I recently held a fascinating conversation with a lady who immigrated to Israel from Russia. She edits a Russian language intellectual magazine in Tel Aviv. I put before her my view of the developing cultural-national identity of Israel, on the somewhat optimistic assumption nowadays that it will sooner or later top the agenda after a modus vivendi will have been reached in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.
The ethnic-cultural personality of Israeli Arabs is quite clearly defined, I said. They are recognized as (theoretically) an equal cultural entity, with their language as Israel's second official language. Their language and heritage are perpetuated through an Arabic language school system, their two religions accorded full recognition and institutionalized on a (theoretically) equal base with the Jewish religion. As modernity gains ground and religious-communal identities are eroded (particularly if and when Jewish religion-communal identity also erodes), language will presumably become the main factor of Arab Israeli identity.
Israeli Jewish identity, I argued, is a far more complex and fluid entity. But the fact is that the network of Hebrew state schools, virtually all business, the vast bulk of communications, the functioning of the courts, the police and the military-all these are in Hebrew. That, I said, overrides all other differences and it shapes everybody in basically the same cultural mold. As a consequence, I expect that magazines like hers will not last long, serving only the first generation of immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States (previous Soviet Union). I mentioned as an example Yiddish culture in the US, which did last for about two to three generations, but has now disappeared almost completely, leaving behind mere smatterings of sentimental nostalgia. The same has occurred to all the other immigrant cultures in America. It will undoubtedly happen in this case too.

Both Russian and Hebrew Cultures

My interlocutor answered: "Don't compare us 'Russians' to any of the former waves of immigration. The early pioneers from Russia and Poland wanted to completely shed their past and the culture of their origins. The German immigration of the 1930s, the only one to contain a large proportion of intelligentsia, was so traumatized that the newcomers didn't even want to have any further connection with Germany and
Germanism. Immigration from the Arab countries does not really count. It consisted mostly of people with a poor educational background, containing but few intellectuals and university-trained people; they were thrown into a modern civilization with which they could cope only by trying to hide from it, as witness the Shas movement."
"Now when a new issue of my magazine appears, there are immediate comments and reviews in intellectual magazines not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but even in Russian language publications in New York. You must realize that since the collapse of the old Soviet Union, Russian culture has assumed universal aspects and now has many centers, Israel being among the most important. I am appreciative of the Hebrew culture built here, but still, you are far from having Tolstoy or even Bulgakov. We have no intention of impoverishing ourselves by shedding them and their language. We want to have a double culture--Hebrew and Russian. The one doesn't exclude the other."
She continued: "Also your American parallel is not valid. More than a million Russians have arrived here, most of them thoroughly modern people, with an intellectual and professional class several times larger than its proportion in Russia itself. Translating the figures of Russian aliya into proportionate US numbers, if fifty million Russians would have arrived in the United States, you can rest assured that they would have changed the whole mental and intellectual climate there and left a durable impact on the core civilization. Just think what an impact a few tens of thousands of German refugees had on American culture and academic life in the 1930s and 1940s. Also, we are not cut off from the Russian homeland, as the German immigration was, and can continue to feed and draw sustenance from it."

Against Old "Israelism"

The conversation made me ponder. Recently the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling published a booklet entitled The End of the Achusalim Dominance. The term achusalim was coined by him as a Hebrew equivalent of the American acronym "Wasps," namely in our case the old established secular Zionist Israelis of European descent, partly socialist, partly nationalist. It was they who created the state, dominated its economics and power structures, the academic and scientific establishments, the civil service and the army.
They are still powerful. But the center of power has largely been usurped by right wing populist and religious elements that contest the very conception of a secular, liberal, sometimes socialist nationalism. Theirs is a proto-fascist, racist, illiberal outlook, having scant respect for democratic processes. They have introduced a violent, brutal tone into public discourse. They have half-legitimized violence and murder as a means of achieving their ends. This is witnessed by the hand-grenade attack on a Peace Now demonstration that killed peace activist Emil Greenzweig in 1983, the massacre of 29 Palestinians by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 in Hebron, and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995. These elements have attacked the conception of "Israelism" and tried to push it back to the Jewish religious community, somewhat like the retreat of many Arabs from the modern conception of Arab nationalism into Muslim fundamentalism.
Russian immigration brought us a mass of people half of whom barely claim any sort of Jewish descent and whose interests are opposed to the religious demands of the rightists. On the other hand, their Soviet background has made them leery of anything called "socialism," which they equate with Soviet totalitarianism. However, true to the worst heritage of the Stalinist era, they regard with contempt any "weakness," any appeal to humanism, any concession on what you hold by force. In this, they see eye to eye with the Israeli extreme rightwing. So, in some respect the achusalim welcomed Russian immigration as a reinforcement of their secular-western rationalist position, but in other respects they were quite horrified at their blinkered approach, their interpretation of everything in terms of their Russian background, and their support for shady political leaders like Lieberman and Sharansky.

Hebrew-speaking Israel

Many of the "Russians" frankly admit their Christian background, and when drafted into the IDF swear allegiance on the New Testament. Still, they send their children to Hebrew schools, enjoy the rights of Jews under the Law of the Return, and are treated as Jewish Israelis. Not many have accepted the Rabbinate's offer to convert to Judaism. The growing Russian contribution to the Israeli atmosphere is manifest for instance at Christmas, when Yuletide decorations are beginning to festoon Israeli shopping centers. The ever-freer sale of non-Kosher foods is another of their contributions to the Israeli lifestyle. All in all, they are now becoming bona fide Hebrew-speaking Israelis, thus heavily diluting the supposedly "Jewish" basis of the Israeli nation.
Another growing element in the population is the foreign workers. Numbering roughly 300,000 people, namely 5% of the population, their origins are European (Rumanian, Ukrainian, Polish), African (Ghanaian, Kenyan, Nigerian) and Asian (Filipino, Thai, Chinese). They are mostly Christians. The religious parties, mainly Shas, are continuously attempting to eject them from the country. However, the foreign workers have already struck roots in the country, their children attend Israeli schools and speak Hebrew. One day when they will feel secure enough and the time will seem auspicious, many will demand their full rights and Israeli citizenship. In view of the fact that the almost all education, public life and employment possibilities are in Hebrew, they will become part of the Hebrew-speaking Israeli majority.

A State of Its Citizens

We thus see the watering down and erosion of the religious Jewish definition, which in the past characterized membership in the Israeli nation. In its place comes the enhancement of the cultural linguistic definition. This is of course a process that will take time. Nevertheless it will generate, or so it appears to me, the "state of its citizens," which some Israelis have been calling for although it may come under several possible guises which may try to perpetuate the myth of Israel as "the state of the Jewish people."
A final thought: this process, if it takes place as predicted here, will inevitably exert a marked influence on the Arab citizens of Israel. If the linguistic-cultural definition of Israeli nationhood gains upper hand according to the term not of a "Jewish" but of a "Hebrew" nation, what is there to stop a Moslem or Christian Arab from joining it, while living daily within its confines? Will not many Israeli Arabs begin to feel that a separate educational-cultural system is a ghetto, barring full participation in a larger culture with its broader opportunities? And what effect will this have on other Palestinians, once we succeed in getting over these nightmarish times? On the other hand, once we overcome this conflict, will not Israel's hoped for openness to the region begin to exert a powerful Israeli attraction toward a more relaxed and easygoing tone in the region?
But these are speculations. One thing we may be sure about: the future will have many surprises, which in retrospect will look inevitable.