To many Russian-Israelis, president Trump is a boon, cast in Putin’s mold
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To many Russian-Israelis, president Trump is a boon, cast in Putin’s mold

FSU immigrants see president-elect’s rise as a backlash against liberalism, and largely consider that a positive development

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: 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)
Illustrative: 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)

While the results of the US presidential elections left some Israelis worried and others scratching their heads, there is at least one community — in addition to Orthodox American Israelis — where Donald Trump’s election is seen largely in a positive light.

Among Israelis as a whole, Hillary Clinton was the favored candidate. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute in mid-October found that 42 percent of Israelis would have liked to see her in the White House, as opposed to only 24% who preferred Trump. Subsequent polls, including one by Israel Radio days before the elections, produced similar findings.

But in Israel’s community of emigres from the former Soviet Union, attitudes are decidedly different.

On October 19, readers of Newsru.co.il, Israel’s leading Russian-language news portal, were asked, “If you had the right and opportunity to take part in the vote on the US presidential election, which candidate would get your vote?” Seventy-four percent of respondents preferred Trump; only 10% chose Clinton.

“Most Russians in Israel are right-wing,” Dina Margolin, a television presenter on Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9, said Wednesday. “They do not like the winds of liberalism and they’re the ones who put Netanyahu back in power.”

Dina Margolin, November 9, 2016 (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)
Dina Margolin, November 9, 2016 (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Indeed, the Maariv newspaper estimated (Hebrew link) last year that in the March 2015 elections Israel’s Russian-speaking community, which numbers about a million, delivered 11 (out of 120) Knesset seats to the right-wing Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home parties, and only 5 to centrist and left-wing parties.

On the streets of Bat Yam, a middle- to working-class suburb of Tel Aviv with a large Russian-speaking population, a positive take on Trump’s election was very much in evidence on Wednesday.

“I am very happy about Trump’s victory,” Yevgeny Shpigel, a manager at a security guard firm, said.

Yevgeny Shpigel in Bat Yam November 9, 2016 (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)
Yevgeny Shpigel in Bat Yam November 9, 2016 (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

“He came from the world of business and his vision will bring something new to the world. In terms of Israel, I will be happy if he finds a way to advance the peace process.”

Svetlana and Edward, a middle-aged couple originally from Estonia, were cautiously optimistic.

“We thought Clinton would win, but today was a surprise,” said Svetlana. “We believe Trump is better for the Jewish people. Is he better for the world? The chances are 50/50.”

At Pizza Patzatz on Harav Uziel Street, several men were seated outside enjoying beer and vodka.

They said they didn’t mind Trump’s alleged groping and offensive talk about women, and compared him favorably to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Daniel, a Russian-speaker originally from Tajikistan, said, “I wish Trump would take me carousing with him so I can meet those women too.”

On a more serious note, he added, “Clinton wasn’t a good candidate and Trump is more impressive. But I would like to see him do what he promised and move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.”

Nearby, another man named Daniel, who immigrated to Israel from Russia about 20 years ago, chimed in. “This election is good for Russia, because Trump is Putin’s good friend,” said Daniel, who said he believes Putin is the best leader Russia could possibly have. “Is there any alternative?

“And it will be great if all the American pressure finally relents, and America stops exporting its democracy to every corner of the world.”

Asked if democracy is a bad thing, Daniel replied, “Of course democracy is good but it depends what kind of democracy — not like what they did in this region with the Arab Spring.”

He said he believes race was a secret driver behind the election results: “I have a lot of friends in America and I think this is about the African Americans. They don’t like them, they’re afraid of them, but you’re not allowed to speak of it. I think Americans were fed up and they said at the ballot box what they’re not allowed to speak in public.”

Trump and Putin

Meanwhile, at Vatrushka, a small cafe in a fashionable neighborhood of liberal Tel Aviv, Russian-speaking patrons expressed political views at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Elena Kalujskaya, the cafe’s proprietor, took a break from her customers to speak about Donald Trump.

“His election saddens me,” she said. “Neither candidate was a great choice. I personally would have preferred Bernie Sanders. But I think Trump’s election, unfortunately, is representative of a global trend.”

Elena Kalujskaya speaks to a customer at her Cafe, Vatrushka, November 9, 2016 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Elena Kalujskaya speaks to a customer at her Cafe, Vatrushka, Nevember 9, 2016 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Kalujskaya, who immigrated to Israel from Moscow a year and a half ago, was a journalist and human rights activist at the Sakharov Center, named after the physicist and Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov. She said she fled because “the powers that now rule Russia have destroyed my milieu, the milieu of liberal democratic values.”

Since resuming the presidency in 2012, Putin has stifled political opposition and dissent. He passed laws labeling human rights organizations “foreign agents,” fining or even imprisoning protesters, limiting free speech on the Internet and banning what he refers to as gay and lesbian propaganda. In February 2015, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was assassinated in front of the Kremlin.

“I felt the lack of freedom for a long time,” Kalujskaya said of her life in Russia. “But more recently, I started to feel that not only do people not need freedom but they are afraid of it and they even hate it. It was an unpleasant feeling to live among them.”

In Israel, she said, there is more freedom, but she is worried about the global winds of illiberalism that are blowing.

“Why did Israeli Russians favor Trump? Because they have lost their taste for freedom and culture. The Soviet trauma, it stays with you forever. It is very hard to stop being a Soviet citizen,” she said.

Still, Kalujskaya was confident that American democracy can survive Trump: “Just as Putin is bad for Russia, Trump was a bad choice for the United States. But I think the difference is American institutions — civil society, freedom of speech and free elections — are strong and they can withstand this.”

The Camembert aliyah

“You will be hard-pressed to find Russians with right-wing views in this cafe,” said Margolin, the Israeli-Russian TV presenter, who was sitting nearby.

She said that Vatrushka and another Tel Aviv restaurant, Table Talk, were associated with the “Camembert aliyah,” a surge of immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the last two and a half years. According to the Russian-language IzRus.co.il news site, the years 2009-2013 saw about 7,000 people a year immigrating, but since 2014, fully 38,000 have made the move. Those immigrants are more likely to be from large cities than previous waves of aliyah, more educated and more politically liberal. They’ve been dubbed the Camembert aliyah because cheese imports were prohibited in 2014 by Putin in a retaliatory move against Western sanctions. The joke is that they moved to Israel so they could enjoy the freedom to eat fancy cheeses.

President-elect Donald Trump addresses the American people in his victory speech early Wednesday, November 9, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)
President-elect Donald Trump addresses the American people in his victory speech early Wednesday, November 9, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)

“A lot of this Camembert aliyah came here because they were liberal,” explained Margolin. “They could not survive living in Russian when Putin was enacting all kinds of laws against homosexuals, against dual citizens, against people with liberal political views.”

That minority of the Russian-Israeli population, she says, was deeply dismayed by Trump’s victory. “But the rest, I think, they say, okay he’s vulgar, but he has said all the right things about Israel so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Many believe that a Trump presidency could give them a few years’ “quiet from the Palestinians,” she explained, which could lead to positive developments in terms of peace.

Margolin added that from her perspective as a journalist, it would be historic if Trump could effect a US rapprochement with Russia.

“Russia has a decades-long tradition of being hostile to the United States. The Cold War never really ended. If the two men could come together, that would be huge and historic.”

But what if their coming together came at the expense of liberal values?

“Yes,” replied Margolin, “that’s a danger, and Israel and the West need to protect themselves against that.”

Nevertheless, she was excited to be living at such an interesting time in history.

“How can we know what will happen?” she said, smiling, “it’s totally unpredictable.”

Maxim Reider contributed to this report.

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