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The Russians Came

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I went to Russia to write a book about the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe (it was published in Hebrew under the title "Lenin Does Not Live Here Anymore".) Rachel and I liked Moscow very much, but it took only a few days for us to be amazed at the rampant racism we saw everywhere around us. Dark-skinned citizens were treated with undisguised contempt. When we went to the market and joked with the vendors, all people from the South with whom we established immediate rapport, our young, nice, serious-faced Russian translator distanced himself quite openly.

MY FRIENDS and I have been meeting every Friday for some 50 years. When the Russians started to arrive, our "table" was in Tel Aviv's Cafe Kassit, the mythological meeting place of writers, artists and such.

One day we noticed that a group of young Russian immigrants had established a "table" of their own. Full of sympathy -- as well as curiosity -- we joined them from time to time.

At the beginning it worked. Some friendships were struck up. But then something curious happened. They distanced themselves from us, making it clear that for them we were only some uncultured Middle Eastern barbarians, unworthy of association with people brought up on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Soon enough they disappeared from our view.

I was reminded of this last Friday when an unusually heated discussion broke out at our table. We had a guest, a young "Russian" female scientist, who accused the Left of indifference and a patronizing attitude towards the Russian community which had caused it to turn to the right. A leading female peace activist reacted furiously, arguing that the Russians had already come to the country with a near-fascist attitude.

I agreed with both of them.

ISRAEL'S ATTITUDE towards new immigrants has always been a bit on the strange side.

Leaders like David Ben-Gurion treated Zionist immigration as if it was merely a transportation problem. They went to extraordinary lengths to bring Jews from all over the world to Israel, but once they were here, they were left to fend for themselves. Sure, material assistance was given, housing was provided, but next to nothing was done to integrate them into society.

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This was true of the mass immigration of German Jews in the 1930s, the Oriental Jews in the 1950s, and the Russians in the 1990s. When the Russian Jews showed a marked preference for the USA, our government pressured the American administration to shut the gates in their face, so they were practically forced to come here. When they did come, they were left to congregate in ghettos, instead of being induced to spread and settle among us.

The Israeli Left was no exception. When some feeble efforts to draw them to the peace camp were unsuccessful, they were left well alone. The organization to which I belong, Gush Shalom, once distributed 100,000 copies of our flagship publication ("Truth against Truth," the history of the conflict) in Russian, but when we received only one sole answer, we were discouraged. Obviously, the Russians did not give a damn for the history of this country, about which they do not have the slightest idea.

TO UNDERSTAND the importance of this problem one must visualize the composition of Israeli society as it is (I have written about this in the past). It consists of five main sectors, of almost equal size, as follows:

Jews of European origin, called Ashkenazim, to which most of the cultural, economic, political and military elite belongs. The Left is almost completely concentrated here. Jews of Oriental origin, often called (mistakenly) Sephardim, from Arab and other Muslim countries. They are the base of Likud. Religious Jews, which include the ultra-Orthodox Haredim, both Ashkenazi and Oriental, as well as the National-Religious Zionists, which include the leadership of the settlers. Arab-Palestinian citizens, mostly located in three large geographical blocs. The "Russians"

Some of these sectors overlap to some minor extent, but the picture is clear. The Arabs and many of the Ashkenazim belong to the peace camp, all the others are solidly right-wing.

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Because of this, it is absolutely imperative to win over at least sections of the Oriental Jews, the religious and -- yes -- the "Russians," to create a majority for peace. To my mind, that is the most important task of the peace camp at this moment.

AT THE end of the furious debate at our table, I tried to calm down the two sides:

"No need to fight about sharing the blame. There is quite enough for everybody."

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