Russians lend toughness as Israel faces up to terror

Immigrants bear grief of conflict, determined to persevere in new land

May 12, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV - The smokejumper from Siberia was used to leaps of faith, parachuting into remote forests to fight fierce fires. Four years ago, jobless in the former Soviet Union, he took another plunge, leaving a tattered Siberian city named Novosibirsk and taking his wife and four children to Israel.

"It was," he said, "like a miracle."

He had left a country that in every sense seemed to be in a deep freeze and arrived in another warmed by a hot desert wind.

He found a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, working 80 hours, supporting his family, making sure his four kids got the best schooling, the best clothes. And 11 months ago, he allowed his 16-year-old daughter Mariana to go with her friends to a seaside disco in Tel Aviv.

He still remembers the night - Mariana with her short hair and long limbs, laughing and trying on clothes with her friends, dancing to a Madonna single, and then, out the door, forever.

The next time he saw her was at the morgue, her body still warm, a shrapnel wound in the back of the head. Mariana was among 21 killed in a suicide bombing that ripped through the heart of Israel's new immigrant community from the old Soviet Union.

So now, Victor Medvedenko, a sad-eyed 47-year-old with a weathered face, trim beard and rueful smile, is left to sit in his apartment at night contemplating his family's destroyed dreams.

`That day my daughter died, of course I regretted coming to Israel," Medvedenko said. "I kept thinking, `I'm guilty and I can't change anything.' But now, I am ready to fight for this land."

For immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proved as testing as the hard life they left behind. More than 900,000 people have immigrated here from the former Soviet Union since 1989, but no one foresaw the physical dangers.

"I have a friend in Russia with two sons who asked me about the problems of life in Israel," Medvedenko said sitting in front of a television showing the Russian news and watching his wife, Tatiana, work on a Russian crossword puzzle. "I'm afraid to give advice. It is good to visit the country, but I told him, `The decision is on you, not on me.'"

Since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, the flood of immigrants from the former Soviet Union has slowed to a trickle, with only 4,559 arrivals in the first three months of this year. Two years ago, in a similar three-month period, more than 12,000 former Soviet citizens arrived. From 2000 to 2001, the number of immigrants declined by about 30 percent - falling from 50,817 in 2000 to 33,522 in 2001.

Israel's security situation and an improvement in conditions in the former Soviet republics are often cited as reasons for the decline.

Those who do come usually stay; only around 8 percent return. The pattern has continued during the present crisis even though a third of those killed by the suicide bombers have come from the former Soviet Union.

"People coming here in the last 10 years are pretty well educated about Israel," said Yuli Edelstein, Israel's acting minister of immigrant absorption, who arrived from Moscow 8 1/2 years ago. "We knew what things were like, but we also knew we were jumping into the water."

From finding jobs to securing housing to educating their kids, the new immigrants quickly sought to climb the ladder to respectability and prosperity. They have proved themselves to be true believers in an Israeli Dream by establishing high-tech businesses, theater groups, schools, newspapers and radio stations, and weaving themselves into the society's fabric.

More secular than the rest of the Jewish population and politically more conservative, the new immigrants have made a quick impact in the country's day-to-day life. And they are decidedly hawkish, overwhelmingly supporting military incursions. If anything, they want the government to strike harder.

"I would call the Russian public here more hard-nosed in terms of the conflict," Edelstein said. "I think the origins are from experience. We don't believe in this whole thing of negotiating with the terrorists. We believe in a hard line with the terrorists."

There is also a great deal of mistrust in the Russian community about dealing with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who reminds many of them of a Soviet-style dictator leading a repressive regime.

`They come to associate the Palestinian nationalists with the former Communist oppressors they had back in Russia," said Dimitri Segel, a professor of comparative literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Segel, who arrived from Russia in the 1970s, said the new arrivals "tend to be more patriotic and less pampered than some parts of the Israeli population who are more of the Western liberal mold."

He added the Russians have an ability to absorb the blows of attacks by Palestinian militants.

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