What Russian immigrants can teach us about Jewish identity

Russian Jews know from personal experience that leftist ideology leads to totalitarian dictatorship, suppression of individual freedoms, and denial of personal autonomy.

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Matthew M. Hausman, J.D.,

Matthew Hausman
Matthew Hausman
INN:MH

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely was criticized a few months ago for opining that American Jews live “comfortable” lives and don’t know what it’s like to live under constant threat of attack, though she also acknowledged the continuing bond between them and their Israeli cousins.  

While mainstream liberals took offense, they could not dispute the substance of her comments.  It seems progressive Jews are always offended when moderate, conservative, or right-wing Israelis (i.e., much of the Israeli electorate) have the temerity to chastise those whose politics threaten Israel’s safety, security, and continuity as a Jewish state.  It’s easy to criticize Israel from the comfort of North America for those who define religious and ethnic identity not by Jewish values and history, but by allegiance to a political worldview that devalues both.

Though Hotovely’s words were taken somewhat out of context, the truth is many American Jews are indeed naïve – especially those who believe Israel should conform to a political vision that characterizes her as an occupier, demeans the Jewish spirit, and belittles traditional Judaism.  To the extent her words offended those who support an agenda that undermines Israel and empowers her enemies, they were words that needed to be spoken and should be repeated often.  No longer should the mainstream blindly vouch for the religious and cultural integrity of the Jewish left, or of nontraditional clergy who find common cause with BDS advocates and Islamist front organizations.

Much of the non-Orthodox establishment seems to care more about secular political values than traditional Jewish ones, and its support for Israel is often apologetic or conditioned on her presumed acceptance of liberal ideals.  Too often, progressive organizations provide forums for left-wing ideologues and unbalanced critics who disparage the Jewish State and traditional Judaism, while denying equal time to pro-Israel advocates and political conservatives.  This dynamic frequently plays out in college and universities where liberal campus leaders often show greater concern about the hypothetical risk of Islamophobia than the very real incidence of progressive anti-Semitism, and frequently condemn Israeli policies while ignoring Islamist rejectionism.    


There is nothing inherently Jewish about political values that encourage assimilation and undercut Jewish observance and national integrity.
That’s why it’s refreshing to see organizations like the Russian Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Boston thriving and celebrating Jewish identity.  In some ways, the RJCF is like the landsmanschaften associations of the early twentieth century that provided communal support to Jewish immigrants who came from the shtetls of Eastern Europe.  The RJCF’s core membership hails from the former Soviet Union, where seventy years of Jewish suffering under the yoke of Communism instilled a survival mentality and loyalty to heritage.  Instead of facilitating assimilation, the experience of Russian Jews as a persecuted minority seems to have fostered a commitment to identity, devotion to democratic ideals, and passion for the Jewish State.

The RJCF’s ardor for Israel was on full display at its recent, annual end-of-the-year Gala, where the theme was “United with Jerusalem” in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of the ancient Jewish capital.  The keynote address was delivered by retired Lt. Colonel and former US Representative Allen West, and the honoree for RJCF’s Jewish Advocacy Award was Rabbi Jonathan Hausman, who was recognized for his work on behalf of Israel and the international free speech movement.


The choices of Colonel West and Rabbi Hausman reflected the RJCF’s assertive commitment to Israel and to the free speech that is so essential for protecting democratic ideals and preserving Jewish identity in America.  Though both gentlemen have been attacked for their stances on radical Islam by progressive groups ambivalent or hostile towards Israel and traditional Judaism, and despite whisperings from some corners of the community that attendance would be hampered by their participation, the Gala’s organizers were resolute in choosing them as speaker and honoree.  And this resolve was rewarded by a tremendous turnout and enthusiastic audience response when the Colonel and Rabbi spoke.  

The RJCF’s President, Alex Koifman, set the tone in his opening remarks by noting how Jews from the former Soviet Union strongly identify with Jerusalem’s reunification and draw strength and inspiration from Israel’s assertion of sovereignty over her ancient capital.  He also observed how bias against Israel and hatred of Jews is on the rise globally, and that the RJCF is committed to combatting both.  Because of their unique history and experience, it seems Russian Jews are particularly sensitive to the dangers of anti-Semitic hate speech and the need to confront it proactively.  

These sentiments were echoed by Colonel West, who emphasized the importance of teaching and learning Jewish history – from Torah times to the present – and of understanding that the Jews’ presence in Israel is part of an unbroken historical continuum, while Palestinian claims have no history to back them up.  Organizations like the RJCF are important because they affirm Jewish history and the symbiotic relationship between the United States and Israel, he said, noting that Russian Jews know from personal experience that leftist ideology leads to totalitarian dictatorship, suppression of individual freedoms, and denial of personal autonomy.

Colonel West also emphasized the need to strengthen the American-Israeli relationship and undo the damage caused by the failed policies of the Obama administration, which gave billions of dollars to an Iranian regime sworn to exterminating Israel and bestowed moral legitimacy on the anti-Semitic BDS movement.  It’s up to the Trump administration to acknowledge the historical legitimacy of the Jewish State and influence other governments to do the same.  “There can be no peace in the Middle East without recognition of who [the Jews] are, and until Europe and the Arab nations stop shunning Israel,” he said.  This vision is not simply good politics, said West, but represents the fulfillment of the words spoken to Avraham by G-d in Sefer Breishit (Genesis).  “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.” (Parshah Lech-Lecha, Breishit, 12:3.)

In his remarks, Rabbi Hausman emphasized the Jewish tradition of debate, discussion and intellectual inquisitiveness, and that Jews thrive in societies that cherish free speech and critical discourse.  Freedom of expression and the exchange of ideas were once hallmarks of liberal democracy, but have come under attack in recent years by those who simply cannot tolerate disagreement and dissent, he said.  Though progressives claim to be the standard bearers of liberal ideals, they have turned their backs on classical liberalism, which in earlier generations had treasured critical thought and the interplay of opposing viewpoints.  “Societies where discussion becomes impossible are susceptible to totalitarianism, and nobody knows this better than Jews from the former Soviet Union,” Rabbi Hausman said to applause from the audience, noting further that such societies “are not conducive to the safety and security of the Jewish People or the State of Israel.”

Rabbi Hausman’s remarks gave perspective as to why Hotovely’s comments rankled liberals, especially those who tolerate or enable leftist totalitarianism, progressive anti-Semitism, and Islamist excess.  She clearly unnerved those whose political ideals are fundamentally incompatible with authentic Jewish values, but who nevertheless strain to claim consistency with Jewish tradition.  In redefining their identity according to politics that contravene Jewish religious and cultural continuity, liberal “social warriors” have lost the tools necessary for Jewish survival, and have politically aligned themselves – wittingly or not – with leftists who promote assimilation and Islamists who seek to eradicate Israel.  

If the RJCF’s constituency is any indication, the Russian Jewish community has no tolerance for such religious and cultural suicide, as evidenced by its strong support for Israel in terms of both dollars and personal commitment.  Russian Jewish immigrants are extremely patriotic to the US and Israel, and they see more of their children serving as lone soldiers in the IDF than does the liberal mainstream.  Indeed, many lone soldiers from this community have parents who served before them – in sharp contrast to those progressives who disparage Israel and who shamefully condemned President Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

One gets the sense that the RJCF’s members might stop identifying as Russian after a generation or two, but will never cease being Jewish.  For them, “Russian” is the adjective that describes where they or their parents were born, but “Jew” is the noun that defines their essence.  If they were to cease identifying as Russian, they would still be Jewish because of their self-awareness and historical connectedness.  In contrast, American progressives who lose their political faith are deprived of the only thing by which they define Jewishness.  Take away their liberalism, and you take away their validation as Jews.  The irony, of course, is that there is nothing inherently Jewish about political values that encourage assimilation and undercut Jewish observance and national integrity.

And this is something that the RJCF’s members understand – as do emigres from any society in which Jews have suffered persecution.  Those who must fight to maintain their religious and cultural identity have a similar mentality to Israelis who fight not only for their own survival, but for that of the Jewish People.  They know that Jewish continuity depends on loyalty to history and tradition, which is a lesson that many American Jews have either forgotten or never learned in the first place.








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