In June, I enjoyed an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study abroad in Israel for two weeks through a special academic program at George Washington University. With my academic and professional background firmly focused on Russia and Eurasia, I felt compelled to diversify my knowledge of international issues through a trip to the Middle East. Indeed, how my expectations did certainly defy me. For my understanding of post-Soviet affairs grew just as much as my nascent understanding of Middle Eastern security.
On arrival, I stumbled off my long 11-hour El Al flight, gathered my luggage at Ben Gurion Airport, then hailed a taxi to head to my beachside hotel. The language barrier immediately hit me as the cabbie spoke rapid Hebrew dotted with hand gestures and broken English in a failed attempt to ascertain my intended destination. Luckily, I had planned and hoped for this exact scenario en route and excitedly asked: Вы говорите по-русски? And so my first interaction with an Israeli proceeded in Russian.
After clarifying my intended destination, the cabbie launched into a tale about his son who studies film in America. Naturally, the conversation inevitably drifted over to politics. I admitted that this trip was my first time in the country and the cabbie repeatedly assured me that Tel Aviv and Israel overall is очень спокойно. I gave him an incredulous look, wondering how he could classify this embattled though prosperous land as very peaceful. My glance then prompted the cabbie to qualify his statement a bit. Well, besides the ракеты, he explained, it is очень спокойной. I made it to my hotel without incident, already pondersome about the feelings of comfort and insecurity from entering a Russian-speaking peaceful foreign land frequently under attack by rockets.
To my surprise, I generally faced little to no culture shock during my time abroad in Israel. Of course, it took a moment to overcome my sheer confusion from having the option to buy a coke and fries at a remote Druze village on the Golan Heights. Globalization surely does pervade the globe. More relevantly, my knowledgeable tour guide explained that close to 1 in 7 Israelis speak Russian and most Israelis even know simple phrases in Russian, such as: принесите мне арбуз! A good phrase to know if attempting to buy watermelon at the marketplace, many of which were also filled with ornate, матрёшка dolls. Bartering down the taxi price with cabbies in Russian and sampling блинички с сладким сыром at breakfast with the Russian-speaking hotel staff made me feel right at home in Israel.
My academic studies revealed the strong Russian imprint on the modern Jewish state. In the early 16th century, Circassians from the Russia-controlled North Caucasus settled in the Arab town of Abu Ghosh located west of Jerusalem. In 1906, a Russian-born Jew named Akiva Aryeh Weiss established the Ahuzat Bayit Society, which enlisted 66 families to found the city of Tel Aviv in 1909. Several waves of mass migration flowed from Russian-speaking countries, with an Israeli intelligence unit called Nativ tasked with clandestinely emigrating Jewish communities from the Soviet Union. The precepts of socialism and communism even entered Israeli society as communal farms, known as kibbutzim, became popular systems for agriculture.
Lectures at The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) on the campus of Tel Aviv University broadened my understanding of the diverse relations between Russia and Israel. In fact, during my classes, a Russian delegation met with other senior fellows of this eminent Israeli think tank in an adjoining conference room. Dr. Ephraim Kam outlined the important position of Moscow in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, asserting that Russia prefers Iran not to have atomic weapons but would never use force to deny such capabilities. During my visit, INSS also graciously offered me two memorandum booklets assessing Russian and Israeli outlooks on current developments in the Middle East.
Ultimately, my brief study abroad program to Israel proved to be a most fruitful experience, diversifying my knowledge of international issues and expanding my understanding of post-Soviet affairs around the world.
Photo Credit: HTKA
Peter J. Marzalik