Lieberman woos New York's Russians

By Paul Berger, June 17, 2010
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When a politician carves time out of a tight schedule to meet with leaders of your community, you can almost certainly bet that he is chasing money or votes. So it was notable that during a three-day visit to New York last week, Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made not one but two appearances before Russian-Jewish audiences.

On Tuesday evening, Mr Lieberman stopped at a 300-person Manhattan gala in honour of Israel, organised by media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky.

The day before he snatched a session at Manhattan's InterContinental hotel with Russian-speaking Jewish leaders.

According to Joel Lion, the Israeli consul in New York for media and public affairs, "the minister wants to have them [Russian-speaking Jews] feel close to Israel like other Jews here do. He feels that he could be the bridge between them and the state of Israel".

Over the past 35 years, some 700,000 Russian Jews have moved to the US, with about half settling in New York. Generally speaking, the Russian-Jewish community has never fully integrated into the wider American-Jewish community. Twenty years after a wave of mass immigration, Russian Jews still tend to cluster in their own communities.

They tend to be more secular than American-born Jews and more politically conservative. While three-quarters of US Jews voted for Barack Obama, the majority of Russians voted Republican.

Indeed, support for Moldova-born Mr Lieberman - derided by many American liberals because of extreme right-wing views - is strong among Russian-speaking Jews. Though most Jews from the FSU shun synagogues and American-Jewish institutions, they remain fiercely protective of Israel.

"Their Jewish identity is largely based on their relationship to Israel," explained Leonard Petlakh, a prominent member of New York's Russian-Jewish community.

Susan Green, director of administration and finance at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said this bond could be partly explained by the fact that up to 90 per cent of Russian-American Jews have close relatives or friends in Israel. Many even spent several years in Israel themselves, before moving to the US.

"It's the same relationship as Americans had with Israel two or three generations ago," she said. "For Russian Jews, it's up close and personal."

But in the case of Mr Lieberman, it is also a matter of mentality. Russian-American Jews simply do not perceive his views as hard line.

"Only those who didn't analyse his platforms lump him with extremists like Meir Kahane," said Mr Petlakh. "He believes not in the transfer of people, but in the transfer of territories."

Mr Petlakh said that neither money nor votes were behind Mr Lieberman's visit. Rather, he said: "He is a Russian Jew, so there is a kinship. These are people he feels comfortable with so it is a place for him to vent his views. He knows that the response from the Russian audience will be mostly approving."

    Last updated: 4:02pm, June 17 2010