The Russian Diaspora in Israel

According to my unscientific survey, the Russian diaspora in Israel is an under reported topic in blogs on Russia. I present excerpts from two articles from Haaretz in hopes of beginning a discussion. The first tells of Russian anti-Semitism toward Orthodox Jews in the form of neo-Nazis, while the second reports on the Israeli oppression of Russians because of their adherence to the Orthodox faith. Both point to the contradictions the post-Soviet aliyah to Israel that began in the 1990s. Excerpts are below.

“Fear and loathing in Petah Tikva / Neo-Nazi gangs assaulting ultra-Orthodox Jews”
By Moti Katz
Haaretz, May 11, 2006.

A week after the desecration of the Great Synagogue in Petah Tikva, nothing remains of the horror the worshipers encountered there last Thursday when they arrived for morning prayers. The walls, which had been sprayed with swastikas and blasphemy, have been newly painted, the floor polished and the curtain covering the holy ark replaced.

However, the danger is far from over. For the past two years the ultra-Orthodox community there, which includes some 5,000 families and 300 synagogues, has been subjected to incessant attacks by street gangs from the former Soviet Union (FSU). The gangs have been beating ultra-Orthodox men, hurling curses at them and desecrating synagogues.

“These youths feel out of place in the Russian community they belong to, but they are not accepted in Israeli society either,” says Bella Alexandrov, the director of the multi-disciplinary youth center in Petah Tikva. She distinguishes between two kinds of immigrants – punks and skinheads.

“The skinheads buy Russian videos about ‘white power’ that call for cleansing Russia of Jews. They don’t get it from home. It comes from not belonging and not finding answers to their distress.”

On Sukkot eve last year, a number of teens bearing knives burst into the big Lithuanian yeshiva Or Israel on Rothschild Street in the city center. They started beating pupils, and throwing prayer books and scriptures on the floor.

Yeshiva head Rabbi Yigal Rozen has no doubt that these incidents are anti-Semitic.

“Persecution only strengthens us”
By Lili Galili
Haaretz, June 6, 2006.

Vladimir Gridin, a professor of solid-state physics, is certain that the fact our meeting took place last Sunday, on Pentecost, the day believed to mark the birth of the Russian-Orthodox Church, was no coincidence. Nor did he believe that it was coincidence that the church where we met, at the end of Hagai Street in Migdal Haemek, was vandalized right before the sacred holiday. “Divine providence,” he says. Even if one can ascribe a degree of divine providence to the timing of our meeting, it’s doubtful the youths who desecrated the church and the adjacent priests’ graves a few days before the holiday were so attuned to the nuances of Russian Orthodoxy that they specifically picked that day to commit their act of vandalism.

“A pogrom in the church,” was the cry that echoed from the small community whose spiritual life is centered on the Church of St. Nikolai. What took place wasn’t quite a pogrom, but it was the latest in a series of attempts to damage a holy place. On Friday morning, when they arrived for services, the congregants found the church windows broken, the icons overturned, a cross uprooted from a priest’s grave and the edge of the grave ruined. A lot of effort went into shattering the windows, which were protected by a dense metal screen. A particularly malicious hand had to work hard to get in between the spaces to break the squares of thick glass one after the other. And yet, the police, whose local headquarters are very close to the church, insist the vandalism was just a prank by a bunch of 8- and 9-year-olds. “We’ve gone back to the early days of Christianity,” said Gridin sadly. “Christians are being persecuted again.”

A somewhat unusual group gathered this week at the door to the church. Unusual, both because of the way they’d broken with convention in the choices they’d made in their lives, and because they were all situated on the delicate seam between the Law of Return and the rules of halakha (Jewish law). This is the congregation of Father Romanus, a 46-year-old Arab Orthodox priest from Haifa, who is just as fluent in Russian as he is in Arabic and Hebrew. He learned the language while studying at a Russian theological seminary in the U.S., and founded his community here.