Ethnic Awakening among Russian Israelis of the 1.5 Generation: Physical and Symbolic Dimensions of Their Belonging and Protest.
A full-length documentary New Israelis produced in 2015 by Channel 10 pitted against each other its director, an Israeli documentary filmmaker Rodion (Reuven) Brodsky who had immigrated as a young man from St. Petersburg, and an iconic Israeli celebrity Haim Yavin, a veteran Hebrew TV anchor. The film presented a head-on collision between the old school Zionism of the Israeli elite and a much more nuanced and open-ended attitude towards Israel and their own future in it expressed by the young Russian immigrants. In the film Haim Yavin, an ultimate representative of the ideologically-committed founders' generation, sternly interrogates his young informants about their lingering Russianness and apparent reluctance to enter the (in)famous Israeli 'melting pot'--emerging from it as proper Israelis like himself. The opposing narrative sounded by the young 1.5ers asserts their right to be Israeli in their own way, without asking anyone's permission to weave the threads of Russianness into their current Israeli lives. Their more articulate representatives (like journalist Lisa Rozovsky, Jerusalem pundit Marik Shtern, doctoral candidate studying the 1.5 generation Vicky Shteinman, and NGO activist Katia Kupchik) argue in the film that adding Russian-Soviet traits to the extant Israeli cultural mosaic does not threaten Israeli identity but rather makes it more colorful and attractive. Few of them subscribe to the pledge of eternal loyalty to the State of Israel (that has failed them in many respects); many declare open their options for future mobilities in the global world. Yet most of them are willing to fight for a better life in their adopted homeland for themselves, their parents and children.
Wishing to consolidate their group identity, young Israelis of Russian origin have established several communities, both virtual and physical. The first one was Fishka club in Tel-Aviv (started in 2007); then over the last five years appeared Facebook groups Generation 1.5, Parents to Sabras, Generations, Culture Brigade, Humorless Russian Women, and more (some groups are active only online while others also run actual events for the members). Standing out among these associations, is the new group Russian Israel that emerged in the summer of 2015 with a kind of a political manifest published by the Russian-language news website IZRUS. Despite clear differences between the agendas of these groups (to be discussed below), together they express a new phenomenon in the field of Israeli identity politics: the claim at visibility, belonging, and at times political protest of young Russian Israelis - 15-20 years after their arrival in Israel.
These nascent groups manifest active physical presence in the urban space, organizing street festivals, celebrating Russian-Soviet holidays (e.g. Women's Day on March 8th, Victory Day on May 9th and Gregorian New Year on December 31) and cultural events (poetry readings and translations between Hebrew and Russian, performing drama, etc.) with clear Russian and Soviet legacies running across these events. At the same time, they celebrate Jewish and Israeli holidays (Pesah, Purim, Shavuot, Chanukah) and memorial days (e.g. the Holocaust day) in novel ways, making these local rituals more understandable and pleasurable for ex-Soviet immigrants. We agree with the assertion by Bronfman and Galili (2013) that these expressions of group identity, despite their small-scale nature, signify a growing openness, diversity of political outlooks and readiness to social activism among young Russian Israelis that were not really typical for their parents, the 1st immigrant generation. The active minority of the Russian 1.5ers promote the new dialogue between Russian Israel and the veteran Israeli elites, challenging social conventions and local rules of the game. While their parents, who often experienced social and occupational downgrading as immigrants during the 1990s (Remennick, 2012), typically kept silent, the youngsters are ready to protest the status quo and claim their full social and political rights as Israelis.
In this introduction, we discuss ethnic awakening among Russian Israelis, focusing on three organizations recently formed by this cohort of young adults: Fishka club that functioned for eight years in Tel-Aviv, online platform Generation 1.5, and the group Russian Israelis. Before presenting each, let us briefly explain the main challenges that Russian Israelis perceive as barriers to full social and political inclusion in their adopted homeland.
The first set of issues reflects the religious control of marriage, divorce, burial and other matters of personal status in Israel (Ben-Porat, 2013). Since over half of young Russian Israelis are of mixed ethnicity (e.g. have a Jewish father or grandfather and non-Jewish maternal ancestry) and are not recognized as Jews by Chief Rabbinate, they cannot get married in Israel. Even for those born of a Jewish mother, rabbinic courts demand additional proof of Jewishness when they apply for marriage. Hence all Jews with a Russian accent in Israel are collectively treated as suspects and are estranged by the religious establishment. For the same reason, many ex-Soviet Israelis cannot be buried in regular Jewish cemeteries (including fallen soldiers not recognized as Jews), and their non-Jewish parents and siblings cannot join them in Israel since the Law of Return covers only the Jews. Only a small minority of non-Jewish or partly Jewish Olim (new immigrants) were willing and able to undergo full Orthodox conversion (giyur) and acquired full matrimonial and burial rights as Jews. Thus the matters of Jewish status often serve as a source of humiliation for Russian Israelis and remind them of their second-class citizenship in the Jewish State (Waxman, 2013).
The second block of issues reflects downward economic mobility of many middle-aged and older Russian immigrants, especially as they approach retirement age and discover that they have not earned any real pensions. Most of them cannot receive their Soviet pensions at all or get negligible payments of $50-100 per month. Since their pre-migration work is not counted for Israeli pensions and their low Israeli salaries did not allow them to save for retirement, they are destined for poverty after having worked for all their lives. Many 1.5ers cannot count on their parents' help in paying for their education and getting economic foothold (by contrast to many Sabras with wealthier parents); moreover, they themselves would need to help their parents to pay off their mortgages, cover increasing health care costs, etc. Thus young Russian Israeli adults demand from the state to find a solution to the problem of the impending poverty of the older generation of ex-Soviet Olim.
The third block of issues on the agenda of these new groups has to do with perceived discrimination of young Russian-speakers on the labor market, including their thwarted upward mobility in Israeli organizations, the so-called 'glass ceiling'. Some groups also raise the issue of police violence, legal biases and unfair media coverage of Russian Olim suspected of deviance and crime (e.g. the contested case of Roman Zadorov sentenced to a long prison term for the murder of an Israeli teenager Tair Rada).
The fourth segment on the agenda of Russian 1.5ers has to do with their cultural rights in the increasingly multi-cultural Israel. While in the early years of their Israeli re-socialization and immersion in Israeli schools and military they had strong incentives to downplay or sever their Russianness, by their 20s many 1.5ers felt the need to get back to their roots and fill the Russian half of their split identity with real cultural and linguistic content. Hence the Russian cultural renaissance among these young adults, many of whom resume speaking their first language (albeit with difficulty and accent), reenter the realms of Russian literature, music, cinema and the internet. The groups like Fishka put the legitimacy of Russian-Soviet cultural artifacts and bridging/translation between them and contemporary Hebrew culture in the center of their organizational agenda. Another group called Parents to Sabras helps 1.5ers raise their Israeli-born children at the intersection of the Russian and Israeli-Jewish cultural traditions (e.g. by arranging holiday and birthday celebrations in a hybrid way). After this brief exposition, let us turn to the specific activities of the three selected groups.
The name Fishka means in Russian a game token (dice) also symbolizing luck. Fishka appeared on the social scene of Tel-Aviv in 2007, first as an art-cinema club, then as a framework for the (secular) study of Jewish heritage, and since 2010 as a full-fledged NGO with a multifaceted (but mostly cultural) agenda. It was founded by two young Israeli women of Russian origin: Lena Buchmensky, with a mixed background in high-tech industry and rock music, and Rita Brudnik, a social worker. This NGO was supported by a mix of private donors, including the New Israel Fund and Genesis Philanthropy Group founded by a Russian-Jewish business mogul. Because Fishka was not funded by the state or municipal authorities, it did not get a solid material footing and was never fully institutionalized. In its peak years it had a staff of about 25, mostly part-time or volunteer, and hundreds of members who participated in its projects and events. Hence, Fishka was a typical grass-roots association, i.e. locally based, significantly autonomous, run by volunteers, and non-profit (Smith, 2000).
Fishka's projects included community volunteering (e.g. visiting and entertaining Russian-speaking elders in local senior homes), novel forms of celebrating Jewish and Russian holidays, and a range of interest-based classes and groups (Hebrew-Russian drama troupe, tango class, Hebrew-Russian literary translation group, etc.). The goal of social cohesion of the Russian 1.5ers has been rather central (albeit implicit): Fishka served as a meeting place for young Russian-Israelis looking for friends and dates. Together they organized the community events, went for trips and hikes in Israel and abroad, and brought their own friends to the club, making it grow like a snowball. Gradually they formed a natural support network helping each other with job search, housing, professional development, and more. A significant chunk of Fishka's patrons belonged to creative and self-employed professions--the arts, design, architecture, theatre, music, journalism, etc. In these precarious occupations with free-lance work and unstable income, support offered by community of 'pals in need' became really essential for many Fishkers.
The stance taken by Fishka's leaders and patrons towards their Jewish heritage was rather pluralistic. Its early activities drew on the Jewish Renewal Movement at Tel-Aviv's first secular Yeshiva, Bin'a, and over time Fishka devoted more effort to creative ways of celebrating Jewish holidays (project Mahogim). Some of its leaders (e.g. Nadia Greenberg) spent their formative years in religious schools and kept observing Jewish traditions to some extent, while others had fully left religion or were never interested in it to begin with. Hence it was not always easy to reach consensus as to the right extent of inclusion of the Jewish religious symbols and activities in Fishka's agenda. Some secular and atheist patrons were drawn away from the organization due to its excessive (in their mind) focus on the Judaic content, partly driven by the agenda of its sponsor, Genesis. Notably, many Fishkers were of mixed ethnicity and their Jewish identity was rather weak. On the other hand, arguments about how much should Fishka engage in purely Russian-Soviet themes and activities, while being an Israeli NGO, was another point of contention. Typically these disputes, reflecting the hybrid cultural basis of this immigrant association, were solved by compromise and/or change of leaders of specific projects. One overarching feature of Fishka's vision and agenda was its focus on the socio-cultural rather than political domain and clear avoidance of the contested Israeli issues that could divide and alienate its members (more on this below).
In 2010-2013 Fishka rented a building in South Tel-Aviv's Eilat St. near Jaffa. This neighborhood is rather poor and rundown, dominated by small trade shops and warehouses but with the signs of nascent gentrification. The club's premises featured a hall for events and dances whose walls were lined by the bookshelves containing hundreds of Russian books--classic and modern fiction, history, biography, philosophy, Jewish Studies, etc. An opposite wall was used for temporary art exhibits. A small patio was used as a cafe and for public events. The very design and layout of the premises attested to the intellectual and artistic ambitions of Fishka's core.
In May 2013, Fiska had to abandon its house on Eilat St. because of rental and financial problems, and since then it has been looking for a new permanent home, while holding its club activities in various city locations (e.g. Gagarin pub). Over the last two years of its existence, the club became a vibrant hub of bilingual cultural events attracting a mixed crowd of Russian 1.5ers, local residents and tourists. As of today, Fishka maintains an active website (www.fishka.org.il/en/) and a Facebook group. Both its founders (Lena and Rita) have left Fishka, and a new leadership is slowly emerging from the ranks of its activists.
Although this group is in many ways Fishka's descendant and heir, their mission statement embraces a broader and more ideological vision of identity politics in the specific Israeli context. This is how they present themselves on their Facebook website (in our free translation from Hebrew): https://www.facebook.com/dor1vahetsi?fref=ts
The Israeli Jewish identity discourse that emerged along with the State and stayed unchanged until the beginning of the 21st century is currently redressed to incorporate and respect our cultural diversity, along with the search for a common denominator. A community of Russian-speaking Israelis must enter this novel discourse, not only to safeguard its place on the map of Israeli identities but also to actively shape this dialogue, so that our story of immigration and inclusion is heard and becomes an integral part of the national Israeli narrative. As active Israeli citizens who completed their education and military service here, we know that the attempts to improve Israeli society should come not only from the national political institutions but also from within ethnic communities, each with its specific histories and needs. We assert that, while acting in line with our unique identities and cultural sensibilities, we nevertheless contribute to the common good, express our solidarity with other ethnic communities and aspire to the unity of the Israeli nation. We see this permanent dialog between the community-based and national goals as the essence of the new Israeli politics. Therefore, we support active, and often critical, citizenship among Russian-speaking Israelis; we call our co-ethnics to break their own shell and start working for the universal Israeli causes while using the many tools offered by Israeli democracy including social media, cultural programming and political activism. Most of us experienced as children the ideological and economic crisis in the wake of the USSR demise, and in Israel, we witnessed another transition from the monolith, 'melting pot' to the post-modern, pluralistic concept of Israeli identity and culture. For the last 25 years and until this day, veteran Israelis and the establishment cannot agree on whether the Great Russian Aliyah was a problem or a blessing for Israel. Russian Israelis are alternatively construed as an educated and productive workforce, a large sector of voters, a demographic fortification of the Jewish majority, a threat for the Jewish identity of the state, a collective prone to deviance, and an impediment to peacemaking with the Arabs. Collectively we have often been used by Israeli politicians and policy-makers as a means to achieving their goals and not as an independent actor on the political and socio-economic arena. It's about time to change this manipulative relationship between the Israeli mainstream and Russian Israelis, including both our parents and out own 1.5 generation, the young adults who had started their biographies in the FSU but came of age in Israel. Today we speak up from our unique position of bridging between Russian-Soviet and Israeli cultures, with the call for mutual respect, solidarity with other ethnic communities and minorities of Israel, while working together for common good in our adopted homeland.
This new voice comes from the Facebook platform Generation 1.5, which is not a registered NGO but rather a virtual social-media community of volunteers, bloggers and activists. This group is loosely associated with Shaharit Institute in Jerusalem, which periodically refunds its expenses for specific live events, but none of its leaders gets actual salary. Most of its activists live either in Jerusalem or in Greater Tel-Aviv, so most of its gatherings take place in ad-hoc rented venues in these two cities. The group started to consolidate during the events of the Youth Social Protest in the summer of 2011, in response to the questions raised in the Hebrew media covering these dramatic events - where are the Russians? Why don't we see and hear them in the tent towns that spread across Tel-Aviv and other cities to protest the skyrocketing housing and living costs that push young Israelis to the margins or out of the country? A small group of Russian 1.5ers who joined their Sabra peers in the tent towns lumped together in the wake of these protests to discuss their common pains. For a year after the protest (that faded away without major achievements) they met at the premises of Shaharit in Jerusalem for study groups and workshops to form a common agenda, and by the end of 2012 they opened a Facebook group Generation 1.5. This website is a thriving space for posts, blogs, responses to current events and their coverage by the Hebrew media. The group includes over 30 members with varying levels of activity, many of them specializing in coverage of certain topics (e.g. economy, employment and pension reform; culture and the arts; legal and police affairs; ethnic conflicts, etc.).
Members of this group share some common features: most have a background of social and political activism for different causes in liberal Israeli NGOs or have worked in different capacities (staff, project leaders, envoys) for the Jewish Agency in Israel and/or the FSU. This experience had honed their 'social skills' and political instincts and made them articulate and effective communicators, both in live and online contexts. As opposed to Fishka's creative and artistic core, Generation 1.5's key figures often have a background in social sciences, policy, communications, and management. All but few of them are secular and support religious and political pluralism, while politically leaning to the liberal Left. Although Generation 1.5 has no declared political platform, the range of opinion expressed by its members and bloggers attests to their universalist outlook, albeit respectful of alternative voices and views. However, this group is clearly more ideological and politically engaged than was Fishka. The third group presented below also manifests clear political proclivities, but of another variety, driven by the agenda of Russian Jewish ethnic particularism.
This is the most recent addition to the map of organizational activities of the 1.5 generation. The group appeared in 2015, simultaneously at several online venues: on Facebook by the name of Russian-Israeli Platform (in Hebrew and Russian versions), on a website www.doctrina.co.il (now expired) and as permanent columns on the Israeli-Russian news portal IZRUS. In all of these venues, the group places similar posts and comments, stressing its bilingual nature but primarily addressing those 1.5ers who prefer to consume media in Russian. The group embraces the Institute for the Study of Russian Israel that keeps a small office in Rishon le-Zion and is allegedly supported by private donors from the FSU. The Institute has published compilations of Israeli statistical data on Russian-speaking Israelis and their original research study of the 1.5 generation, although the specifics of the research methods and sources of funding are not disclosed in their publications. Russian Israel basically includes four key activists: Alexander Goldshtein, Alina Bardach-Yalov, Marina Gal and David Eidelman, who write most of their materials and present the group at public events. They came to Israel at different ages (some are closer to the 1st rather than 1.5 immigrant generation) and have educational backgrounds in social, political and communication sciences.
While members of Generation 1.5 identify with the Central-Left political agenda (and several of their leaders had worked for the Israeli Left parties in the past), the Russian-Israel Platform clearly stands to the right of the political center, reflecting the views of Israel Beiteinu (Our Home Israel--OHI) party headed by Avigdor Lieberman (although they deny any direct association or support from this party today). The Concept of Russian Israel that this group published on IZRUS homepage in June 2015 clearly stipulates its agenda of Russian Jewish ethno-cultural superiority/elitism and posits that Russian-speaking Jews are destined to play a special role in Israel's future as its 'saviors' from the current political and economic downturn. This political manifest (published only in Russian and thus targeting the insiders) highlights the historic role of Russian-speaking Jewry both in Russian-Soviet history (as political and industrial-technological elites of the superpower) and as the core of the Zionist movement and Israel's founding elite. It reminds the role of Soviet Jews as fighters (and not just victims) during the war and their contribution to the defeat of the Nazis and foundation of the State. It further asserts the 'natural entitlement' of Russian-speaking Jewry for the leading role in modern Israel's economic development and government that has not been accomplished so far.
This failure to live up to Russian Jewry's historic mission is explained in the manifest by the problems of absorption during mass Aliyah of the 1990s, as well as the lack of appreciation (or outright discrimination) of Russian Olim by the ruling Israeli elites at all levels. The Platform/Concept asserts that the young Russian-speaking adults of the 1.5 generation are now emerging on the historic scene to correct the mistakes of the sectorial politicians (like N. Sharansky and his Israel-be-Aliyah party) and solve the social and economic problems that still aggravate the lives of their parents (e.g. the pension crisis) and their own generation (e.g. the glass ceiling in careers and social mobility). Their Hebrew page on FB is less active than the Russian forums; recently it has featured the events and comments around the accession of Lieberman's party to the Likud-headed coalition and his appointment as Minister of Defense.
Russian Israel is in clear opposition to Generation 1.5 and often challenges their ideas and projects as marginal and irrelevant for the majority of Russian Israelis. Firstly, they oppose the use of the terms immigrants and Russians because they allegedly marginalize all ex-Soviets in Israel and diminish their status as legitimate citizens and owners of this country; the correct terms, in their view, are repatriates (Olim) and Russian Jews, as in official Israeli vernacular. Secondly, they criticize the constant reference by both Fishka and Generation 1.5 to the symbols of Russian-Soviet (rather than Russian-Jewish) culture in their public events, modes of dress and self-presentation. They criticized the recent events organized by Generation 1.5, such as immigrant poetry and song festival or celebrations of the Gregorian New Year on 31/12, deeming them as counterproductive for the collective image and community causes of Russian Olim (more on this below).
The common denominator
All these groups are formed by members of the same social and demographic cohort of young adults, who immigrated to Israel 15-25 years ago during their school years. Admittedly, they comprise a small, socially-active minority of the 1.5ers who managed to put themselves on a path of upward social mobility by completing good high schools, excelling in the military and college, and starting professional careers in Israel. Many of them chose educational tracks in humanities and creative professions or worked in Israel's large non-profit sector or in education and social services. In other words, they are more idealistic and socially engaged than the bulk of young Russian immigrants, who typically opted for pragmatic educational tracks in technology, high-tech, medicine, finance, etc. (Krenzler and Alon, 2015) and are focused on their jobs, families and mortgages. The majority of their 1.5 peers still live in Israel's periphery with cheaper housing or in the new yappy towns like Modi'in, West Rishon or Kfar-Saba (if their incomes allow). The 1.5 activists stand out of their 'generic cohort' not only in their vocational choices in 'soft' social and creative domains but also by delaying marriage and childbearing, living in the major metropolitan areas rather than residential towns, and generally being less materialistic and consumerist in traditional sense than most young Russian Israelis (Rozovsky and Almog, 2010). Most of them had moved from Israel's social periphery (where they grew up and where their parents still live) to Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem's trendy central neighborhoods. With skyrocketing housing costs in Israel, few could afford buying an apartment, so they spend most of their disposable income on inner-city flat rentals, entertainment and personal growth. In that sense, the leaders of these groups belong to the new urban middle classes (Ben-Porat and Feniger, 2009) like many other Russian 1.5ers, but are different from most of their peers by choosing non-material forms of gratification and social activism. They both consume and produce high culture (art exhibits, drama, poetry); they also take an active part in shaping contemporary urban multicultural milieu by organizing public events, concerts, street festivals, etc. (to be discussed in detail in this collection).
These young adults often construe themselves and their groups as ethnic elites that have a special role in leading the majority of their peers to a better place in Israeli society. Thus, Fishka's activists clearly saw themselves as continuing the cultural project of Russian Jewish intelligentsia in Israel, while leaders of the two other groups clearly claim their space on the Israeli political arena aiming to procure greater social justice for their own group and other Israelis. Small local groups like Parents to Sabras resemble self-help associations assisting their members to learn the ropes of Israeli parenting; it is led by two young mothers with postgraduate degrees in social sciences. An active minority positioning itself as a locomotive of change is by no means new or special to the group in question, since many social movements of the past and present have been initiated and headed by young intellectuals (Aronowitz, 1992). Apparently, the young generation of Russian Israelis is more active in building the structures of civil society, at both local and national levels, than were their parents--first generation ex-Soviet immigrants (Remennick, 2007).
Our ethnographic research on the 1.5 generation
We first paid attention to the nascent organizational efforts by young Russian Israelis around the year 2010, when Fishka was in its prime and gained publicity thanks to its open events in Tel-Aviv. Back in the early 2000s, one of the authors (LR) had introduced to the Israeli academic discourse the term '1.5 immigrant generation' (Remennick, 2003), which proved to be catchy and recently entered the general Israeli vernacular and media spotlight. Over the last 2-3 years, Russian 1.5ers (and to some extent their Ethiopian peers) have been the heroes of several documentaries and many news reports on primetime TV, as well as numerous online forums. This is not accidental, since in Israel the demographic cohort of Russian 1.5ers is large (120-150,000), homogeneous (as opposed, for example, to their ethnically and socially diverse counterparts in the US and Canada), and its group identity is shaped by many common problems described above. It was only a matter of time to see them mature, socially and economically, to the extent enabling them to self-organize and claim their place in the local discourse. Fishka was the pioneer on this front, followed by a series of other groups, some of which are short-lived, while others survive and evolve into more impressive endeavors.
Our field work at Fishka (mostly conducted by AP) included over 18 months of participant observation during its peak years 2012-2013, when Fishka sponsored dozens of public events, concerts, holiday celebrations, street weddings, and more. Since early 2015 we started following the online forum and live events organized by Generation 1.5. Across these years, we also conducted personal interviews with the key actors at Fishka (23) and Generation 1.5 (10)--project leaders, blog writers, and other activists. Since late 2015, we started following the third group, Russian Israeli Platform, and interviewed its chief ideologues--A.Goldshtein and A. Bardach-Yalov. We also interviewed Vika Shteinman, head of Parents to Sabras (Horim le-Zabarim), and a few single activists or blog writers not affiliated with groups. The goal in all these interviews was to collect individual immigration narratives of these activists and understand how their private experiences in Israel inspired them to take part in the collective identity project of the 1.5 generation. As new actors are emerging in this field, we try to follow their ideas, modus operandi and achievements, so this study is ongoing.
In this Introduction, we overview our ethnographic data collected over the last years to examine the common topics in the emerging group narrative of Russian 1.5ers in Israel. These topics revolve around the matter of their belonging to and even ownership of Israel (and specifically the major cities they inhabit) and the protest against the Israeli establishment (and some segments of the veteran population) that deny these rights to the young Russian Israelis. The claims of belonging pertain to the two domains: the physical urban space inhabited by the immigrants and the symbolic cultural space to be explored and eventually appropriated by them. In real life, these two dimensions of belonging are closely intertwined and can only be separated for analytical purposes. Below we illustrate these two aspects of belonging with examples from our field work.
The physical belonging and ownership of urban space
Young immigrants express their intimate belonging to the physical urban space by means of close exploration of their urban habitats in walking tours, learning about the city's past and present in the archives, and participation in the projects of urban conservation and rejuvenation. These acts of learning and discovery are typical for both Fishka in Tel-Aviv and Generation 1.5 in Jerusalem. The two articles on Fishka published in this issue cast a close look at the urban projects, the street weddings and holiday celebrations, as well as walking tours in Tel-Aviv and vicinity, trying to connect the participants to its Russian-Jewish past.
As for Jerusalem urban activists, they are represented in our study by Marik Shtern and Shalom Boguslavsky (both from Generation 1.5). Both men are part-time Jerusalem tour guides who organize trips to important historic sites of the city, typically those less known and lying off the beaten tourist path. As opposed to the usual promotional focus on "Jerusalem, the city of three world religions", they are interested in the more recent city history, starting in the late 19th century and unfolding to the turbulent events of the 20th century. Their tours focus on the changes in the urban civil and religious architecture, the residential history of the large and small ethnic communities, the complex relations between Jewish West and Palestinian East Jerusalem, the conflicts around recent commercial development projects, conservation of historic buildings, and more. Let us introduce these young men.
Marik Shtern (36) was born in Moscow but raised in Jerusalem; his late father Yuri Shtern was a prominent economist, politician and Knesset member from Israel Beitinu party. Marik is a doctoral candidate in politics and government at Ben-Gurion University; he works at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a liberal think tank. Like his father, he has always been socially active (albeit on a different flank of a political field). Along with his other engagements, he is the head of the Jerusalem Movement, an NGO that promotes pluralism, ties between religious and secular residents, and community leadership in the city. Although he himself is closer to the second generation (having migrated at age 2), Marik was one of the organizers of the 1.5 Generation platform. His personal ties to Jerusalem come to the fore both in his day job at Jerusalem Institute and in his activism that covers history, geography and culture of the capital. Along with Shalom Boguslavsky, he administrates the Hebrew website Al ha Makom (About this Place) where they post and comment on historic photos of Jerusalem at different periods and organize free city tours for the public. Here is an excerpt from this site:
Marik: Already in middle school I was fascinated by the old Jerusalem photos. At age 14, I spent hours in the library flipping time and again through old photo albums exploring the city that was here long before my time and where my family has no roots (as I come from Moscow and my parents from Ukraine). You can call this a strange nostalgia or an obsession with an imagined past, but back then I started collecting old pictures of life in Jerusalem, common city scenes with nothing heroic about them. Recently this passion awakened again and led me to opening this site and sharing my personal collection (and passion) with others...I will focus here not on historic events but on our crazy, ever-changing neighborhoods that undergo a makeover every decade or so when different populations (Palestinians, secular and religious Jews of different strands) take control of them--exemplified by Old and New Katamon... [in the text that follows Marik shows deep local knowledge about this neighborhood's history]
More on Marik Shtern and his deep connection with Jerusalem can be found in the recent interview with him on the website www.peoplefromhere.com. Among other ideas, he said that the attractive side of the city's social fabric is the diversity of its residents but this is also what makes it so challenging. His vision of the city's future strongly depends on the ability of community activists and local politicians to build bridges between different neighborhoods and ethno-religious groups in order to reduce the mutual prejudice and make diversity our strength rather than weakness.
Shalom Boguslavsky also writes his blog about difficult relations between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and the failure of national and local politicians to foster more equality and social ties between them. They criticize severe negligence by the united municipality of East Jerusalem neighborhoods, the low level of hygiene and social services in these areas, breaches in law enforcement and police avoidance of these areas, and more. Thus, both writers-activists of Generation 1.5 are closely involved in the political discussion of the conflict, calling for more social justice towards Palestinians. This is a far departure from a neutral, apolitical stance of Fishka that never got explicitly involved in the matters of concern for the Arab residents of Jaffa--while its premises were located very close to it.
The symbolic dimension of belonging to the cultural urban space
In the two articles on Fishka included in this volume, we present a detailed account of the hybrid (Russian-Soviet + Jewish-Israeli) cultural production by the members of this association in Tel-Aviv. Below we offer a few additional examples of this cultural endeavor with deep symbolic load that were initiated by Generation 1.5: the Holocaust Memorial Day, the Victory Day on May 9, and the Jerusalem festival of Russian culture.
Memories of the Holocaust and the Victory over Nazis
While the Holocaust Memorial Day has long been present on the Israeli calendar, the celebration of the Soviet and Allied Forces victory in WWII (marked in the Soviet Union on May 9) has been added to this calendar by the Red Army veterans who settled in Israel during the 1990s (Roberman, 2007). The groups discussed in this article were organized by the grandchildren of these veterans, who made it their goal to raise the awareness among both young Russian Israelis and the Sabra majority about the tragic history of WWII on the Soviet territory, the tale of Jewish suffering, mass extermination and heroic resistance. They do it both by organizing public events that present the Russian-Soviet version of the Shoa (the way it was done by Fishka--see the article in this volume) and by creating the rich online narrative about the biographies of the elderly Russian Jews as both victims and fighters. In 2016 when we write these lines, the entire month of May was dedicated by Generation 1.5 to telling the stories of their grandparents, some of them already dead, illustrated by old black and white Soviet photos from family albums. Many were fighters in the regular army or in partisan units, others worked 16 hour shifts in the Soviet arms industry producing tanks and bombs; many were decorated by medals for their courage in combat and work effort. While in the USSR the status of the War Veteran entailed multiple symbolic and material benefits, in Israel these elderly immigrants slipped into oblivion and marginality (Roberman, 2007). It became an important task for the 1.5ers to remind the Israeli society about the heroic resistance by Soviet Jews during the war and their contribution to the Allied forces' victory that ultimately made possible the foundation of Israel. This is what Lisa Rozovsky, a journalist and an activist of this group, wrote on her FB page:
We witness an absurd situation in Israel: while the State has for many years cultivated the Holocaust Cult in its official ceremonies, media and schools, thousands of children and youth who came from the FSU (and often their parents) have a vague idea about their own family story of surviving Nazi occupation, mass killings, evacuations from major cities to remote areas, and the military effort by their grandparents who lived through these events. The Israeli narrative of the Shoa does not touch on their family story, practically ignores the Soviet chapters of the Holocaust, and thus excludes multiple Russian Israelis from being part of this founding national narrative.
Therefore, the 1.5ers make an organized effort to make their grandparents' story an integral part of the collective memory of the Shoa for all Israelis. To join the national narrative, these stories and materials have to be translated into Hebrew and presented in the accessible online format. This is exactly what 1.5ers like Nadia Aizner are trying to do by publishing on FB her Hebrew translation of an iconic Soviet song Sacred War (Sviashennaya Voina) to make its lyrics understandable for the grandchildren whose Russian is not good enough. Another kind of contribution to the collective memory and a tribute to Russian-speaking elders is ethnographic research about Red Army veteran movement in Israel by a social anthropologist Sveta Roberman (2007). Based on dozens of interviews with the veterans and participant observations at the local museums and events they organized in many Israeli towns, she underscores the deep ties between older and younger generations of ex-Soviet Jews and makes their story known to Israeli and international readers.
The Jerusalem festival of Russian-Soviet culture
The initiative to organize a three-day festival of Russian-Soviet culture in Jerusalem belonged to Alex Rif, Rita Kogan, and a few other activists of Generation 1.5. On three consecutive evenings (31/3-2/4.2015) a mixed crowd of local 1.5ers, visitors from Tel-Aviv, and curious tourists gathered in a popular cafe Tmol'-Shilshom in the city center to listen to the poems and songs performed in Hebrew but inspired by the Russian-Soviet legacies and immigrant experiences. On the first evening called shirat ha-hagira (poetry of migration) several 1.5ers read their own verses in Hebrew relating to their experiences and traumas as young immigrants. On the second night, the program included karaoke (led by two professional singers) of the old Russian and Soviet songs well-known to the older immigrants but a not so much to their children. On the third night, there was a showing of a classical Soviet-era film Zerkalo (The Mirror) by renowned director Andrei Tarkovsky with a following discussion. The group of Russian 1.5ers writing poems in Hebrew that consolidated around Alex Rif has later performed poetry readings in other venues, such as a conference on the 25th anniversary of Russian Aliya at Ruppin Academic Center in June 2015, a slum party by the name of hafla rusit in Jerusalem last November, and a recent evening of Russian poetry and songs in Haifa. Below we describe in more detail the first night of the Jerusalem festival that attracted a rather large crowd, most of them young Russian-speaking immigrants.
Alex Rif (29) who initiated this event spent most of her life in Israel (since age 5). She studied public administration and works in the Ministry of the Economy, also devoting time to her creative interests like screen writing and poetry. She is a key figure in the cultural initiatives of Generation 1.5 and an energetic lobbyist for the promotion of Russian-Soviet culture in Israel. Alex hosted the poetry evening and also read her own verses. Several dozen listeners, who gathered in this historic Jerusalem cafe, partly comprised the friends and pals of the poets who came to support them, but others were unrelated young folks who read the FB post about the event. Those who arrived earlier sat at round tables but the latecomers had to stand by the walls or sit on the floor. A small stage with a microphone, from which the poets were reading there verse, was placed in the center of the room. The public kept coming, and by the end of the evening about 50 persons were in the room. The organizers tried to cast this event in the Russian-Soviet style, drawing on the traditional symbols of hospitality. The seated guests were offered shots of vodka with familiar Russian-Soviet snacks (zakuski) like Olivie (potato salad), rye bread with bits of herring, and more. At the opening, Alex Rif, dressed in an elegant nightgown and red stiletto shoes, presented the participants and asked each of them to say a few words about their immigration story. This is how she explained to the audience the special character of this event:
...You are about to listen to the poems written by the young immigrants, members of the 1.5 generation of Russian Israelis, who are currently building their own community. It started from a few people who felt that their narrative is not really part of the Israeli discourse and wanted to have their voice heard... Who are essentially these 1.5ers? Are they Russians? Not really, because many of them grew up in Israel and their Hebrew is much better than Russian. But are they Israelis? Not in the full sense. Take me, for example. I was 5 when my parents brought me here from Ukraine, and for 15 years I was trying hard to forget about my origin and pass as a regular Israeli girl... Only in my 20s did I try to return to my Russianness, realizing that I was never fully Israeli despite all the effort... I guess you would ask - why does this evening happening only now, 25 years later? I think, earlier we were not ready to touch this open wound; it's only now that it starts healing.
The whole evening the audience was exposed to the perfect, rich and unaccented Hebrew--the language in which all the participants chose to express themselves in a public venue in Israel's capital. They either wrote their own verses in Hebrew or translated their favorite Russian poets into Hebrew. Their perfect command of Hebrew was a strong statement of belonging of these young Russian immigrants. The content of the poems, though, suggested that the process of becoming Hebrews was highly loaded and at times traumatic, spicing their verses with bitter scorn and black humor. Thus, the two poems recited by Alex at the beginning were titled Zionism (in a rather ironic sense) and My Mother was a Whore.
The next reader was Rita Kogan (38), who immigrated from Russia in the early 1990s at the age of 12. Rita recited her poem followed by two translations from Anna Akhmatova. Written in a flat conversational mode, Rita's poem (in our translation from Hebrew) is a chain of questions an Israeli man hurls at an immigrant woman. It ironically reflects the series of cliches and stereotypes imposed by native Israelis on 'Russians' generally and young women specifically:
You look like you're from here; You look like you're from there; You're Russian, so why are you cold? You're from Israel, you have no accent; Actually, you do sound foreign; Are you Jewish on both sides? How long have you been here? 20 years in Israel and still not acclimated? Where're you from (I mean back there)? And here? Are you a Leftie? That's weird...you're a Russian; Do you have a boyfriend? No? Strange, you're Russian... Won't you fuck me? No? Weird, given you're Russian... Did he fuck you? He sure did, you're Russian after al...
The protagonist clearly voices common stereotypes of ex-Soviet immigrants as foreign, poorly adjusted, not 'kosher' Jews, Right-wing politically, and on top of that - fair skinned, blond Russian women as sexually loose and always on the lookout for an Israeli man. This tainted sexual reputation of Russian-speaking women was a hot topic in the media and social research of the 1990s (Remennick, 1999; Lemish, 2000), but we discovered that the negative sexual stereotypes were still around, now applied to the daughters' generation. The theme of sexual harassment and exploitation, experienced by these young women (as their mothers before), is a common trope that runs through the artistic oeuvre by young Russian Israeli women (a propos, the title of the 2nd poem by Alex Rif, My Mother was a Whore). Another example from the poetry evening were the verses read by Zoya Pushnikova, who wryly presented herself as a feminist "who belongs to the famed cohort of Russian sluts who came here to steal local women's husbands and therefore get what they deserve when men harass them in the street". Similar motifs appeared in the poem by Sivan Baskin 'Alternative Adolescence'. Many visual examples of the uneasy encounter between 'Russian' women and Israeli men (typically of Mizrahi origin) are found in the work by a cartoon artist Zoya Cherkasskaya who came to Israel at the age of 15 from Kiev. Another 1.5er--Lena Russovsky--maintains a FB group called 'Russian Women without Sense of Humor and their Friends' (rusiyot lelo hush umor ve havreihen) where immigrant women of different ages can voice their grievances and discuss the solutions.
Perhaps not surprisingly, young women were the majority of poets who recited their work this night. Some of them had already been published (e.g. Nadia Aizner) while others are new to the poetry scene. Young men who read their verses or sang their songs included Petia Ptah and Alex Averbuch, the latter also reading his translations from Osip Mandelshtam. Shmuel Zaltser sang his Hebrew versions of the songs by Vladimir Vysotsky and Victor Zoi, popular Soviet underground singers. In the end of the evening, two native Israelis performed their verses in a 'poetry slam' style. One of them, Alon Yissahar, spoke about his Russian grandfather, a war veteran, and recited his ironic poem about Novy God (Gregorian New Year) celebrations in his Russian friend's family.
The last performance was by a 22 year-old Anastasia Yermolov who moved many in the room to a mix of tears and laughter. Before reading the verse, she explained what made her write it. Anastasia works at a restaurant in a big Jerusalem hotel, side by side with several Jewish chefs and many kitchen aids--Palestinians from East Jerusalem. The kitchen manager had repeatedly asked her (and the Palestinians) to never cook any hot meals (even scrambled eggs) when the Jewish chef is not around but always call her to do it. This is because their non-Jewish hands cannot touch any hot meals served to kosher Jews in the restaurant, nor even touch the utensils with which they are cooked. Anastasia was clearly hurt by these blatant references to her ethnic and religious inferiority, and by writing the verse, she tried to get even with her boss. The poem opens with a dialog:
Don't you dare to open the wine; Don't touch the skillet; Hey--have you already washed your hands [meaning netila - ritual hand cleansing]? -Actually I did, so didn't I wash my 'goyish' dirt away?
The poem incorporates many Hebrew puns and ironic references to symbols of normative Sabra appearance that this immigrant girl tries hard to imitate but is still denied full acceptance. The pain of young women who have a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother and are not recognized as Jewish in Israel is reflected in Anastasia's poem. While living in Israel from age 7, speaking fluent Hebrew and having passed all the social 'entry exams' into proper Israeliness, Anastasia (and her children) will be never equal in the Jewish state ruled by the Orthodox establishment. This anger and ambivalence of many 1.5ers ran as a red thread across many of their poems and songs. Despite their full linguistic and social immersion in the Hebrew mainstream, many of these young Israelis (particularly women) often feel inferior by the references to their compromised Jewish identity.
Alternative interpretations of belonging and ownership
Now we will present an alternative vision of the immigrants' identity and sense of entitlement in their adopted homeland, drawing on the example of Alexander (Sasha) Goldshtein, a political activist, journalist and blogger in his mid-30s who has long been connected to A. Lieberman's party Israel Beiteinu (Our Home Israel). He came to Israel at the age of 9 from a small town in Moldova, completed high school, BA and MA degrees and served in the IDF. For a few years now, Alex has administered his Russian-language news portal IZRUS, where a small group of Russian Israelis that are close to national politics published a programmatic statement called The Concept of Russian Israel. Below we present a long quote from his recent interview with AP that revealed some deep disagreements in the ways this group construes their place and role vis-a-vis their peers from the other groups discussed above. Alex was somewhat reticent during the interview and was quite reluctant to discuss his own biography, particularly the specifics of his education and career in Israel. When asked if he worked in the past for OHI (Lieberman's party) or represents its interests today, he avoided answering directly but said that their group is independent and supported by private Jewish donors in the FSU. Most of Alex's monologue (delivered in response to the general question about their group's origin and goals) revolved around his objections to the ideas and initiatives presented by other groups, particularly Alex Rif and Generation 1.5. Text in square brackets is our comments.
We've had ideological schisms with Generation 1.5 before, but they got worse after their social media campaign to celebrate Russian New Year on December 31 and promote it among our Sabra friends. This is so typical of their activity to focus on marginal issues and ignore the important ones. They keep pushing Russian cultural symbols [he mentions the elements of Russian folk costume and songs that Alex Rif often includes in her performances] that are foreign to most Olim who identify as Jews, not Russians... The funny thing is that most of them don't even speak or write in Russian, while positioning themselves as such--and many of them came here as teenagers, after years of schooling in the FSU. All their blogs and events are in Hebrew only!.. It isn't accidental that Alex and her crowd call themselves 'immigrants' while we are Olim, repatriates, we returned to our homeland, which belongs to us on par with other Israeli Jews. They are not really connected to Israel, despite their perfect Hebrew--tomorrow, if opportunity comes by, they'd leave for Canada or US without looking back. And this is because they have no roots in this land. Israel is not really dear to them, as it is to me--whose great-grandparents in Bessarabia for years donated money for the Zionist settlement in Palestine and dreamed of moving there... That is why I belong here and they do not! They want to tell Israelis that we came from the country of nested dolls and kokoshniks. [cites several cliche icons of Russianness], while I want them to know that we came from the country of Zhabotinsky, Ahad haAm and Pinsker [prominent Russian Zionist writers]! On top of this, all these 1.5ers - celebrating Novy God and serving Russian potato salad to their Sabra guests - in fact represent the ideas of the Israeli Left, even its most radical flank. And this is also connected to their full transit from Russian to Hebrew. Because they don't really function in the Russian-language political and media community [which is nationalist, 'patriotic' and Right-wing]; they have long been coopted by the Israeli leftist NGOs and parties as their agents in the Russian community... They don't really have any clear idea about who they are; their self-identity is a mess! That's why they cannot tap on the actual serious issues that matter for the lives of Russian Israelis--such as economic downfall of our parents upon retirement or the barriers to our own careers in the Israeli organizations, the so-called glass ceiling. We are going to address these matters and try to foster some real changes for the better. But in order to tackle these problems head-on, you have to believe that you are an equal Israeli citizen who is entitled for the full social and political rights [our emphasis]... We are also working now on the issues of higher education for the children of Russian Jews in Israel they experience barriers to the universities and colleges, and we want them to be an educated and capable generation that will continue the best traditions of their parents and grandparents. We want our children to be in touch with their roots and be proud of their origin; they should know that they originate from the largest Jewish country in the world [meaning Russian Empire and USSR] and not some remote Polish village. This is our credo and we are going to act on it.
This agitated monolog attests to the hurt ego due to the perceived rejection by the ruling Israeli Ashkenazi middle class (allegedly coming from "some remote Polish village") and the wish to get even with it for the many humiliations suffered by ex-Soviet immigrants as newcomers in Israel. Alex stresses the historic legacies of grand Russian-Jewish narrative ("the largest Jewish country in the world", references to the icons of Russian Zionism in Palestine), which is the main inspiration and source of legitimacy for young Russian Jews in Israel and their political appeal. His speech also reveals the basic discordance between the political leanings of his group towards the nationalist secular Right (that claims to represent the majority of Israel's Russian speakers) and the groups of 1.5ers associated with the Israeli Left or Center. In other words, Goldshtein and his allies argue that they are the true, representative voice of the Russian community and a serious political force aiming to solve its many practical (rather than symbolic) problems in Israel.
The matters of Jewish identity and marital rights
It is hardly surprising that the matters of Jewish status and the entitlement to marry in the rabbinical court are rather central for the Russian-Israeli 1.5ers, who are precisely in the age bracket when young adults start families of their own. Some activists of Generation 1.5 took up the rights of 'non-marriageable' Israelis (psulei hitun), their possible conversion and alternative ways to marry as their primary topic in writing and organizing. One of these is Katia Kupchik (32), who came from Ukraine at the age of 17, completed in Israel her MA degree in advertising and now works in PR for several Russian-Israeli NGOs. Katia is married to a fellow immigrant and has a small daughter, who will not be recognized as Jewish because Katia has a Ukrainian maternal grandmother (while all her other grandparents are Jewish). Katia had studied for the Orthodox conversion but did not complete this tedious process and later on converted within a Reform movement. Katia said:
... When I made Aliyah after high school, everyone kept pressing me first to serve in the IDF in order 'to belong' in Israel, and then (when they heard that I'm not considered Jewish here) to convert - for the same reason. I realized then that I had to keep my dirty secret (i.e. having a non-Jewish grandma) closeted if I didn't wish to get in trouble... In our group Generation 1.5 were decided not to keep silent anymore and reject the local conventions, to raise public awareness and find ways to solve this problem. Over time, more paternal half-Jews will join our protest, and it will eventually expand the existing boundaries of Jewishness in Israel.
So Katia is not accepting the status quo and insists on fighting for her own and her daughter's future in the Jewish state. She refers to tens of thousands of Israelis whose father (and not mother) is Jewish, as a source of a future mass protest movement. Possible solutions 1.5ers suggest include ending the monopoly of the Orthodoxy in conversions (i.e. recognizing Reform conversions) and/or establishing civil marital courts for psulei hitun and all other Israelis uninterested in religious marriage. Either way, the young generation of Russian Israelis is going to fight for their marital rights more consistently than did their parents' generation. This topic is discussed in our article (included in this volume) on the alternative 'city square weddings' organized by Fishka in Tel-Aviv for three years in a row, as a form of protest against rabbinical monopoly in marital rites, and hence basic civil rights, of many Israelis.
Learning from the experience of the Mizrahi protest movements
Concluding this overview, we'd like to ponder some lines of conversion between the protest movements by Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews - that date back to the mid-1970s and still continue today - and the nascent protest movement by Russian Israelis. During the interviews with the activists of Generation 1.5, we heard time and again the comparisons between their own modus operandi and those of Keshet ha-Mizrahit or Ars Poetica--the communities of Mizrahi intellectuals challenging the lingering Ashkenazi dominance in many Israeli institutions. Some 1.5ers mentioned that they often discuss their organizational ideas with their Mizrahi pals whom they met in social movements or at the university. Some Russian 1.5 bloggers published their columns (e.g. on Russian rock music and Novy God celebrations) with Cafe Gibraltar, a popular website run by Mizrahi intellectuals. In the more recent projects by Fishka, we also found the attempts to bridge social gaps between Russian and Mizrahi Israelis, e.g. by the joint celebrations of Memuna with Moroccan sweet pastry and Russian pancakes, ended with a traditional Middle-Eastern belly-dance performed by a Russian immigrant woman Julia Kislev (more on this in the article on memory and belonging). Another example of cultural hybridization is the Russian hafla (Arabic for wild party) recently organized by Generation 1.5 in Jerusalem. These recent examples of Russian-Mizrahi intercultural bridging are especially interesting given the long-term hostilities and mutual negative stereotyping between the two communities during the 1990s and early 2000s (Lomsky-Feder, Rapoport and Lerner, 2005). Given that three generations of Mizrahi Jews have accumulated a lot of experience in resisting the Israeli establishment and achieved significant upward mobility in many social arenas (Cohen and Leon, 2008), their protest know-how may be rather valuable for the leaders of the Russian 1.5 generation. With all the differences in the backgrounds and social trajectories between ex-Soviet and Mizrahi Jews, this mutual learning and cooperation in social activism can advance the agendas of both communities in the future.
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|Author:||Prashizky, Anna; Remennick, Larissa|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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