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Artist: Zvi Levin (Israel)
Dimensions: Approximately 20” x 30”

In contrast to early Zionist posters that depict strong adults ready to work for Israel (see for example Help them Build the Jewish Future), this contemporary one features an adorable little girl, ostensibly a new Russian immigrant to Israel, dressed in peasant clothing, full of happy anticipation, and holding an Israeli flag in her hand.

The only word on the poster is “new,” stamped at an angle as though marking a box of laundry detergent. Israel’s Russian immigrants, with their innocence and naiveté, are visualized here as objects in the country’s political struggle.

Israel fought for decades to open up the old Soviet Union to Jewish emigration, employing a vast array of techniques such as the U. S.’s Jackson-Vanick Bill. In the 1990s, glasnost (Russian: openness) and the collapse of the Soviet Union enabled more than 800,000 Russians to immigrate to Israel in waves called aliyah (Hebrew: immigration to build the state). Once in Israel, the new citizens from Russia had difficulty integrating into Israeli society; they had little in common with other Israelis beyond a shared religion.


Meanwhile the settler movement desperately needed more Jewish families and individuals to move to the Occupied Territories in order to create ever more “facts on the ground” (a term first coined by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin) that would make it impossible to remove the settlements as part of any future peace plan. This strategy of expanding settlements and “thickening” the settler population is at odds with international law and is vehemently opposed by the U.S. and European governments as well as many Israelis.

Various Israeli governments hit upon an approach that solved two problems in a single creative move: they made modern, low cost housing available to newly arrived Russian immigrants in the West Bank. This ploy has further complicated relations between Israelis and the Russian émigrés, and has put the latter on the front line of a shooting war with the Palestinians.

New Russian immigrants are not only being channeled into the Occupied Territories, but also into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), since military service is compulsory in Israel. This is occurring at the same time that a growing number of native-born Israelis are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. And so these new immigrants are victims as well as occupiers. They cannot leave Israel and they cannot realistically refuse military service.

In addition, they are not really prepared, even linguistically, for the military assignments given them. Consider the Kafkaesque quality of the following exchange between newly immigrated Russians and local Palestinians, as reported by Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs correspondent of the New York Times:

“I am trying to get to al-Funduk village - 10 minutes from here by car,” Luay Tayyem, a Palestinian aid worker, told me as he stood in line to get out of Qalqilya. “Today it will take me three hours. When I tell the soldiers I am going to al-Funduk they ask me in broken Hebrew: ‘Where is that?’ They speak to each other in Russian. I speak better Hebrew than they do.... I have been here 30 years, they’ve been here two.”

Source: “Israel’s West Bank Wall Won’t Solve Problems,” New York Times, September 18, 2003

Though the Russian immigrants are bearing the direct brunt of Palestinian hostilities, the Palestinians do not have a particular grievance with Russians. Indeed, during the Cold War, the USSR regularly took the side of the Arab nations and Palestine against the U.S. and Israel.

The antagonism between Russian-born Israelis and Palestinians is perhaps best explained through remarks made by Christopher Hitchens:

...and even if the settlers in Palestine were Dutch or British, there would still be an Arab nationalist resistance to the loss of their land.

...since I don’t believe there is a single word of truth in either Exodus or Genesis, I would never consider asking a Palestinian to move out and make room for me and do not believe the human race is subdivided into races.

Source: “Jewish Power, Jewish Peril”, Vanity Fair, September 2002

Not all new Russian immigrants to Israel share Hitchens’ moral reservations about being used to solidify Israel’s hold on the Occupied Territories. Apparently, quite a few are willing to ask Palestinians to “move out and make room” for the latest wave of settlers. Indeed, since the first settlements appeared after the 1967 war, the number of Jewish settlers has swelled to more than 200,000. This figure doubles to approximately 400,000 if the settlements around Jerusalem are factored in.

The strategy of sending new arrivals to the front is not something Israel invented. The U.S. did it more than 130 years ago. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) hundreds of thousands of Europeans, many from Ireland, France and Germany, immigrated to the U.S. As a part of the war-ravaged Union's recruitment campaign, immigrants who were willing to enter the military were granted immediate citizenship. As a result, many thousands of men marched off to war not speaking a single word of English and not having any idea where they were or were headed or when they would return. Thousands never did return.

The perverse irony of the actual enlistment process is captured in the film, The Gangs of New York. One scene shows newly arrived Irish immigrants, debarking a ship that had just arrived from Europe. Walking along a wharf, they sign citizenship and U.S. Army enlistment papers, are issued a rifle and a new uniform. They are then marched back up the gangplank of a different ship and prepare to set sail for the front. They had never even set foot on American soil, and yet they were “citizens” marching off to fight in the America’s deadliest war ever.

The central dilemma faced by apologists for Israel as they struggle to promote the notion that the U.S. and Israel have “shared values” and to put the best possible face on Zionism with all its inherent contradictions is this: the immigrants who seized the citizenship bargain Uncle Sam offered them during the American Civil War were fighting in a war to extinguish differences between people: the trapped and pathetic Russian immigrants to Israel serving as an unwilling police force in the Occupied Territories are endangering their lives, and the lives of Palestinian civilians, to perpetuate a bankrupt notion of ethnic and religious superiority.

© 2003 Liberation Graphics. All Rights Reserved.

Questions for A New
Democratic Discussion

1) What are the barriers new Russian immigrants to Israel would face if they were to decide that they wanted to emigrate from Israel?

2) More then 1 million Russians of Jewish descent have immigrated to Israel since the collapse of communism. What do the leading Russian-Jewish writers, artists, journalists and educators, now living in Israel, have to say about the experience?

3) What penalties do Russian emigrants to Israel face if they refuse to serve in units of the IDF deployed in the Occupied Territories?

4) The Russian Jewish community in Israel has formed its own political party (Israel-be-Aliy), prints its own Russian-language newspapers, hosts Russian theatre groups, and devours Russian-language literature and news. Many say that it has no interest in integrating into Israeli society. Is this true? Why would those Russians who fought for years for the right to immigrate to Israel show so little enthusiasm for the existing culture?

5) Studies indicate that many Russian-born Israelis are moving politically to the right. What are the reasons behind this political shift? What effect might this shift have on internal Israeli politics as well as on its foreign relations?


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