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Russian Immigrants in Israel

by Larissa Remennick

Among some eight hundred and fifty thousand Jewish repatriates who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union (FSU) after 1989, about three hundred thousand were women between the ages of twenty and fifty-five (IMIA, 2000). Like their male counterparts, over sixty percent of Soviet Jewish women were highly educated and employed as professionals or white-collar workers. Before emigration, over ninety-five percent of these women combined full-time employment with motherhood and family roles (Tolts, 1997; Buckley, 1997). Beside the need, common to both sexes, for economic and psychosocial adjustment in the new country immigrant women faced specific challenges that reflect cultural differences in sexuality, fertility and family life. Added to this agenda in the Israeli context was the problem of Jewishness and conversion (giyyur) for non-Jewish women who arrived as spouses of Jewish men. Since mixed marriages were common among Soviet Jews (in the late 1980s-early 1990s, more than fifty percent of Jewish men in the FSU had non-Jewish wives) (Tolts, 1997), this concern was important for a considerable number of Russian immigrants. The following are among the key issues faced by Russian immigrant women in Israel, as they have emerged from sociological studies of the last decade of the twentieth century:

1. Occupational Downgrading

Occupational and social downgrading is the most common result of resettlement, especially under conditions of massive immigration like that of the early 1990s (Lithwick and Habib, 1996). Russian immigrants faced a disparity between their occupational potential and structural opportunities in the Israeli economy. The local white-collar and professional markets were highly saturated and demanded a different set of skills (e.g., computing, Hebrew and English languages, self-marketing) from the ones immigrants had acquired in the FSU. Coupled with a traditional male worker preference by Israeli employers, this caused dramatic occupational downgrading among female immigrants. Throughout the 1990s, their unemployment rates were two to three times higher than among men, and they more often had jobs unrelated to their qualifications (Lithwick and Habib, 1996; Raijman and Semyonov, 1997).

Russian women often had engineering, construction and other Soviet-type heavy industry specialities considered non-feminine or not in demand in Israel. Many had to be retrained for “feminine” occupations (e.g., receptionist, social worker, nursery school teacher), which for women engineers also meant redefining their professional identity. Women with language- and culture-dependent professions in education, medicine, law, and humanities suffered even greater downward mobility. The Israeli academic and cultural market, small and based on a Hebrew-English language mix, was unable to absorb even the established professionals in their field. For some women endowed with entrepreneurial talents, small businesses of their own became a solution. Yet the majority faced de-skilling and hence the loss of a greater part of their personal identity. Forced to the bottom of the social structure, working in menial service jobs, these women faced a completely different social environment from the one before emigration (Remennick, 1999). In the words of one informant, a former museum worker,

“It is not only that you lose your profession, you also lose your place in society. In Leningrad, we lived very modestly but we enjoyed a fine quality of human relations with friends and colleagues at work. They were educated, intelligent people, interesting to talk to. And who surrounds us here in Israel? I work as a hotel maid, and my work mates are so ... limited, many of them do not read even papers, let alone books. I feel such a foreign body among them.”

Immigrant women in their late forties and older had slim chances of finding any qualified work, even after retraining and despite a state policy of rewarding their potential employers. Many had to live on welfare supplemented by part-time service work (e.g., cleaning or care for the elderly). The latter occupations became a Russian speciality in Israel, since demand is vast and language requirements are minimal (Remennick, 1999). Many middle-aged women saw the failure of the host society to recognize their knowledge and skills as wasteful and degrading. The following quotes were typical: “Did I have to study medicine for seventeen years only to change bedpans for demented old folks in a nursing home?” “Being a journalist, I didn’t hope for much in Israel; yet I am capable of more than just sticking labels in the supermarket,” or even “There, in the antisemitic country, we were the brain of the nation, and here, in our homeland, we are the shit of the nation.” (Remennick, 1999).

In sum, female immigrants in Israel faced occupational, economic and social downgrading, typically more dramatic and long-term than their male counterparts of similar age and education. (In fact, a similar destiny would have awaited them in the FSU after the advent of “jungle capitalism”—Buckley, 1997). Age serves as the key predictor of occupational success, with the cutoff point being around age forty-five. Younger women with greater cultural flexibility did make their way into the host society, while older women tended to stay in the confines of the ethnic community.

2. Sexuality and Family Life

Gender roles and family life in the host society are different from those among Russian immigrants. Only about half of Israeli women are employed outside the home, usually as secondary breadwinners. Both education and income are typically higher among men, although in younger generations these gaps tend to narrow (Hartman, 1993). Israeli society is family-centered and clearly pro-natalist, at both institutional (social services, health care) and individual/normative levels (Remennick, 1999). The average Israeli family has circa three children—almost double the number in Russian immigrant families. Births to unmarried mothers are few. At the same time, secular Israelis are fairly tolerant toward premarital sex and cohabitation of young adults, as long as they are “sexually responsible.” Efficient contraception is widely available and used by the majority of the population (Okun, 1997). The youngsters have full access to sex information, and the overall climate surrounding sexuality is one of acceptance.

As is often the case with newcomers, their sexual and reproductive conduct, visibly at odds with the mainstream norms, became the focus of public attention. The image of a Russian woman as an attractive but dangerous alien, stressing her sex appeal as a threat to local male mores, emerged as a key element of the Israeli media discourse of the early 1990s. Such attributes of immigrant families as high prevalence of divorce, single motherhood, use of abortion as a birth control method and low number of children became the focus of public debates. In short, the verdict was that the long-expected Russian aliyah turned out to be “the aliyah of frauds, sluts and welfare mothers” (Shnirman, 1997). Such biased imagery in the popular media did a severe disservice to most women with a Russian accent.

3. Sexual Harassment

Most Russian Jewish immigrants had been used to the relatively egalitarian gender culture of the Soviet intelligentsia (Maddock et al., 1994). In Israel, many female engineers, musicians and teachers suddenly found themselves in the midst of the Levantine male culture of the Israeli “street,” which sees little point in restraining or disguising sexual interest, especially toward dependent and apparently helpless newcomers (Sawicki, 1995). During their first years in Israel, women with a Russian accent were often approached with outright sexual offers in the street markets, public parks or buses, in apartments they rented (by the owners), and, of course, in their new workplaces.

Making things worse for the ex-Soviet women, the later Jewish emigration coincided with an influx of illegal sex workers from Russia via international organized crime channels. Post-communist states became one of the major world exporters of sex workers, and Israel proved an easy target due to its unselective immigration policy towards any holder of Jewish documents. Russian, Ukrainian and other Russian-speaking women with false Jewish papers or outdated tourist visas, often traded and detained by force by their owners (Israel Women’s Network, 1997), filled the massage parlors and nightclubs of Israeli cities.

At the same time, social marginality and the perceived lack of other options may have prompted some younger immigrants to capitalize on their femininity in order to support themselves. Confusion over old versus new sexual norms and the ambient air of sexual freedom among their Israeli peers may have led some women into dress code and behaviour interpreted by the locals as “loose” and provocative. Others desperately wanted to join the host society by means of finding an Israeli boyfriend. For some young women, this sexual “vertigo” ended in disillusionment, embarrassment and unwanted pregnancies (Remennick et al., 1995; Remennick and Segal, 2001).

In one study in which young Russian women were asked about sexual harassment (Remennick, 1999), fully half of them said they suffered from sexual advances by Israeli men on whom they were dependent for work or otherwise. Single and divorced women found it especially difficult to resist these advances. In most cases, they spoke of “mild” harassment, which, on meeting resistance, gradually ceased. But in several cases the “obstinate” women lost their jobs or were otherwise punished (e.g., by forfeit of a promised salary increase). Street harassment also became a permanent reality for many young women. Gradually, they developed tools of their own to cope with this: some preferred to ignore it, others learned all kinds of repartee answers from local women.

In this manner, downward social mobility was intertwined with sexual disadvantage for female immigrants. Their male counterparts, having similar problems on the labor market, were at least spared sex-related troubles. As studies in other countries show, job loss, lack of promotion and low work satisfaction are not the only costs of sexual harassment in the workplace. Women living under the shade of unwanted sexual advances often experience depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and sexual dysfunction (Fitzgerald, 1993).

4. Marital Distress

The studies of resettlement experiences in the U.S., Canada, and other immigration-based countries have shown that uprooted families often suffer marital distress (Slutzki, 1979; Foner, 1997). Downward mobility, the loss or deterioration of informal social networks and inter-generational tension in extended families all contribute to a decline in the quality of marital relations. A similar trend has been shown among Russian immigrants in Israel (Naon et al., 1993; Ben-David and Lavee, 1994).

In the Israeli setting, immigrant family stress was heightened by the housing problem: due to soaring rental costs, most extended families had to share small apartments. Forced co-habitation of three generations, reported in one study by over seventy percent of the elderly immigrants, was a constant source of tension, fatigue and lack of privacy for all family members (Naon et al., 1993). In these conditions, sexual relations of married couples often suffered irreparable damage. Other sources of conflict among Russian immigrant couples included low income, employment problems, disagreement about child education in the new culture (e.g., religious vs. secular school) and the varying pace of integration between husbands and wives (Ben-David and Lavee, 1994). The fragility of marriage among former Soviets was augmented by the normative acceptance of divorce as a solution to a deteriorating relationship (Maddock et al., 1994).

5. Single-Parent Families

Due to high divorce rates among ex-Soviets (before and after migration), some fifteen percent of all Israeli-Russian families were headed by a single parent (IMIA, 2000). Most of these were mothers with young children, often living together with one or both grandparents—a household type considered an oddity by native Israelis. Since single-parent families are relatively few in Israel (six to eight percent) and single mothers often cannot work full-time, they are viewed as “social cases by default” in need of state support. The mass influx of Russian-speaking single mothers, maladapted to the Israeli job market, without Hebrew skills and with no means of their own, was seen at the outset as a burden to Israeli welfare services (Amir et al., 1997).

Divorce rates in Israel, albeit growing, are still comparatively low. This, along with legal constraints and the economic dependence of women, reflects a strong cultural norm to preserve marital ties at any personal cost, usually paid by the woman (Hartman, 1993). Divorced mothers in our sample often felt disapproval on the part of immigration officials, social and welfare workers, their children’s teachers, and other social gatekeepers, including hints that they were a burden on Israeli society. “They see divorce as a woman’s caprice or her inability to adjust to men, to sacrifice her own wishes and ambitions for the sake of family and children,” commented one woman. “They think we are all welfare cases, living at the expense of ‘good taxpayers,’ though this is not true for me and many others. We make our living ourselves like anyone else, and provide for all the needs of our children,” said another single mother (Remennick, 1999).

In this way, cultural differences in marital conduct created a serious locus of tension in immigrant women’s lives. This was especially true when immigrants were aware of being permanently scrutinized and judged by the lay majority and state officials.

Conclusion

As part of international migrations of the late twentieth century, the case of Russian Jews in Israel shows that not only poor rural women from Third World countries, but also educated female professionals, must begin their new life from the bottom, working their way up in the host society. Many of these women, especially older ones, will never succeed in this journey, and their human capital will never be appreciated and used. While both male and female immigrants undergo occupational downgrading and social marginalization, this process has more dramatic ramifications for women. Besides low wages and poor working conditions, their downward mobility entails negative stereotyping and sexual harassment. Together, these by-products of resettlement seriously compromise the personal identity and psychological well-being of immigrant women.

The Israeli establishment, which ostensibly welcomed Russian immigration, was also intimidated by the pressures it created. The immigrant women became a handy target for the discrediting of Russian Jews as a whole through constant allegations, mainly by religious forces and the state agencies they control, that they lacked Jewish heritage and were ethnically “impure” (matrilineal determination of Jewishness puts women in the focus). Due to common intermarriage, Russian and other non-Jewish—according to halakhic criteria—family members constituted more than a quarter of immigrants in the late twentieth century, creating a caste of second-class citizens in the Jewish state (Remennick, 1998). Ethnically-intoned discourse, apart from poisoning the air around women who looked and sounded Russian, subjected them to many humiliating “clearance” procedures such as ancestry checks three generations back and interrogations at the Rabbinical Court at any change of civil status. Since the Orthodox giyyur procedures (the only option for conversion in Israel) are complex and demanding, only a minority of non-Jewish wives could solve the problem in this way (Masiukova, 2000). Since women with non-Jewish blood and their children are often treated as suspects, some of them opted for re-emigration to the west. In this manner, gender, ethno-religious and political implications of Russian-Jewish immigration to Israel form a tight knot that cannot easily be unravelled.

In sum, it can be argued that Russian women paid a high price for their resettlement and adjustment to Israeli society. However, from the mid-1990s on, immigrant women engaged in a collective effort to resist these discriminating trends in the host society. They entered existing Israeli feminist groups and also created self-help associations of their own. Two women immigrants from the Russian aliyah, Dr. Marina Solodkin and Sofa Landver, became Knesset members, with the subsequent ability to lobby for the interests of their electorate. Among thousands of immigrant students in Israeli universities and colleges in 1999, more than fifty percent were women (IMIA, 2000), giving rise to the hope that at least the younger generation of Israeli-Russian women would achieve higher social status as they integrated and learned their way in Israeli society.

Bibliography

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How to cite this page

Remennick, Larissa. "Russian Immigrants in Israel." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/russian-immigrants-in-israel>.

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