Russians are coming… to the polls. Israeli politicians are finally waking up
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'They finally realized they must address one million voters'

Russians are coming… to the polls. Israeli politicians are finally waking up

Stats show that a strong but overlooked demographic is beginning to wield some clout at the ballot box, but if leaders want their vote, they’re going to have to give something back

  • Israeli World War II veterans of the Allied armies of Russian origins take part in a parade marking the 71st anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, in Jerusalem, on May 8, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
    Israeli World War II veterans of the Allied armies of Russian origins take part in a parade marking the 71st anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, in Jerusalem, on May 8, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
  • Israeli Foreign Minister and leader of Israel's nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, Avigdor Lieberman, at a podium with party slogan, 'Our word is our word.' Tuesday, Apr 3, 2012. (Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)
    Israeli Foreign Minister and leader of Israel's nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, Avigdor Lieberman, at a podium with party slogan, 'Our word is our word.' Tuesday, Apr 3, 2012. (Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)
  • A Russian-Israeli family celebrates Novi God, the Russian New Year, in Jerusalem, on January 1, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    A Russian-Israeli family celebrates Novi God, the Russian New Year, in Jerusalem, on January 1, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the Likud speaks to voters from the Russian speaking community at the party conference in Tel Aviv, February 09 2015. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
    Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the Likud speaks to voters from the Russian speaking community at the party conference in Tel Aviv, February 09 2015. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

It’s not for nothing that immigrants from the former Soviet Union are among the most sought after voters in Israel’s current election campaign. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the sector makes up 12 percent — or some 770,000 — of 6.3 million eligible voters in Israel. This translates into 15 or 16 Knesset seats.

Exclusive data obtained by Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site to The Times of Israel, reveals the voting trends among the immigrant public from the April 9 election.

A series of studies by Prof. Zeev Hanin found that in the last election, 40.2% of the votes cast by immigrants from the former Soviet Union — nearly six seats — went to Avigdor Liberman’s party, Yisrael Beytenu. In other words, the data suggests that all five of the mandates Liberman eventually won came from the immigrant population, and he did not receive any electoral support from native-born Israelis.

Hanin further found that the Likud won 26.7% of the immigrant vote, accounting for about four of the party’s Knesset seats; the Blue and White party won 15.1%, or 2.5 of its 35 seats; and the Kulanu party won 5.8% of the sector’s vote, less than one mandate of the four it was able to secure.

The rest of the votes were divided between the Labor party (2.3%), the New Right (3.2%), Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox party Shas (1.5%) — which can be attributed to the support it received from immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia — and the Zehut party that, with 4%, received more support from the immigrant sector than from the general public, but still failed to pass the electoral threshold. (Israel’s electoral threshold is 3.25%, which translates into roughly four seats.)

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the Likud speaks to voters from the Russian speaking community at the party conference in Tel Aviv, February 09 2015. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Hanin, a professor with the Department of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University and a lecturer at the Department of Israel in the Middle East and Political Science at Ariel University in Judea and Samaria, and a former political analyst for the Israeli-Russian media, has for the last decade focused on academic research on the political behavior of the immigrant population.

The surveys he conducted were based on large samples of 1,000 participants who were interviewed in person. His data showed that, when comparing the voting patterns of the Russian sector between the 2015 and 2019 elections, there was little change.

The distribution of immigrant votes between Yisrael Beytenu and the Likud in the 2015 elections was similar — 42% voted for Yisrael Beytenu and 29% for Likud. The studies found that the party that has lost much of the Russian vote in recent years is Labor: in the 2015 elections it won 6.3% of the immigrant vote — about one Knesset seat — but only managed to capture 2.3% of the vote in April’s elections.

Hanin’s research also reveals that while the Russian sector traditionally tends to vote for right-wing parties, its overall voting patterns are relatively similar to those of the general Jewish sector.

Russian immigrants attend an event marking the 25th anniversary of the major wave of aliya from the former Soviet Union to Israel, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on December 24, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

According to Hanin’s findings, 8% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union voted for left-wing parties, compared to 14% of Israelis; 29% said they voted for centrist parties, compared to 26% of the Jewish population; and 54% of the immigrants voted for right-wing parties, in comparison to 55% of the native-born Jewish population.

Hanin’s research, which was recently presented at an Association for Israel Studies symposium at the Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, further found that the year in which the immigrants arrived in Israel had no significant effect on their voting patterns.

The left, he said, had high hopes for immigrants who came to Israel in recent years, in what has come to be known as the “Putin-era immigration” — individuals who are pro-Western and liberal, and who came to Israel from Russia’s big cities. But these hopes were quickly dashed as they, too, preferred voting for the right.

Hanin, who also serves as the chief scientist at the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, believes that the immigrants’ ideology and voting patterns are the result of their Israeli experiences – not Soviet ones.

Illustrative: Internet celebrity Semion Grafman in a Channel 9 campaign promoting Russian pride among Russian speakers in Israel. (Instagram)

Surveys show that the vast majority of immigrants expect leaders to focus on issues pertaining to national security, but the Russian sector also places an emphasis on welfare, economy, housing solutions and rental prices, as well as improving the level of education in Israel.

While these are issues that also interest Israeli society as a whole, Hanin explained that for the immigrant sector, they represent far more acute problems.

Generation 1.5

Other recent studies have found a significant difference between the generation of parents and grandparents, and the younger generation of Russian speakers who came to Israel as children in the 1990s. The younger generation may have received its early education in the USSR, but its members came into their own in Israel. Researchers refer to this generation as the “transitional generation” – generation 1.5.

Russian immigrants arriving in Israel in 1990. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

A recent survey by Prof. Larissa Remennick, head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar Ilan University, on the inter-generational difference among the immigrant population, found that while the parents’ generation was united in terms of center-to-right-wing politics, the younger generation was more ambivalent.

According to Remennick’s findings, a third of the younger voters noted that their political views differed from those held by their parents, and their voting patterns were more diverse: While 80% of the veteran generation has emerged as part of the center-right on the political map and sees Liberman as a “moderate and sane right,” 25% of the younger generation define themselves as left-wing, and 8% say they are more radical than their parents.

An election campaign poster showing Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman over the caption, ‘Right-wing, and secular too,’ in Jerusalem on April 2, 2019, ahead of the April 9 general elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Hanin attributes the right-wing leanings of Russian voters to their Israeli experience, Remennick believes it has more to do with the political culture from which they came.

“Immigrants from the former Soviet Union believe in strong leadership more than they believe in the democratic apparatus,” Remennick said. “The drunken democracy they experienced in the 1990s immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was essentially chaos: there was no law and order, no work, and nothing to eat, which is why [Russian President] Vladimir Putin was able to rise to power and stay there for 20 years. People cling to the order and stability that a strong leader can provide.”

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union believe in strong leadership more than they believe in the democratic apparatus

Although the Russian sector is known for wielding considerable political power, most politicians and parties have failed to make a play for this electorate.

“When you talk about the Russian vote I see a lack of any real interest,” said Lena Russovsky, a journalist, radio presenter, and social activist.

Journalist, radio presenter, and social activist Lena Russovsky. (Courtesy)

Russovsky, a member of “generation 1.5,” is considered a leader of public opinion with respect to Israeli society’s perception of the Russian immigrant population in general, and particularly that of immigrant women.

“Israeli politicians have finally realized they have to address one million [voters] who have been here for 30 years, so they speak to them in Russian and give a toast on Novy God,” she said, referring to the Russian New Year’s Eve. “There are acute problems that still plague the [Russian] public and affect the generations born here, and these problems must be recognized and dealt with.”

“Russians don’t talk about financial hardships — it’s just not done,” Russovsky said. “But my friends who are raising children here, and work hard for a living, have to help their parents financially. As it turns out, the [Russian immigrant] population is the sector with the smallest home ownership rate in Israel.”

“They reach the age of 75 and pay rent or make mortgage payments, and they don’t have pension savings, so is this a problem only for the older generation? No. It’s a problem for the younger generation and for the next generation born here, because they are deprived of these resources,” she said.

But is comparing Russian immigrants — a minority group — to the more established sectors in Israeli society that enjoy higher socioeconomic status, the best way to gauge their progress and political standing? Russovsky believes so.

A Russian-Israeli family celebrates Novi God, the Russian New Year, in Jerusalem, on January 1, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“If we’re not talking about integration processes but about socioeconomic status, then it’s clear that we need to compare them to the ideal situation in which the population is in a stable place and can exhaust its potential – so yes, to the established sectors,” she said. “Because if not to them [veteran Israelis,] then who should we be comparing to? French immigrants? Ethiopian Israelis? Every wave of immigration has its own periods of arrival, its own characteristics, a different background, and different skills.”

How do you say Yesh Atid in Russian?

One of the parties trying to learn the lessons of April’s elections is Blue and White. The party’s No. 2, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, has already posted social media videos that address immigrants in Russian. In these videos, Lapid promises the Russian sector to see that public transportation and local businesses can operate on Shabbat, but so far he has not addressed other issues Russian speakers are concerned about, namely pensions, employment, and housing.

רומן רוסי, פרק חדש:

פורסם על ידי ‏Yair Lapid – יאיר לפיד‏ ב- יום ראשון, 7 ביולי 2019

Under Israeli law and in accordance with the demands of ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, public transportation and commerce come to a halt on Shabbat and holidays so as not to infringe on their sanctity. In recent years, however, this issue, which is part of the secular-religious status quo, has been the subject of a heated public debate as the secular public has chafed against what it sees as growing religious coercion.

Yesh Atid MK Yoel Razvozov said he was proud of the videos.

“I think the videos are great. We are in a period when one campaign is chasing another and it’s nice to do something fun. It makes you smile. I can see how hard he [Lapid] works, trying to speak Russian. Everyone talks about the issue of religion and state but these videos remind them [voters] that we’re the only party that was able to effect change on this issue,” Razvozov said.

But even Razvozov, a member of the “transitional generation” who holds the 18th slate on Blue and White’s Knesset list, knows that what the Russian sector really cares about are the burning, day-to-day issues.

The Zionist Union party reaching out to the Russian speaking community, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The younger generation of Russian speakers starts life at a disadvantage compared to sabras [native Israelis],” he said. “They don’t have a grandmother who left them an apartment or an uncle who serves in the military and can help them get a job. This generation also has to help their parents because they don’t have pension savings or property in Israel.”

Razvozov doesn’t have to look too far for examples.

“My father is the classic example,” he said. “He is 63 years old and he still works as a construction worker, even though he came here as an engineer with two degrees. His future social security pension is likely to be NIS 700 [$197 a month]. There are hundreds of people like him, who don’t have pensions and don’t own an apartment. A couple who lives off social security benefits and has to pay rent – what are they supposed to live on?”

Yesh Atid, he said, is trying to pass laws that support the aging Russian population in Israel.

“In the seven years that I’ve been chairman of the Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee, we have succeeded in promoting the status of ‘Holocaust refugees’ — Jews from former Soviet Union countries who survived World War II and receive special stipends from the state,” Razvozov said. “I have spoken about the issue with Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi, and explained to them the importance of promoting laws that will support the elderly Russian population. ”

Elderly Russian immigrants seen doing arts and crafts at the art room in the Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem. The Diplomat Hotel was once a luxurious hotel. Nearly 20 years ago the hotel was turned into an absorption center and is today home to 600 immigrants from the former Soviet Union. March 13, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Yisrael Beytenu has also pledged to fight to raise immigrant pensions in the next Knesset.

“Helping our parents’ generation bolsters the middle class, which carries a substantial tax load,” said Yisrael Beytenu MK Evgeny Sova.

“Our parents worked 11-12 hours a day and gave up traveling and all other forms of luxury so that their children would want for nothing. Today, our parents receive nothing from the state so they need our help – all while there are entire sectors that don’t pay taxes and receive increasing budgets and benefits,” he said, referring to the extensive social security benefits afforded to the ultra-Orthodox population.

Rebuffing criticism over the fact that Yisrael Beytenu could have demanded a pensioners’ bill during April’s coalition talks but opted to walk away from the negotiating table over the ultra-Orthodox conscription law — an issue that has triggered dozens of coalition crises over the years — Sova insists Yisrael Beytenu was looking out for its constituents’ interests.

Israeli Foreign Minister and leader of Israel’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, Avigdor Liberman, at a podium with party slogan, ‘Our word is our word.’ Tuesday, Apr 3, 2012. (Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)

“We didn’t betray the pensioners’ bill and we’re the only party that will raise the issue of pension as a precondition to any coalition deal. True, it will be harder because the deficit has increased, but we are here to protect a frustrated generation that constitutes a growth engine for the Israeli economy,” he said.

In January, the treasury warned of slower economic growth in 2019 that would result in lower tax revenue, resulting in a projected budget shortfall of around NIS 10 billion ($2.7 billion). In June, the cabinet approved an across-the-board NIS 1.2 billion ($333 million) cut designed to reduce a soaring deficit.

The younger generation of Russian speakers in Israel “serve in the military. They work hard, they pay taxes and they carry all the other sectors that don’t pull their own weight,” Sova said. “It’s important that we stop those who want to increase this burden, raise taxes, and cut budgets that benefit [the Russian sector]. They can take it from someone else this time.”

This article was adapted from the original Hebrew featured on Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site.

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