Immigrants from the former Soviet Union in an ulpan (Hebrew class) at an absorption center in Israel in 1994. (Zion Ozeri/Jewish Lens)

Russian Immigrant Women in Israel

Challenges encountered by these women in their new society.

Among some eight hundred and fifty thousand Jewish repatriates who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union (FSU) after 1989, about 300,000 were women between the ages of 20 and 55. Like their male counterparts, over 60% of Soviet Jewish women were highly educated and employed as professionals or white-collar workers. Before emigration, over 95% of these women combined full-time employment with motherhood and family roles.

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 12th century.

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. 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. 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.

Russian women often had engineering, construction and other Soviet-type heavy industry specialties 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.

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 specialty in Israel, since demand is vast and language requirements are minimal.

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. 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.

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.

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. 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. Biased imagery in the popular media did a severe disservice to most women with a Russian accent.

Sexual Harassment

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, 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 behavior 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.

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.

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. 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.

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. 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. The fragility of marriage among former Soviets was augmented by the normative acceptance of divorce as a solution to a deteriorating relationship.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

Challenges and Responses

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, 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.

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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