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Despite Numbers, Russian Israelis See Glass As Half-empty, Parley Speakers Say

October 23, 2006
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Israelis born in the former Soviet Union can be seen throughout the Jewish state, but many feel discriminated against and unappreciated. That’s the sentiment expressed by many of the leaders of the Russian community — both scholars and politicians — in Israel at a recent conference.

Speaking in language at once emotional and clinical, they drew a picture of a community, which despite its huge demographic clout — about one out of six Israelis is Russian-speaking — faces what community members see as considerable discrimination from native-born Israelis.

Even as Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the mainly Russian Yisrael Beiteinu Party, jockeys for a powerful position within the coalition government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Russian sociologists and political scientists at the conference argued that the perception of Russian political power is somewhat illusory and that in other high prestige professional fields such as academia and the arts, Russians confront a “glass ceiling” that prevents them from reaching the top.

Noting that there are no Russian university presidents in Israel, and only two Russian full-time professors in the social sciences in all of Israel’s universities, Eliezer Feldman, a sociologist from the Institute of Social and Political Research, commented, “In general, the situation is very bad. There is great resentment from veteran Israelis toward a community that wants to hang onto its language and culture.”

Pointing out that a growing number of young Russian Israelis with higher education are now moving to Moscow in search of greater professional opportunities and higher pay, Feldman said, “What is significant in this is that those who have left or are planning to leave are not marginal people who can’t find themselves here, but rather talented young professionals. They don’t want to deal any more with a situation where they are part of a community that is near the bottom of the Israeli social ladder.”

Feldman was one of many participants at the conference, “Russian-Speaking Jewry In the Global Perspective: Power, Politics and Community” held Oct. 17-19 at Bar-Ilan University.

Alek Epstein, a political scientist at the Open University of Israel, said he felt insulted last spring when Olmert formed his Cabinet without a single Russian-speaker — the first time there has been no Russian in the Cabinet since 1996.

The conference, which drew 150 participants from Russia, the United States and Israel, also highlighted sharp divisions within the global Russian community.

Sam Kliger, director of Russian affairs at the American Jewish Committee, expressed displeasure that simultaneous translation of speeches at the conference was only available in Russian and Hebrew and not in English. The perceived slight compelled him to deliver his remarks in Russian rather than in English as he desired, and, he said, was symptomatic of a sense among Russian-American participants at the conference that “We are not taken seriously here. The sentiment at the conference is that the two axes of the Russian Jewish world are Jerusalem and Moscow, not the triangle of Israel, America and the former Soviet Union that we Russian-American Jews see as reality.”

Zeev Khanin, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan, and chairman of the conference, which was sponsored by Bar-Ilan and the Rappaport Center for Assimilation Research and Strengthening Jewish Vitality, responded that the decision not to pay for English-language translation was based purely on budgetary considerations, but added, “The reality is that Russian Jewish organizations in America are still much smaller and weaker in terms of political clout and financial resources than Russian Jewish bodies here and in Russia.”

Not all participants in the conference agreed with the analysis that things are bad and getting worse for the Russians in Israel.

A political scientist and expert on migration, professor Yochanan Peres of Tel Aviv University, and a Russian-born colleague, Sabina Lissitsa, presented the results of a recent survey they conducted that showed relatively high levels of satisfaction among Russians with the quality of their housing, with their children’s academic progress and with the advancement of the Russian community in the Israeli political sphere; even while expressing frustration with their socioeconomic status in relation to veteran Israelis and with their level of integration into Israeli culture.

Overall, Lissitsa said, “While there has not been as much progress as many Russians would like, there have been many positive developments and the situation is not nearly as bad as many contend.”

Asked how their relatively upbeat report can be reconciled with expressions of gloom and doom by Russian academics and politicians, Peres replied that leaders of communities in transition from disenfranchisement to empowerment tend to present conditions as worse than they are.

Naum Krupetsky, an 80-year-old retired doctor who came here from Ukraine with his family in 1991, said, “Community leaders often exaggerate how bad things are. In fact, pensioners like me have a wonderful life here, with good pensions that allow us to spend our time meeting and discussing political and cultural issues.”

Nearly everyone in attendance agreed that the conference represented an opportunity to take the temperature of world Russian Jewry that should be continued on a regular basis.

Olga Gershenson, a Russian-born and Israeli-raised academic who now teaches a course on Russian-Israeli film at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, commented, “The conference was quite politicized compared to most research conferences, but that is because there is so much at stake here and the issues hit very close to home.”

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