Prague, 28 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian-speakers now wield great influence in all aspects of Israeli life -- from culture to science to business.
"Relations between our two countries have, indeed, been developing pretty well in recent years," Russian President Vladimir Putin said today in Israel. "It would have been hard to imagine just a short time ago that the Russian head of state would visit Israel on an official visit."
As Putin noted, his visit to Israel marks a major turning point. But many of his former compatriots long ago became an integral part of Israeli society.
Today’s Israel is a country where nearly every fifth citizen is a Russian-speaker, thanks to a huge inflow of immigrants who have come from Russia and other former Soviet republics in the past 15 years.
Their influence is felt everywhere, especially in culture and science, as David Horovitz, editor in chief of the “Jerusalem Post” told RFE/RL.
"It's been a huge influx of a particularly well-qualified group -- lots of very well-educated people, a lot of doctors, a lot of musicians, a lot of engineers," Horovitz said. "It was difficult for Israel initially to find ways to absorb people so professional and skilled in their professions, but on the whole that's largely happened. And therefore, in areas where those immigrants were expert, they are really dominant. I'm talking about, for example, medicine and music. Israel has probably more symphony orchestras per head than pretty much any other country -- there can't be many that have more -- and lots of the musicians are Russian. And lots of the medical staff in this country now are Russian."
Former Soviet dissident Anatolii Sharansky, who arrived in Israel in 1986 after being released from a Russian prison camp, is symbolic of the trajectory of many recent Russian-speaking immigrants to the country.
"It would have been hard to imagine just a short time ago that the Russian head of state would visit Israel on an official visit."
Sharansky changed his first name to the Hebrew "Natan" upon arrival in Israel and soon became a voice for the country's growing Russian-speaking community. In 1995, he founded a new political party known as Yisrael B’Aliya (Israel for Immigration) to defend the interests of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and help them integrate into Israeli society.
Sharansky’s party won parliamentary representation and it wasn’t long before Sharansky himself became a government minister.
But lately, support for Sharansky’s party has been shrinking. According to Horovitz, this illustrates a broader trend -- the successful integration of the Russian-speaking community into Israel’s mainstream.
“Why do I say that is sort of emblematic or symptomatic? Because what I think has been happening here is that yes, people who've come here from the former Soviet Union of course have family links and linguistic connections and all sorts of emotional ties and still maintain a degree of a relationship and certainly a profound interest [in their homeland]. But they've become gradually Israeli, and certainly their children are Israeli," Horovitz said. "And you see that again in the political fortunes of someone like Sharansky, who no longer has really a Russian constituency, because there isn't one, in that very strongly identified and almost ghettoized sense."
Now that most Russian-speakers are well integrated, Horovitz said, they have helped to make Israeli society more open and secular -- countering a trend toward social conservatism that began to be felt in the 1980s.
"Overwhelmingly, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been not particularly Orthodox Jews," Horovitz said. "That's a generalization, and there are certainly some who are Orthodox. But on the whole they've tended to be not particularly Orthodox, in a country where I think without them -- you would have felt Israel becoming more Orthodox as a nation. Because I think there's been something of a trend towards Orthodoxy in Israel in the last few year. And the influx of the former Soviet Union residents has offset that."
But social liberalism does not necessarily translate into political liberalism. When it comes to the Palestinian issue, for example, many Israelis who describe themselves as socially liberal favor a tough line against countries they see as hostile neighbors and a Palestinian Authority they believe remains too close to terrorist factions.
That is why Putin’s visit is seen by many Israelis with a mix of interest and caution.
Many Israelis who have roots in Russia are glad to see him visit, as this woman noted in Jerusalem: “We’re very glad that he’s coming. We hope he has a chance to walk around and see how we live. We’re from Russia ourselves and we’ll be really glad to see him.”
But many Israelis remain wary of Russia’s true intentions. Moscow’s foreign policy in the region -- especially its nuclear cooperation with Iran and its plan to sell missiles to Syria -- is deeply mistrusted. Horovitz said it will temper any moves to improve relations, despite all of the new business and cultural ties that now bind the two countries.
"I think Israeli links to Eastern Europe on the whole -- trade links to Eastern Europe -- have been risin," Horovitz said. "It is certainly an issue here. [But] it pales, I think, by comparison at the moment most especially to the military issue. I don't think that the Iran case is being hugely highlighted, but I imagine behind the scenes it is a very big issue. The fact that Israel is absolutely not reconciled -- shall we say -- to Iran going nuclear, and here is Russia that is basically building the reactor for Tehran. I think that and the wider issue of arms sales in the region are taking precedence over economic issues."
Putin reiterated today that Russia's missile sales to Syria and its nuclear aid to Iran will continue -- but that they do not threaten the Middle East balance of power.