By Lia Tarachansky, The Real News Network – 11 Jan 2012
Russians, nearly a quarter of the population, speak about their isolation and economic struggles
During the summer, Israelis rose up in a mass movement inspired by the regional protests of the Arab Spring. On July 14, 26-year-old Daphny Leef set up a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. Within weeks, protest tent cities sprung up throughout the country, and week after week, Israelis poured onto the streets to demonstrate. But in September, as quickly as the tent cities popped up, they disappeared. The weekly protests stopped, and in a sweeping move, the government demolished dozens of tent cities throughout the country.
The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky spoke with Yael Lerer is a writer and founder of Andalus Publishing, who wrote in LeMonde Diplomatique about the exclusivist nature of the mostly-Ashkenazi movement. But the closest, both economically and culturally, to the Ashkenazi elite is the Russian immigration of 1990. Many of the Soviet expats had difficulties acclimating to Israel, but unlike other immigrations of Jews from the Arab world and Ethiopia, Russians were quicker to enter the job market, elect representatives to Parliament,and enter the middle class. Today they make up nearly a quarter of the Israeli society, but by and large they too did not participate in the summer protests. In this story we meet Reuven Moshayev, a 30-year-old convenience store owner, Dimitry Shevchenko, a 32-year-old factory worker, and his younger brother Ivan, a 28 year old industrial abseilingclimber, who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.
LIA TARACHANSKY, TRNN: During the summer, Israelis rose up in a mass movement inspired by the regional protests of the Arab Spring. On July 14, 26-year-old Daphny Leef set up a tent here on Rothschild Boulevard, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. Within weeks, protest tent cities sprung up throughout the country, and week after week, Israelis poured onto the streets to demonstrate.
CHANTING (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The people demand social justice. They take away from the poor and give to the rich. What a corrupt country.
TARACHANSKY: But in September, as quickly as the tent cities popped up, they disappeared. The weekly protests stopped, and in a sweeping move, the government demolished dozens of tent cities throughout the country. Yael Lerer is a writer and founder of Andalus Publishing. Writing in Le Monde diplomatique, she says: “After almost three decades of neo-liberal economic policy, living costs are up and salaries down, the jobs market is worsening, social spending is being cut and public services are deteriorating. Israel’s welfare state – always limited and unequal – has disappeared.”
YAEL LERER, FOUNDER, ANDALUS PUBLISHING: From the first moment it was not clear for me that the J14 is a real—what kind of protest. I mean, I didn’t thought about it as a real revolution. A major part of it, it was because it was a very white revolution. Its leadership and most of its participants were Ashkenazi Jews from the elite of the society. I mean, and if we speak about from the richest, richer part in the Israeli society, except in some isolated islands, but not like in the huge crowd, we didn’t see a real massive participations of Palestinian citizens of Israel, Russian voices, Ethiopian voices for sure, and ultra-Orthodox.
TARACHANSKY: But the closest, both economically and culturally, to the Ashkenazi elite is the Russian immigration of 1990. Many of the Soviet expats had difficulties acclimating to Israel, but unlike other immigrations of Jews from the Arab world and Ethiopia, Russians were quicker to enter the job market, elect representatives to Parliament, and enter the middle class. Today they make up nearly a quarter of the Israeli society, but by and large they too did not participate in the summer protests. Reuven Moshayev is a 30-year-old convenience store owner and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.
TARACHANSKY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): You chose not to join the protests. Why?
REUVEN MOSHAYEV, SOVIET EMIGRE TO ISRAEL (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): What good came out of it?
TARACHANSKY: Well, they’re fighting for their rights.
MOSHAYEV: What rights? Does anyone think about them? Does anyone think about us? Everything is too complicated in Israel. We are tiny for them.
TARACHANSKY: But we’re a quarter of the population.
MOSHAYEV: We don’t have influence. They always reject us. Always. Before, it was with words. Today, maybe with looks. By the way I don’t think they look at me different because I look like them. I’m not light-skinned. And most of the Russian-speakers stand out in the Israeli society.
TARACHANSKY (ENGLISH): During the last major demonstration, where nearly half a million Israelis poured onto the streets, I met Dimitry Shevchenko, a 32-year-old factory worker, one of the few Russian speakers to attend the protests. His younger brother Ivan is 28 years old and works as an industrial abseiling climber. He chose not to participate in the demonstrations. We sat down to talk in their hometown of Rishon LeZion before the local protest tent city was demolished.
DIMITRY SHEVCHENKO, FACTORY WORKER, RISHON LEZION (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Many in the Russian community, especially the generation of my father and grandfather, they don’t know how to influence politics, how it’s possible to oppose the government.
IVAN SHEVCHENKO, INDUSTRIAL ABSEILING CLIMBER, RISHON LEZION (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We basically knew nothing about this country. We just knew it was a Jewish country that accepts Jews from all over the world, that promises a better life than here, from the point of view of government, that it treats its citizens as citizens and not as milking cows.
LERER: Seventy-four percent of the Israeli wage, they have—their salary is less than EUR 1,400, about ILS 7,000 a month, which is the French minimum wage. It is significant, because when we think about poverty in Israel, actually, the most—the poor in Israel are basically the Palestinian citizens in Israel and the ultra-Orthodox Jews. We’re speaking these both, in society, about 60 percent of the families are below the poverty line. And the poverty line—and this is also very important—in Israel is very low.
I. SHEVCHENKO: All of the expats worked incredible hours when they first arrived, and in principal continue to work like that to this day, maybe because most of them didn’t find work in professions they had back there. So when they do get the opportunity to tell their kids, get up and go to the demonstration because it will help, they don’t have that kind of time. And the state of extreme competition and depression of new immigrants is transferred to the children.
TARACHANSKY: According to a poll conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute in 2009, when asked to self-evaluate their class before and after immigrating to Israel, more said they belonged to the lower and middle class in Israel than they did in the Soviet Union. The class difference was much higher for the upper classes: many more said they belonged to the upper-middle and elite classes in the Soviet Union, rather than in Israel.
MOSHAYEV: Russians have their own kinds of problems.
TARACHANSKY: What does that mean?
MOSHAYEV: I’m telling you they feel like they’re isolated. They get chased after when some party needs votes in elections. Then Russians are 1.5 million in Israel. That’s a very serious percentage of the population. But for students, to lower the prices on rent, housing, etc., etc., they don’t turn to the Russians. That’s what I think.
TARACHANSKY: One of the stated successes of the summer movement was its ability to open unprecedented spaces of dialog. Dozens of discussion groups took place every day at Rothschild Boulevard. At the end of August, Russian Israelis organized a discussion group with Palestinian citizens of Israel.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This is the first time I’m doing something. And you know how much time I knew something has to be done? I did a few little things, but you know, you have this thing hovering over you. And I’m from a bit of an outspoken family. But everyone’s head is lowered, very lowered. You know what it was like to be a Jew there?
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We can’t talk about coexistence or why the Russians are right-wing or why the Arabs don’t like Russians and all of that without giving account to the fact that one of the reasons we’re here is because this country had an interest, and that one of the reasons I’m here is to battle the demographic war against the Palestinians.
TARACHANSKY: The government’s response to the demonstrations was to establish a committee headed by economist Manuel Trachtenberg. The committee published its recommendations in late September, and despite many in the protest movement rejecting the process, the Israeli parliament approved it in early December. Some of the Trachtenberg recommendations include unfreezing construction on social housing, more taxation on the rich, free education from age three, and minimal cuts to the defense budget.
MOSHAYEV: This committee won’t lead to anything. They’re always promising something. They always blame everything on security. Money, security. Security, money. Security. For war, jet planes, antimissile shields, etc., etc. It all ends with money in defense.
TARACHANSKY: Indeed, on Monday the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the proposal to divert funds from the defense budget and instead increased it by $700 million, saying the Arab Spring created new security concerns for Israel. “I have reflected on this question, but in view of what has happened in the region, I have reached the conclusion that cutting the defence budget would be a mistake, even a big mistake … [The Israeli army] is the shield of the country, which is why we must increase its means.” For The Real News, I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv