the problem” with Hezbollah,

Semin was speaking a day after the cease-fire as he recuperated at Rambam Hospital in Haifa from a hand injury he received in Lebanon.

The mother of another Russian-born serviceman recuperating at the same hospital agreed.

“I don’t understand what we achieved in this war,” said Lena Charsky, standing by her son’s side. Dani Charsky, 26, a reservist, had shrapnel wounds in his face, arm and leg.

Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, the Charskys now live in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot. While Dani Charsky was fighting in Lebanon, his mother and younger brother had to flee to central Israel.

But Lena Charsky still feels confident of eventual victory, and says she is looking forward to her younger son Shai, 17, joining the army next year.

“There will be a new war, but I don’t see how we can solve the problem otherwise,” she said.

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