On a field trip to Israel last month with students that I teach at university in Budapest we sought out refugees from Russia and Ukraine who have fled the war to make the Jewish state their new home. We found them divided over the rights and wrongs of the war back home even as the Palestinian conflict is nipping at their heels.
JERUSALEM - Until February the bar I was sitting in was called Putin Pub – a low-light drinking hole not far from the ancient walls of Jerusalem where Russian-speaking Israelis gathered to chat and dance to 1980s pop music.
The letters that once spelled out the name of the Russian leader above the entrance are now gone, but their outline can still be seen, and eponymous cocktails still feature on the menu.
Today, after a brief iteration as Zelensky Pub, the bar is called Generation Pub, a safer, if more vanilla, choice. And it still serves as the watering hole of the local Russian-speaking community.
In Jerusalem’s old city, only a stone’s throw away, Jews, Muslims and Christians live cheek-by-jowl. There are Armenian, Greek and Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches as well as mosques and synagogues.
Jerusalem is, after all, the holiest city in the world for two of the main monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism, and the third holiest in Islam.
For the last century its streets have been contested between Jews and Arabs. Today small groups of heavily-armed Israeli soldiers cluster on street corners, testimony to the fact that they have been in control since the six day war in 1967.
But clustered around the tables in Generation Pub the latest wave of refugees are discussing a different war.
Since Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb 24th this year, tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have fled south to Israel. Estimates put the number of arrivals at 40,000 Russians and 20,000 Ukrainians, more than four times the number from the previous year.
Some have ended up in Jerusalem. And, unlike the millions that have sought refuge in western Europe, few, if any, are ever likely to return to the lands of their birth.
Sasha, a 29-year-old history teacher, was one of many who fled the Kremlin’s recent mobilisation. He arrived a month ago after fleeing his home in St Petersburg.
He cannot use his Russian qualifications in Israel and, in any case, does not yet speak Hebrew and is picking up work where he can.
“I had bought a flat, got married and had a small child in Russia,” he said. “It will be difficult to start again from nothing, but there is no future there. Even if I miss Russia I don't want my boy growing up there.”
There are an estimated 1.5m Russian speakers in Israel out of a population of nine million. Many emigrated to the Jewish state following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And their integration into Israeli society has been seen as widely successful.
According to Tom Zviv of Tykvah, an Israeli group that promotes conservative values in politics, the Jewish state has gone out of its way to help Russian-speaking arrivals. He said Israel has built 300,000 flats for them.
“They are great workers and they assimilate really well,” he said. “Much better than Jews from some other countries do.”
Alisa, 19, arrived seven years ago with her mother who married a Russian Israeli. She works in a restaurant not far from the old city that serves a mostly Russian-speaking clientele and has watched the number of Russians in the city swell this year.
“If you have Jewish blood within the last three generations you can get your papers sorted out in 2-3 weeks,” Alisa said. “The state even arranges comedy shows and literary evenings to help us assimilate. When I was lonely I used to go to some of them.”
Israel is especially attractive for members of the Russian intelligentsia or vulnerable minorities who have been hit hard by Putin’s wartime crackdown.
“I recently met a gay couple who definitely didn’t want to get mobilised in Russia,” Alisa said. “Here in Jerusalem of course some people look down on them. But Tel Aviv has a thriving gay community.”
The ease with which Russian Jews can gain rights and citizenship in Israel, contrasts sharply with the treatment Palestinians receive. Arabs who can prove they are from Jerusalem have some rights to travel in Israel, though most will not get Israeli passports.
But many of those from the West Bank are banned from entering altogether, or face innumerable hurdles. Travel in and out of the Gaza Strip is even more restricted.
With Israel about to swear in the most right-wing government in its history, and appoint Itamar Ben-Gvir, a radical nationalist who has called for and championed attacks on Palestinian civilians, as its new security minister, many fear a new wave of violence.
Only a few days previously two buses in Jerusalem were bombed by Palestinian militants, killing one and injuring a dozen.
But these days few young Israelis seem concerned with the plight of the Palestinians. Unlike their parents’ generation, many of whom supported a land-for-peace deal that seemed within reach in the late 1990s, many say the status quo works well for them and they don’t want to change it.
At Generation Pub, the conflict with the Palestinians, who live in dense, dysfunctional cities, some only a dozen miles away, is barely mentioned.
The conflict on everyone’s lips is that between Russia and Ukraine and, while divisions may be less violent, they are an echo of those being played out on the plains of eastern Europe.
Zhenya, the 22-year-old barman, who was born in Israel of Russian-speaking parents, when asked who he wanted to win the war, didn’t hesitate. “Ukraine, of course,” he said. “Russia is the aggressor, plain and simple.”
But while few had anything good to say about the pub’s erstwhile namesake, many were not supportive of Ukraine.
Alina, 32, who says she is Russian-Ukrainian, said: “This is a small country, which won’t go against a big power. When others were dying the Ukrainians were unconcerned. Now that they are dying they want everyone to help.”
It was a view held by many young Israelis of all stripes. Several mentioned the killing of Jews in Ukraine during World War II, as well as the fact that Ukraine has voted against Israel at the United Nations as reasons for not giving too much support to Kyiv.
“The opinion here is that Israel should stay out of the war,” a European diplomat in Tel Aviv said in a private briefing. “Israel says it supports Ukraine but it hasn’t joined in the sanctions regime and it won’t provide it with weapons. I don’t see that changing.”
I met Mihail, 70, a Russian-speaker who arrived in the early 1990s from Uzbekistan, selling bric-a-brac at a market in Tel Aviv. He has put three of his four children through university in Israel and said he was planning to use the proceeds from the day’s sales to help one of his sons.
“I still write poems in Russian,” he said wistfully. “But the truth is that when all is said and done neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians like us Jews. They don’t like people that prosper.”
With additional reporting by Viktoria Kopilova and David Kisfalvi.
In my last newsletter post I told the story of my flight across Russia in a borrowed Spetsnaz uniform. Patrick Bishop, my old boss and a close friend, recounted the story on his podcast Battlefield Ukraine, and told the tale much better than I ever could have. I strongly recommend the podcast which comes out weekly and is one of my staples for keeping up with what is happening on the eastern front. If you are interested in his winning rendition of my story, it starts around minute 12 on Episode 18.
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I've visited Israel just three times, and I only really got to see the donkey sanctuary where I volunteered. Interested to read about your visit and some opinions we don't get to hear. Lucy's UK Donkey Foundation helps to run the sanctuary (Lucy Fensom) and is worth a visit.
Hi Julius, so great to get your 'on the ground' perspective about places and countries we hear about and have never been to. The energy you have for travel and connecting with any one to get their stories both of the locals old and new. We know so little of what is really going on for day to day life that it really helps to keep some perspective on it all. Be safe and carry on! All the best Pauline Kendall