Stopping the cycle of racism both from and toward Israel's community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU) was the goal of the groundbreaking conference The Other: Between Racism and Tolerance in Israel's Russian Speaking Community organized by SHATIL in collaboration with six immigrant organizations. Held at the Hebrew University on December 20th, the first-of-its kind conference examined attitudes and racial prejudices directed at and originating in Israel's FSU immigrant community.
Unfortunately, intolerance of the 'other' - whether Arabs, Ethiopian or North African immigrants, or groups within the FSU community such as Jews from the Caucuses, converts and members of mixed families - is not uncommon in the community. At the same time, Israelis often discriminate against immigrants from the FSU and express displeasure at hearing Russian spoken in the street.
"You can both experience racism and be responsible for it," says SHATIL's Dina Kazhdan, who coordinated the event. "And each type of racism feeds the other. We want to take responsibility for our own racism and work to stop it."
Inda Kriksunov, director of SHATIL's Assistance to Immigrants from the FSU project adds: "Twenty years after the major immigration from the FSU is an opportune time for Israel's Russian-speaking community to look inwards and to examine its relationship with 'the other'. The community has made great strides in integrating into Israeli society but severe problems persist, not in the least related to racist and prejudiced attitudes."
The 80 participants represented a cross section of Israeli society: religious, secular, young professionals, students, academics, journalists, immigrants and veteran Israelis of varying political persuasions. The gathering marked the first time this complex issue was publicly addressed in the community.
Michael Philipov of the Israel Democracy Institute presented his survey findings on Israel's Russian speaking community, including the troubling statistics that 77 percent support encouraging Arab Israelis to leave the country and 74 percent would like an authoritative leader. Ha'aretz journalist Lily Galili and Dr. Alex Yakobson, senior lecturer at Hebrew University and an expert on the rights of national minorities in Israel and western democracies, also addressed the conference. A lively discussion took place between panelists and audience members.
SHATIL will establish a forum to continue the discussion and to work with SHATIL's new inter-disciplinary think tank to examine prejudice and racism within Israel's FSU community and to devise an action plan to foster more tolerant and liberal values within the community.
The conference was co-sponsored by Rights of Mixed Families, One Plus One, T'ena, Morashteinu, Machanayim, and Forum of Young Leaders from the Caucasian Community in Israel.