Living by Comparison
Living by Comparison
How do the new immigrants from Putin’s Russia perceive the state of Israel? What are their political views and social stances? How do those who value rights and freedoms perceive the Israeli ethnocracy? Anthropologists Julia Lerner and Varvara Preter on the new wave of Russian immigrants

“Putin’s aliyah” between freedom and dictatorship

In January 2021 in Israel — as in many other countries with a prominent Russian diaspora —the mass protests against Putin’s regime began. They were triggered by the arrest of the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. On January 23, two thousand people came out to protest on the streets of Tel Aviv, and one thousand in Haifa. For the new immigrants from Russia, these protests became a new experience of safe civic self-expression. One of the participants, an English teacher who came to Israel in the late 2010s from a small town near Moscow, came up with the most vivid formulation: “It was a mind-blowing feeling. I was protesting and nobody would beat me up for it, and I wasn’t scared. It was a protest of a ‘healthy  person’.”

Two years later, on March 1, 2023, the use of force by police against protesters in Israel during a protest against the coup d’état in Israel caused a specific reaction within the social media circles of “Putin’s aliyah”. An ironic tweet has been massively reposted, stating: “The concentration of Russians and Belarusians in Israel has become so high that the police have started beating people up during the protests.” 

“Putin’s aliyah” is the name given in the Israeli public sphere to a group of immigrants from Russia whose choice to immigrate is closely connected to their rejection of Putin’s regime — both of the repressions and persecutions and of a sense of discomfort due to the increasing atmosphere of censorship and dictatorship. The main trigger was the annexation of Crimea in 2014. After that, the number of immigrants from Russia only increased until the pandemic. February 24, 2022, became a new and much stronger impetus for a new wave of immigration from Russia. It was immediately nicknamed “war aliyah” in Israel. 

For the most part “Putin’s aliyah” and “war aliyah” consist of the representatives of the new Russian middle class. Profession-wise these are both STEM-specialists and representatives of the creative professions: journalists, writers, poets, and artists, who used to live in major Russian cities. The new middle class is characterized by the possession of a high cultural capital (along with an economic capital) and by its developed consumer practices (see the debate about the lack of pumpkin latte in Israel). In Russia, a large part of the middle class work in the public sector, so among them there is a high percentage of those who support the authoritarian regime. But there are also those who not only stand for the values of democracy and liberal freedoms, but also consider them foundational for their social identity. They make up the main part of the immigrants from Russia to Israel and the voice of these people among the “Putin’s aliyah” becomes all the more loud in the Russophone public space.

In the course of our research it was noticeable that many of the new immigrants, who imagined their immigration to be an escape from “Putin’s dictatorship” to Israel as a “free democratic state,” later found themselves as if “living by comparison.” For many, their perception of the civic political landscape in Israel begins with a rejection of the parallel between the Russian and Israeli situations — a selective blindness of sorts. This state is replaced later by a mobilization of constant comparison between life under the authoritarian regime and economic affluence in Russia and life under the Israeli ethnocratic regime.

Thus, their perspective is shaped by the translation of political concepts from one country to another and is connected, as will be shown below, to their search for their own social position. One of the symbols of this translation is the slogan (in Russian) which appeared at protests against the incumbent government in Israel in March 2023 — “One country is already fucked up,” or in another version, “We do not want to lose another country.” Immigrants’ sense of loss of Russia is a source both of reflection on their civic responsibility in a new country and on their fear of repeating the experience of losing one’s sense of belonging.

“The glass has fogged”: blindness when moving to a new country

Even if some of the new immigrants had already participated in civic initiatives in Israel aimed at establishing a coexistence between Jews and Arabs (the “Black Flags” protest of 2020–2021, the Geneva Accord), for the majority of the “Putin’s Aliyah,” the first major civilian shake-up and a big test of political decoding in a new place was the operation “Guardian of the Walls” in May 2021, caused by the conflict in Jerusalem’s holy sites and the following mass riot in Israel.  

For the new middle-aged, middle-class immigrants, the main source of news is the Russian-language discussions and social media. At the same time, most Russian-language Israeli telegram-channels spread a political narrative which portrays Israel as a victim of historical circumstances, defending itself in the struggle for its existence. For many people who were sitting in a bomb shelter during this period, sometimes at night, this narrative becomes dominant and even escalates in their interpretation of events: “The Gaza Strip should be razed to the ground and a beach should be there instead,” a young man who moved from Moscow to Bat Yam in the late 2010s said in an interview.

“Russian liberals” have bifurcated consciousness and are even blind to the Israeli context — says one of our informants, a political activist, journalist, writer and a stand-up artist. In an interview, she told us that her and many other people who came to Israel from Russia, had a superficial, even primitive perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “There was an empty desert, where three Bedouins were busy mating with a camel, and then the Jews came and built a blossoming country.” It is only after you have actually lived in Israel and “got acquainted with the Palestinian narrative” through personal communication and observation that “uncomfortable questions” arise and you begin to comprehend.

For all of our informants, the experience of encountering violence during the “Guardian of the Walls” operation became emotionally significant. Our interlocutors spoke of experiencing fear and anxiety, as well as of their admiration for the “locals” who remained courageous and calm and did not panic during the bombings. But their own experiences of danger, violence, and of being under shell fire ended up being inscribed in a safe frame of an “outsider’s view.”

Firstly, such a vision is based on comparison. The topic of the “harmless”  Israeli violence compared to life in Russia has been mentioned in many of our interviews, and it was best expressed by the actress and stand-up artist who came to Tel Aviv from Moscow in the late 2010s. She recorded a tik-tok in the midst of the military operation: “Ok, so, we are being bombed here for three days straight now, there is a bit of civil war going on. By the way, my neighborhood turned out to be the most aggressive and is already hitting the press and journalists. And I still feel much safer than in Putin’s Russia.”

Secondly, the lens of safe detachment sometimes turns out to be a forced measure. This is what a scientist and political activist, who came to Israel after the annexation of Crimea, says in an interview, considering she had time to learn Hebrew and to become involved in the local agenda. Operation “Guardian of the Walls,” she says, had a tremendous negative effect on her psychological state: “I realized that I do not exist in a country at war and cannot belong there. […] I would like to see myself with people who promote peaceful coexistence. I refuse to fight and be someone’s enemy. So I can only curl up and hide in a hole.”

Thirdly, such a lens also transforms into its opposite — from a safe place it suddenly becomes a source of fear. An artist who came to Tel Aviv from Moscow during the pandemic told us that she was scared that she “had done nothing wrong and was trying to be a good person, sorting garbage, volunteering at beach cleanups, donating blood,” but that “the world has divided and now half of it hates her and wants her dead” because she became an Israeli citizen. Even being a part of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia, she has not been subjected to such hatred on social media. Simultaneously, she maintains a detached “cosmopolitan” view of violence and does not support it — neither from Israel towards the Palestinians nor from Palestinians and their sympathizers towards the Jews and Israelis. At the same time, she does not consider herself or her immigration to Israel, which was made possible by the Jewish Law of Return, to be part of any violence.

Through the Prism of War: On the Path to Civic Consciousness 

On the 24th of February, 2022, the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine gave the new immigrants an opportunity to compare the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to what is happening in Ukraine. At the same time, a wave of terrorist attacks and violence erupted in Israel in the spring of 2022 — it was named “Operation Wavebreaker.” The violence associated with one society to which recent immigrants belonged is superimposed on the violence they witness in a new society. It is by experiencing this phenomenological overlap that immigrants consciously  or automatically compare one reality to another, and the work of comparison usually produces a critical view of Israeli politics.

In the fall of 2022, a Russian-speaking Israeli of Ukrainian origin posted a picture on his Twitter account with a caption “For those friends who still don’t understand that Israel has existed this way for many years,” and the picture immediately went viral on social media. It depicts a map of Israel and its neighboring countries with the sovereign territory of Israel being marked as Ukraine, the Gaza Strip — as the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, the Left Bank — as the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, Lebanon — as Belarus, and Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq altogether — as Russia.

This meme translates the logic of the Russian occupation of Ukraine into the language of the Israeli national narrative: Israel is a small country, surrounded by a powerful enemy, who causes harm from within through the sabotage enacted by its mobilized population hostile to the state. The meme depicts a political reading of the Israeli situation through the use of the image of Russian occupation of Ukraine. Some users commented on the original post or its reposts that a map, in which Israel simulates Russia rather than Ukraine, would have been more accurate.

This direction of comparative thought can be traced in a text written by a high-tech specialist who came to Gush Dan (Tel Aviv metropolitan area) from Moscow in the late 2010s. In the summer of 2022, she asked other immigrants from Russia on Facebook whether the war in Ukraine had changed their view of the Palestinians. The question was posed when Israel was once again discussing aggravation of relations with Gaza and potential shelling. According to the author’s point of view, the war against Ukraine makes one think about colonialism as action and discourse, and this critical thought could well be transferred to Israeli soil. She makes an argument by pointing out the typical representations of the Palestinians within the atrocious framework of the Israeli nationalist movement (“there is no such people as the Palestinians,” “Jews have always lived here,” “Israel keeps proposing solutions to the conflict but the other side rejects them,” etc.). She presented these statements so abstractly that their similarity to the Russian authorities’ rhetoric became obvious: “The same denial of the people’s subjectivity and of their right to exist. The same patronizing attitude. We believe that the Ukrainians have an absolute moral righteousness not only in war, but also in their right to a subjectivity and to their territories. But at the same time we don’t think these things about Palestinians. Perhaps, this is because we are a party in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in the Russian-Ukrainian one we are not.” It is clear that when the author placed herself inside the conflict her position has changed the entire perspective. Moreover, the very idea of comparison already requires a reconsideration of what is happening in Israel.

The comparison of the Israeli and Russian occupational rhetoric caused a storm of comments, arguments, accusations, and more posts on this topic on social media. Some people pointed out to the author that making such a comparison is unacceptable. Others argued about whose position was more similar to that of the Palestinians (and Israelis), if we compare it to Russia’s war against Ukraine. We suppose that in the summer of 2022 the reflection of representatives of the “Putin’s aliyah” on the war in Ukraine overlapped with the reflection on the worsening situation around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Their synergy led to the inclusion of new immigrants in an active discussion of the Israeli agenda. 

Arkady Mazin came to Israel from the Soviet Union in the 1990s and after 25 years emigrated to the United States, where he continues to work as a journalist and write for the Israeli media, including Russian-language articles. In the summer of 2022, he published an appeal to new Russian-speaking Israelis in which he urged them to realize their role and responsibility in the colonization project and hence made a comparison between Israelis and former Russians rather than comparing the state of Israel to the Russian state:

“I’m looking at a flyer in Russian that is distributed by the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council. It says: ‘Dear friends coming to Israel from Ukraine and countries of the former Soviet Union! We are ready to welcome you in the cities and settlements of Judea and Samaria. We help you navigate and choose a place to live, to settle in a new home, to choose an Ulpan (classes for learning Hebrew) and an educational institution, and we also provide guidance in solving bureaucratic problems.’ It’s not bad, but it lacks creativity. As a former copywriter, I’ll try to help. How about ‘Fleeing from the occupation? We’ll help you become occupiers yourselves!’’ 

Putting immigrants fleeing from the aggressive Russian regime in the framework of the occupation regime in Israel, the author presents them as agents of regime’s  implementation.

Adjusting the optics: spot the differences, or pack your belongings  

Following the launch of the comparison mechanism and the adjusting of the focus of civic position, the “Putin’s aliyah” quite quickly faced a new challenge: the need to decipher the Israeli political party map while looking forward to the special elections to the Knesset in November 2022. The choice of a party seemed to be a confusing and even absurd matter to many new immigrants. Some parties (“Likud,” “Yisrael Beiteinu” and “The State Camp”) took advantage of this situation. They were targeting the new Russian-speaking immigrants with their propaganda, both overt and covert. But the important thing is that in the civil consciousness of the new immigrants, Russia and Israel have already become objects of constant comparison to one another, and the election situation forces one to look for similarities between them. 

In October 2022, in one of the Russian-language Facebook groups of new immigrants, a journalist and writer who came to Gush Dan from St. Petersburg immediately after the annexation of Crimea encouraged the group’s participants to vote for Yair Lapid, one of Netanyahu’s main opponents in these elections. She attached a photo of Putin and Netanyahu shaking hands to her lengthy post. Her arguments against Netanyahu were largely based on comparing him to Putin: like Putin, Netanyahu has been in power for the last 20 years. She urged her former compatriots, who often say they “don’t understand anything about politics,” to vote “in order to avoid having to pack their suitcases later.” This shows how the cultural scenario of emigration as a direct result of discomfort and desperation caused by the political regime is being reproduced in Israel.

The scenario of the departure of dissidents, persistent through generations, is nonetheless often criticized by some immigrants. Thus, one of the activists of “Putin’s aliyah” writes in her blog that it is important for her to fight for her freedom rather than immediately look for a path “to Narnia.” From her point of view, it’s “immoral” — the minute something goes slightly wrong in one country — to immediately move to another, as some “digital nomads” do, who are guided by the “If I feel any discomfort here, I’ll jump off the wagon” mindset. She believes that “a decent person should have a minimal אין לי ארץ אחרת [I don’t have another country]”.

In her words one can see a reflection of the well-known Israeli ideological ethos of “returning home,” [previously “scattered” Jews return to their “homeland”] according to which “repatriates” are opposed to “relocants.” At the same time, this position is supported by criticism of the global ideology of cosmopolitanism, the supremacy of consumer culture and a utilitarian attitude to the environment, both to the ecological and to the political. It is paradoxical that both this hyper-individualistic approach and its criticism are characteristic of middle-class professionals of liberal professions. 

Focusing the lens: a civil protest among their own people 

The formation of a far-right coalition led by Netanyahu following the 2022 Knesset elections provoked an emotional response from voters of the “Putin’s aliyah.” They immediately linked their experience of witnessing Russia’s authoritarian turn to the dynamics of the Israeli regime. The return of Netanyahu for a new term was compared by them with how Putin stayed in power and how legal mechanisms were gradually adjusted in his favor. A high-tech specialist, who moved to Tel Aviv from Moscow after the annexation of Crimea, wrote in his blog that he “is not sure whether Bibi and Putin have exchanged manuals,” but there are “a lot of parallels between the actions of Israel and those of the Russian Federation.”

The attempt by Netanyahu’s government coalition to stage a coup d’état through judicial reform has caused mass protests in Israel. The reform was perceived not only as a means of keeping Netanyahu, who is on trial, in power, but also as a transformation of the constitutional democratic foundations of the state of Israel, which keep it from sliding into a theocracy and total apartheid. The main protesters were members of the educated middle class of Ashkenazi ethnicity from the country’s major cities (high-tech and education workers, doctors, writers, etc.). The protesters soon faced accusations from the authorities that they were opposed to Israel, given the Palestinian flags in the crowd. As a result, many began to protest with the Israeli state flags. At this point, the protest movement took on a mass character and was joined by members of almost all strata and groups of Israeli society, while predominantly representing the interests of old elites, the wealthy classes, and non-religious, anti-traditional strata. 

These protests were the first events related to the Israeli agenda in which the “Putin’s aliyah” took an active part. This suggests that the comparative optics — the very desire to constantly compare the authoritarian turn in Israel to the dictatorship in contemporary Russia (and to what preceded it) — allows immigrants to formulate a more clear and more active civic stance within Israel. Our informants stated that it was important for them to be able to express their opinions publicly and that they were not willing to be deprived of the opportunity to participate in the political life of their new country again. For example, one artist, who moved from Moscow to Gush Dan after the annexation of Crimea, wrote on Facebook in March 2023 that the protests in Israel and the negative reactions to them reminded her of what she had seen before “in a country bigger in size.” In Russia, opponents of the demonstrations also said that the protesters were rejecting the democratically elected government: “This is a similarity. But I hope that the differences are really decisive. I just want to know exactly what those differences are and why they will work.”

Among the representatives of the “Putin’s aliyah,” there is a journalist who has actively spoken out against the reform and has been a constant participant in the protests. In his Facebook message, he appealed to new immigrants and refugees from Russia and Ukraine, asking them to go out and protest and to support democracy: 

“I am sorry that after changing countries, fleeing from dictatorship and war, you ended up in Israel of 2023, because it is a tough time for the country. […] Never before have we woken up every day with a sense of powerlessness in the face of what the new government is doing day after day. […] I know, it doesn’t compare to the situation there [in Russia]. But we are in the process, […] don’t give up, protest. […] I’m not the one to teach you about democracy, resistance and justice.”

“The demonstrations in Tel Aviv are sponsored from abroad,” says Binyamin Netanyahu. “The protests are paid for by the Americans, they want to provoke a civil war in Israel,” says a friend of mine who I have known for years […] “Were you at the manifestation? Tell me, how much did they pay you?”… I fall back into the past again and find myself on the dirty floor in a police van in Belarus in 2006. My ears buzz, there is a salty taste of blood in my mouth. “How much did they pay you, whore? You’ve all sold yourselves to the West,” says the spetsnaz officer. And with some lazy, half-hearted movement he slaps me in the face. […] Listening to Netanyahu and his allies speak, I keep getting that taste of blood from 17 years ago in my mouth.”

Police violence clearly reminds immigrants of their experience of participating in the protests or watching the protests in Russia and Belarus. This can be seen everywhere — in blogs, comments, private conversations and journalistic and sociological interviews. In this way, a link is formed between the general political position and the social position that new immigrants begin to occupy in Israeli society. This connection was well formulated, for example, by a filmmaker who recently moved to Israel from Moscow. He described his impressions of participating in the protests in central Tel Aviv. The column he joined during the protest procession appeared to him to be similar to the one he once marched in on Troitsky Bridge after Boris Nemtsov’s murder: “I have never seen as many Israeli Intelligentsia  as at this gathering. It seemed to us that there were only university professors around, even though there weren’t obviously so many of them in the country […] We went to Russian protests. There were always professors and the middle class, too.” Thus, participation in the protest, among other things, allows to new Russian immigrants to position themselves as belonging to a certain social stratum — the middle class, the creative class — the “educated people,” who, as the author believes, will oppose the dictatorship in any country. 

***

Interpreting the discourse of the Russian-speaking Intelligentsia who came to Israel in the 1990s, Dmitri Shumsky shows how these immigrants apply the Soviet concept of ethno-national hierarchy to the civic space of Israel. This explains why educated Russian Jews in Israel gravitated toward right-wing nationalist positions: from the national minority that they had been in the USSR, these immigrants became the national majority in Israel, positioning themselves as a part of the Jewish people. The Soviet Jewish intelligentsia retained a civic political consciousness characterized by an ethno-national hierarchy among citizens. Roughly speaking, their political perception of how society should be organized has not changed, but their position in the hierarchical structure has altered – they have finally become “first class citizens.”

The new immigrants from Putin’s Russia also accept their right to become full citizens of Israel as something natural. Moreover, it is this civic political position that often encourages them to leave the comfortable and prosperous life in Russia, where their position was becoming increasingly precarious, and come to Israel to live the life, as they put it, of a “healthy  person.” But this position differs from that of the Soviet Jewish Intelligentsia who came to the country in the 1990s. It does not stem from the late-Soviet notion of ethno-national hierarchy, but is closely connected to their social and class position in Russia, their professional cosmopolitan ethos, their transnational identities and practices, and their life in a constantly tense and ambivalent relationship with the authorities. In other words, the protest position of the “Putin’s aliyah” and the “war aliyah” is a projection of their class habitus (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s concept). This habitus corresponds to certain reference points: liberal views, and sensitivity to individual and minority rights.

We know from a number of Bourdieu’s works that position in society forms the field of vision. This is true not only in regard to one’s perception of culture, but also in regard to civic and political consciousness. Emigration to Israel obscures or even scratches the “civic lens” of the new Russian middle class, but over time makes it more clear, focusing on the specific traits of the new reality. A dramatic event in the country of exodus, the war in Ukraine, became a decisive factor, destroying the previously noticeable opposition between Russia and Israel as an alleged opposition between dictatorship and a free state.

The observation of the dynamics of the gaze and field of vision of Russian immigrants in Israel allows one to trace how the political regime in being experienced in transition from one political reality to another. It’s important in order to understand how the new Russian-speaking Israelis will fit into the local environment and context, how they will react to the political  power order or even how they might be able to influence it in the future. Today the Israeli field is a sturdy and marked ground, not a swamp, within which some political parties morph into others. Moreover, it’s a field of competition and mutual aggression. “Putin’s aliyah” today splits in two. Those who support the right-wing and nationalist Israeli narrative tend to either deny the very possibility of comparing the political transformation of Russia and Israel, or to only note differences between the two. Those who join the left-liberal part of the Israeli society tend to be living by comparison, while here as well as back in their homeland persecution, protests, and war continue.

Share post:

The ICD and the Future of Russian Psychiatry
The ICD and the Future of Russian Psychiatry
Military Animals: A Secret Threat
Military Animals: A Secret Threat

Subscribe to Posle

Living by Comparison
Living by Comparison
How do the new immigrants from Putin’s Russia perceive the state of Israel? What are their political views and social stances? How do those who value rights and freedoms perceive the Israeli ethnocracy? Anthropologists Julia Lerner and Varvara Preter on the new wave of Russian immigrants

“Putin’s aliyah” between freedom and dictatorship

In January 2021 in Israel — as in many other countries with a prominent Russian diaspora —the mass protests against Putin’s regime began. They were triggered by the arrest of the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. On January 23, two thousand people came out to protest on the streets of Tel Aviv, and one thousand in Haifa. For the new immigrants from Russia, these protests became a new experience of safe civic self-expression. One of the participants, an English teacher who came to Israel in the late 2010s from a small town near Moscow, came up with the most vivid formulation: “It was a mind-blowing feeling. I was protesting and nobody would beat me up for it, and I wasn’t scared. It was a protest of a ‘healthy  person’.”

Two years later, on March 1, 2023, the use of force by police against protesters in Israel during a protest against the coup d’état in Israel caused a specific reaction within the social media circles of “Putin’s aliyah”. An ironic tweet has been massively reposted, stating: “The concentration of Russians and Belarusians in Israel has become so high that the police have started beating people up during the protests.” 

“Putin’s aliyah” is the name given in the Israeli public sphere to a group of immigrants from Russia whose choice to immigrate is closely connected to their rejection of Putin’s regime — both of the repressions and persecutions and of a sense of discomfort due to the increasing atmosphere of censorship and dictatorship. The main trigger was the annexation of Crimea in 2014. After that, the number of immigrants from Russia only increased until the pandemic. February 24, 2022, became a new and much stronger impetus for a new wave of immigration from Russia. It was immediately nicknamed “war aliyah” in Israel. 

For the most part “Putin’s aliyah” and “war aliyah” consist of the representatives of the new Russian middle class. Profession-wise these are both STEM-specialists and representatives of the creative professions: journalists, writers, poets, and artists, who used to live in major Russian cities. The new middle class is characterized by the possession of a high cultural capital (along with an economic capital) and by its developed consumer practices (see the debate about the lack of pumpkin latte in Israel). In Russia, a large part of the middle class work in the public sector, so among them there is a high percentage of those who support the authoritarian regime. But there are also those who not only stand for the values of democracy and liberal freedoms, but also consider them foundational for their social identity. They make up the main part of the immigrants from Russia to Israel and the voice of these people among the “Putin’s aliyah” becomes all the more loud in the Russophone public space.

In the course of our research it was noticeable that many of the new immigrants, who imagined their immigration to be an escape from “Putin’s dictatorship” to Israel as a “free democratic state,” later found themselves as if “living by comparison.” For many, their perception of the civic political landscape in Israel begins with a rejection of the parallel between the Russian and Israeli situations — a selective blindness of sorts. This state is replaced later by a mobilization of constant comparison between life under the authoritarian regime and economic affluence in Russia and life under the Israeli ethnocratic regime.

Thus, their perspective is shaped by the translation of political concepts from one country to another and is connected, as will be shown below, to their search for their own social position. One of the symbols of this translation is the slogan (in Russian) which appeared at protests against the incumbent government in Israel in March 2023 — “One country is already fucked up,” or in another version, “We do not want to lose another country.” Immigrants’ sense of loss of Russia is a source both of reflection on their civic responsibility in a new country and on their fear of repeating the experience of losing one’s sense of belonging.

“The glass has fogged”: blindness when moving to a new country

Even if some of the new immigrants had already participated in civic initiatives in Israel aimed at establishing a coexistence between Jews and Arabs (the “Black Flags” protest of 2020–2021, the Geneva Accord), for the majority of the “Putin’s Aliyah,” the first major civilian shake-up and a big test of political decoding in a new place was the operation “Guardian of the Walls” in May 2021, caused by the conflict in Jerusalem’s holy sites and the following mass riot in Israel.  

For the new middle-aged, middle-class immigrants, the main source of news is the Russian-language discussions and social media. At the same time, most Russian-language Israeli telegram-channels spread a political narrative which portrays Israel as a victim of historical circumstances, defending itself in the struggle for its existence. For many people who were sitting in a bomb shelter during this period, sometimes at night, this narrative becomes dominant and even escalates in their interpretation of events: “The Gaza Strip should be razed to the ground and a beach should be there instead,” a young man who moved from Moscow to Bat Yam in the late 2010s said in an interview.

“Russian liberals” have bifurcated consciousness and are even blind to the Israeli context — says one of our informants, a political activist, journalist, writer and a stand-up artist. In an interview, she told us that her and many other people who came to Israel from Russia, had a superficial, even primitive perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “There was an empty desert, where three Bedouins were busy mating with a camel, and then the Jews came and built a blossoming country.” It is only after you have actually lived in Israel and “got acquainted with the Palestinian narrative” through personal communication and observation that “uncomfortable questions” arise and you begin to comprehend.

For all of our informants, the experience of encountering violence during the “Guardian of the Walls” operation became emotionally significant. Our interlocutors spoke of experiencing fear and anxiety, as well as of their admiration for the “locals” who remained courageous and calm and did not panic during the bombings. But their own experiences of danger, violence, and of being under shell fire ended up being inscribed in a safe frame of an “outsider’s view.”

Firstly, such a vision is based on comparison. The topic of the “harmless”  Israeli violence compared to life in Russia has been mentioned in many of our interviews, and it was best expressed by the actress and stand-up artist who came to Tel Aviv from Moscow in the late 2010s. She recorded a tik-tok in the midst of the military operation: “Ok, so, we are being bombed here for three days straight now, there is a bit of civil war going on. By the way, my neighborhood turned out to be the most aggressive and is already hitting the press and journalists. And I still feel much safer than in Putin’s Russia.”

Secondly, the lens of safe detachment sometimes turns out to be a forced measure. This is what a scientist and political activist, who came to Israel after the annexation of Crimea, says in an interview, considering she had time to learn Hebrew and to become involved in the local agenda. Operation “Guardian of the Walls,” she says, had a tremendous negative effect on her psychological state: “I realized that I do not exist in a country at war and cannot belong there. […] I would like to see myself with people who promote peaceful coexistence. I refuse to fight and be someone’s enemy. So I can only curl up and hide in a hole.”

Thirdly, such a lens also transforms into its opposite — from a safe place it suddenly becomes a source of fear. An artist who came to Tel Aviv from Moscow during the pandemic told us that she was scared that she “had done nothing wrong and was trying to be a good person, sorting garbage, volunteering at beach cleanups, donating blood,” but that “the world has divided and now half of it hates her and wants her dead” because she became an Israeli citizen. Even being a part of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia, she has not been subjected to such hatred on social media. Simultaneously, she maintains a detached “cosmopolitan” view of violence and does not support it — neither from Israel towards the Palestinians nor from Palestinians and their sympathizers towards the Jews and Israelis. At the same time, she does not consider herself or her immigration to Israel, which was made possible by the Jewish Law of Return, to be part of any violence.

Through the Prism of War: On the Path to Civic Consciousness 

On the 24th of February, 2022, the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine gave the new immigrants an opportunity to compare the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to what is happening in Ukraine. At the same time, a wave of terrorist attacks and violence erupted in Israel in the spring of 2022 — it was named “Operation Wavebreaker.” The violence associated with one society to which recent immigrants belonged is superimposed on the violence they witness in a new society. It is by experiencing this phenomenological overlap that immigrants consciously  or automatically compare one reality to another, and the work of comparison usually produces a critical view of Israeli politics.

In the fall of 2022, a Russian-speaking Israeli of Ukrainian origin posted a picture on his Twitter account with a caption “For those friends who still don’t understand that Israel has existed this way for many years,” and the picture immediately went viral on social media. It depicts a map of Israel and its neighboring countries with the sovereign territory of Israel being marked as Ukraine, the Gaza Strip — as the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, the Left Bank — as the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, Lebanon — as Belarus, and Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq altogether — as Russia.

This meme translates the logic of the Russian occupation of Ukraine into the language of the Israeli national narrative: Israel is a small country, surrounded by a powerful enemy, who causes harm from within through the sabotage enacted by its mobilized population hostile to the state. The meme depicts a political reading of the Israeli situation through the use of the image of Russian occupation of Ukraine. Some users commented on the original post or its reposts that a map, in which Israel simulates Russia rather than Ukraine, would have been more accurate.

This direction of comparative thought can be traced in a text written by a high-tech specialist who came to Gush Dan (Tel Aviv metropolitan area) from Moscow in the late 2010s. In the summer of 2022, she asked other immigrants from Russia on Facebook whether the war in Ukraine had changed their view of the Palestinians. The question was posed when Israel was once again discussing aggravation of relations with Gaza and potential shelling. According to the author’s point of view, the war against Ukraine makes one think about colonialism as action and discourse, and this critical thought could well be transferred to Israeli soil. She makes an argument by pointing out the typical representations of the Palestinians within the atrocious framework of the Israeli nationalist movement (“there is no such people as the Palestinians,” “Jews have always lived here,” “Israel keeps proposing solutions to the conflict but the other side rejects them,” etc.). She presented these statements so abstractly that their similarity to the Russian authorities’ rhetoric became obvious: “The same denial of the people’s subjectivity and of their right to exist. The same patronizing attitude. We believe that the Ukrainians have an absolute moral righteousness not only in war, but also in their right to a subjectivity and to their territories. But at the same time we don’t think these things about Palestinians. Perhaps, this is because we are a party in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in the Russian-Ukrainian one we are not.” It is clear that when the author placed herself inside the conflict her position has changed the entire perspective. Moreover, the very idea of comparison already requires a reconsideration of what is happening in Israel.

The comparison of the Israeli and Russian occupational rhetoric caused a storm of comments, arguments, accusations, and more posts on this topic on social media. Some people pointed out to the author that making such a comparison is unacceptable. Others argued about whose position was more similar to that of the Palestinians (and Israelis), if we compare it to Russia’s war against Ukraine. We suppose that in the summer of 2022 the reflection of representatives of the “Putin’s aliyah” on the war in Ukraine overlapped with the reflection on the worsening situation around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Their synergy led to the inclusion of new immigrants in an active discussion of the Israeli agenda. 

Arkady Mazin came to Israel from the Soviet Union in the 1990s and after 25 years emigrated to the United States, where he continues to work as a journalist and write for the Israeli media, including Russian-language articles. In the summer of 2022, he published an appeal to new Russian-speaking Israelis in which he urged them to realize their role and responsibility in the colonization project and hence made a comparison between Israelis and former Russians rather than comparing the state of Israel to the Russian state:

“I’m looking at a flyer in Russian that is distributed by the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council. It says: ‘Dear friends coming to Israel from Ukraine and countries of the former Soviet Union! We are ready to welcome you in the cities and settlements of Judea and Samaria. We help you navigate and choose a place to live, to settle in a new home, to choose an Ulpan (classes for learning Hebrew) and an educational institution, and we also provide guidance in solving bureaucratic problems.’ It’s not bad, but it lacks creativity. As a former copywriter, I’ll try to help. How about ‘Fleeing from the occupation? We’ll help you become occupiers yourselves!’’ 

Putting immigrants fleeing from the aggressive Russian regime in the framework of the occupation regime in Israel, the author presents them as agents of regime’s  implementation.

Adjusting the optics: spot the differences, or pack your belongings  

Following the launch of the comparison mechanism and the adjusting of the focus of civic position, the “Putin’s aliyah” quite quickly faced a new challenge: the need to decipher the Israeli political party map while looking forward to the special elections to the Knesset in November 2022. The choice of a party seemed to be a confusing and even absurd matter to many new immigrants. Some parties (“Likud,” “Yisrael Beiteinu” and “The State Camp”) took advantage of this situation. They were targeting the new Russian-speaking immigrants with their propaganda, both overt and covert. But the important thing is that in the civil consciousness of the new immigrants, Russia and Israel have already become objects of constant comparison to one another, and the election situation forces one to look for similarities between them. 

In October 2022, in one of the Russian-language Facebook groups of new immigrants, a journalist and writer who came to Gush Dan from St. Petersburg immediately after the annexation of Crimea encouraged the group’s participants to vote for Yair Lapid, one of Netanyahu’s main opponents in these elections. She attached a photo of Putin and Netanyahu shaking hands to her lengthy post. Her arguments against Netanyahu were largely based on comparing him to Putin: like Putin, Netanyahu has been in power for the last 20 years. She urged her former compatriots, who often say they “don’t understand anything about politics,” to vote “in order to avoid having to pack their suitcases later.” This shows how the cultural scenario of emigration as a direct result of discomfort and desperation caused by the political regime is being reproduced in Israel.

The scenario of the departure of dissidents, persistent through generations, is nonetheless often criticized by some immigrants. Thus, one of the activists of “Putin’s aliyah” writes in her blog that it is important for her to fight for her freedom rather than immediately look for a path “to Narnia.” From her point of view, it’s “immoral” — the minute something goes slightly wrong in one country — to immediately move to another, as some “digital nomads” do, who are guided by the “If I feel any discomfort here, I’ll jump off the wagon” mindset. She believes that “a decent person should have a minimal אין לי ארץ אחרת [I don’t have another country]”.

In her words one can see a reflection of the well-known Israeli ideological ethos of “returning home,” [previously “scattered” Jews return to their “homeland”] according to which “repatriates” are opposed to “relocants.” At the same time, this position is supported by criticism of the global ideology of cosmopolitanism, the supremacy of consumer culture and a utilitarian attitude to the environment, both to the ecological and to the political. It is paradoxical that both this hyper-individualistic approach and its criticism are characteristic of middle-class professionals of liberal professions. 

Focusing the lens: a civil protest among their own people 

The formation of a far-right coalition led by Netanyahu following the 2022 Knesset elections provoked an emotional response from voters of the “Putin’s aliyah.” They immediately linked their experience of witnessing Russia’s authoritarian turn to the dynamics of the Israeli regime. The return of Netanyahu for a new term was compared by them with how Putin stayed in power and how legal mechanisms were gradually adjusted in his favor. A high-tech specialist, who moved to Tel Aviv from Moscow after the annexation of Crimea, wrote in his blog that he “is not sure whether Bibi and Putin have exchanged manuals,” but there are “a lot of parallels between the actions of Israel and those of the Russian Federation.”

The attempt by Netanyahu’s government coalition to stage a coup d’état through judicial reform has caused mass protests in Israel. The reform was perceived not only as a means of keeping Netanyahu, who is on trial, in power, but also as a transformation of the constitutional democratic foundations of the state of Israel, which keep it from sliding into a theocracy and total apartheid. The main protesters were members of the educated middle class of Ashkenazi ethnicity from the country’s major cities (high-tech and education workers, doctors, writers, etc.). The protesters soon faced accusations from the authorities that they were opposed to Israel, given the Palestinian flags in the crowd. As a result, many began to protest with the Israeli state flags. At this point, the protest movement took on a mass character and was joined by members of almost all strata and groups of Israeli society, while predominantly representing the interests of old elites, the wealthy classes, and non-religious, anti-traditional strata. 

These protests were the first events related to the Israeli agenda in which the “Putin’s aliyah” took an active part. This suggests that the comparative optics — the very desire to constantly compare the authoritarian turn in Israel to the dictatorship in contemporary Russia (and to what preceded it) — allows immigrants to formulate a more clear and more active civic stance within Israel. Our informants stated that it was important for them to be able to express their opinions publicly and that they were not willing to be deprived of the opportunity to participate in the political life of their new country again. For example, one artist, who moved from Moscow to Gush Dan after the annexation of Crimea, wrote on Facebook in March 2023 that the protests in Israel and the negative reactions to them reminded her of what she had seen before “in a country bigger in size.” In Russia, opponents of the demonstrations also said that the protesters were rejecting the democratically elected government: “This is a similarity. But I hope that the differences are really decisive. I just want to know exactly what those differences are and why they will work.”

Among the representatives of the “Putin’s aliyah,” there is a journalist who has actively spoken out against the reform and has been a constant participant in the protests. In his Facebook message, he appealed to new immigrants and refugees from Russia and Ukraine, asking them to go out and protest and to support democracy: 

“I am sorry that after changing countries, fleeing from dictatorship and war, you ended up in Israel of 2023, because it is a tough time for the country. […] Never before have we woken up every day with a sense of powerlessness in the face of what the new government is doing day after day. […] I know, it doesn’t compare to the situation there [in Russia]. But we are in the process, […] don’t give up, protest. […] I’m not the one to teach you about democracy, resistance and justice.”

“The demonstrations in Tel Aviv are sponsored from abroad,” says Binyamin Netanyahu. “The protests are paid for by the Americans, they want to provoke a civil war in Israel,” says a friend of mine who I have known for years […] “Were you at the manifestation? Tell me, how much did they pay you?”… I fall back into the past again and find myself on the dirty floor in a police van in Belarus in 2006. My ears buzz, there is a salty taste of blood in my mouth. “How much did they pay you, whore? You’ve all sold yourselves to the West,” says the spetsnaz officer. And with some lazy, half-hearted movement he slaps me in the face. […] Listening to Netanyahu and his allies speak, I keep getting that taste of blood from 17 years ago in my mouth.”

Police violence clearly reminds immigrants of their experience of participating in the protests or watching the protests in Russia and Belarus. This can be seen everywhere — in blogs, comments, private conversations and journalistic and sociological interviews. In this way, a link is formed between the general political position and the social position that new immigrants begin to occupy in Israeli society. This connection was well formulated, for example, by a filmmaker who recently moved to Israel from Moscow. He described his impressions of participating in the protests in central Tel Aviv. The column he joined during the protest procession appeared to him to be similar to the one he once marched in on Troitsky Bridge after Boris Nemtsov’s murder: “I have never seen as many Israeli Intelligentsia  as at this gathering. It seemed to us that there were only university professors around, even though there weren’t obviously so many of them in the country […] We went to Russian protests. There were always professors and the middle class, too.” Thus, participation in the protest, among other things, allows to new Russian immigrants to position themselves as belonging to a certain social stratum — the middle class, the creative class — the “educated people,” who, as the author believes, will oppose the dictatorship in any country. 

***

Interpreting the discourse of the Russian-speaking Intelligentsia who came to Israel in the 1990s, Dmitri Shumsky shows how these immigrants apply the Soviet concept of ethno-national hierarchy to the civic space of Israel. This explains why educated Russian Jews in Israel gravitated toward right-wing nationalist positions: from the national minority that they had been in the USSR, these immigrants became the national majority in Israel, positioning themselves as a part of the Jewish people. The Soviet Jewish intelligentsia retained a civic political consciousness characterized by an ethno-national hierarchy among citizens. Roughly speaking, their political perception of how society should be organized has not changed, but their position in the hierarchical structure has altered – they have finally become “first class citizens.”

The new immigrants from Putin’s Russia also accept their right to become full citizens of Israel as something natural. Moreover, it is this civic political position that often encourages them to leave the comfortable and prosperous life in Russia, where their position was becoming increasingly precarious, and come to Israel to live the life, as they put it, of a “healthy  person.” But this position differs from that of the Soviet Jewish Intelligentsia who came to the country in the 1990s. It does not stem from the late-Soviet notion of ethno-national hierarchy, but is closely connected to their social and class position in Russia, their professional cosmopolitan ethos, their transnational identities and practices, and their life in a constantly tense and ambivalent relationship with the authorities. In other words, the protest position of the “Putin’s aliyah” and the “war aliyah” is a projection of their class habitus (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s concept). This habitus corresponds to certain reference points: liberal views, and sensitivity to individual and minority rights.

We know from a number of Bourdieu’s works that position in society forms the field of vision. This is true not only in regard to one’s perception of culture, but also in regard to civic and political consciousness. Emigration to Israel obscures or even scratches the “civic lens” of the new Russian middle class, but over time makes it more clear, focusing on the specific traits of the new reality. A dramatic event in the country of exodus, the war in Ukraine, became a decisive factor, destroying the previously noticeable opposition between Russia and Israel as an alleged opposition between dictatorship and a free state.

The observation of the dynamics of the gaze and field of vision of Russian immigrants in Israel allows one to trace how the political regime in being experienced in transition from one political reality to another. It’s important in order to understand how the new Russian-speaking Israelis will fit into the local environment and context, how they will react to the political  power order or even how they might be able to influence it in the future. Today the Israeli field is a sturdy and marked ground, not a swamp, within which some political parties morph into others. Moreover, it’s a field of competition and mutual aggression. “Putin’s aliyah” today splits in two. Those who support the right-wing and nationalist Israeli narrative tend to either deny the very possibility of comparing the political transformation of Russia and Israel, or to only note differences between the two. Those who join the left-liberal part of the Israeli society tend to be living by comparison, while here as well as back in their homeland persecution, protests, and war continue.

Recent posts

The ICD and the Future of Russian Psychiatry
The ICD and the Future of Russian Psychiatry
Military Animals: A Secret Threat
Military Animals: A Secret Threat
A Proletarian Psychotrauma
A Proletarian Psychotrauma
Socialism outlawed?
Socialism outlawed?
The Case of Seda Suleymanova: Legitimization of Crimes against Women in Chechnya
The Case of Seda Suleymanova: Legitimization of Crimes against Women in Chechnya

Share post: