Russian is Israel’s third language, after Hebrew and Arabic. Israeli citizens with Russian roots make up 16 percent of the country’s total population.
The very first “aliyah”, wave of Jewish immigrants into what is now Israel came from Odessa in the Russian empire and consisted of people from all over Russian territories escaping the pogroms in Russia to establish settlements in Palestine.
“They came from [places like] Odessa, Vilnius and other locations,” says Jonatha Dekel-Chen, a modern history professor with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“It set a precedent in traditions that are still very much with us, both politically, ideologically, demographically, ethnically.”
“You can really see direct lines in almost every factor of life here in Israel to what those first groups, and also subsequent waves of immigrants brought with them, both in their minds and their bodies and their culture and their ways of speaking it is very much with us still.”
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, the USSR under Joseph Stalin was quick to recognize it, and it helped the embryonic state with weapons, sold through Russian satellite Czechoslovakia, in its fight to its Arab neighbors Syria, Egypt and Jordan, that were unhappy with the new kid on the block.
But during the ‘50s and 60s’, while Israel was lookingmore and more to the US for support, the Arab states were courted by Moscow, and Israeli-Russian relations froze.
That all changed radically with the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union two years later. The new Russia under Yeltsin re-established diplomatic ties with Israel, visa restrictions were lifted.
Of the 3 million Jews then living in the former USSR, more than a third moved to Israel.
“They've changed just about every facet of Israeli society,” says Dekel-Chen.
“Economically it was a huge addition to our work force. For the most part they were highly trained, highly qualified people. They changed our attitude towards politics in by creating political constituencies that really didn't exist before their arrival,” he says.
The general perception about Russia also changed. “Now we have within our borders a very trans-national, cultural community of Russian speaking Jews and their children, who still have connections, both family connections, cultural connections, sometimes professional connections as well, to the former Soviet Union and that creates a very different dynamic,” says Dekel-Chen.
The massive influx of immigrants from Russia may have contributed to a general shift to the political right.
The Russian immigrants came from the world’s biggest country to live in one of the smallest.
“For many it was difficult to understand why Israel would negotiate over land, or give back strategic territories to what they regard as enemies,” says professor Shmuel Shandler, of Bar Ilan University.
“Politically, many of them are more to the right. There are Russian parties, like [current Defense minister Avigdor] Liebermann's party that more identify with the right. But he adds that the “Russians” also contributed a lot to culture.
“One good thing of the Soviet education system was that people were highly trained. So there was a massive influx of engineers, but also of musicians, many of them were pianists!” he says.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is trying to strengthen ties with Russia. Not only because there is still a one- million strong Jewish population within Russia, but Russia is also heavily engaged in the Middle East where it supports Israel’s foes, Iran and Syria. But that doesn’t necessarily complicate diplomacy.
“One can see that either as yet a complicating factor, as Russia is certainly engaged both with the Syrian regime and with the Iranian regime, both of which are staunch enemies of Israel,” says Dekel-Chen.
“On the other hand, one can perhaps see that as an opportunity for Israel, because it is a means by which through Russia, or perhaps even with Russia to, in some way, stabilize the relations, make them more predictable, with those regimes, and all that of course is contingent on an open and honest dialogue between Israel's leaders and Russia's leaders,” he says.