sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

May 1, 2011

Voting Against Brezhnev

Via dear uncle comes a rather bigoted essay by Boston-born Alexander Zaitchik about political affiliations of Russian Jews in the US.  A quote from Gary Steyngart pretty much sums it up:

“Russians respect power,” says Gary Shteyngart, a novelist who emigrated to New York from Leningrad at age 7. “Many immigrants give lip service to democracy but in the end they want some patriarchal white guy to run things with a strong hand. Feelings of oppression that began within the anti-Semitic confines of the Soviet Union are turned from a defensive to an offensive stance under the false perception that the Democratic Party is indistinguishable from the Communist Party of the USSR.”

I hope Steyngart was seriously kidding and not just kind of kidding but serious because his data is wrong.  According to a Wall Street Journal 2005 op-ed only a part of which is available online, Russian Jews are swing voters who voted for Clinton in the 90s.  I can attest to it: every Russian Jew I know was a big Clinton fan back then.  Clinton successfully sold himself as a moderate, and was popular in Russia to boot.  And that was after Bush’s “Fuck Jews [lets sell out Israel]” comment, and after Buchanan ran in the Presidential primaries.  Maybe Shteyngart missed this whole phenomena because, like a good American, he went to Prague at the time — at least according to his semi-autobiographical book.

Instead of “respect for power” and “lip service to democracy” try “understand power”.  Russian Jew and former prisoner of Zion Nathan Sharansky, for instance, wrote a book about democracy.  So yes, lets all doubt his sincerity!  And besides, it’s painfully clear by now that it’s the Democrats who stand for big paternalistic government of mostly white bureaucrats that currently sports a black figurehead.  Is Shteyngart still in Prague?  Because he seems to miss the whole Tea Party thing.

Sharansky playing chess with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Also what’s with “feelings of oppression,” as opposed to actual experience of oppression?  Feeling might be unwarranted, but experience is real, and it sure seems like Shteyngart is out to diminish the experience.  One would think a novelist would be deliberate with his word choice.  Then again, maybe Steyngart spent too much time in liberal-dominated educational institutions, and as a result can’t distinguish between sentiment and experience.  Or perhaps the sentiment is all that matters.

I suspect Shteyngart is trying to have his cake and eat it too.  He’s somebody who gets to rebel against his parents while blending seamlessly into the chattering class and, for a bonus, retaining a right to a Russian shtick.  His book is about figuring out how to properly do Russian shtick in a recently mono-polar world.  It’s not a bad book, actually.

Russian Jews are typically fiscal conservatives who know from experience that socialism doesn’t work.  Many surprised themselves by doing really well in the United States, and those who went to college in the US are highly successful.  At the same time, a large contingent, older immigrants in particular, rely on Social Security.  Younger immigrants milked federal and state benefits for what it’s worth while figuring out how to settle into a lucrative career. We are “live and let live” kind of people, and usually talk about an opportunity to do well.  Not being envious is important.  On foreign policy our instinct is hawkish because we know that niceties don’t work on dictators.  And, yes, there is also Zionism, which is steadily becoming a conservative cause.  We don’t do culture wars, but here is Tablet on social issues:

Israel, national security, and the economy topped the list of concerns among Russian Jews, but there was also a cultural component to their preference; they were among the so-called Values Voters who voted Republican based on cultural wedge issues. A month before the election, 81 percent of Russian Jews supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages—nearly the inverse number of Jews nationally. They also expressed heavy opposition to affirmative action and showed less support for on-demand abortion, according to numbers compiled by the Research Institute for New Americans, which tracks the Russian-speaking community.

The number opposing to same sex marriage might be accurate, especially once Bukharan Jews are factored in. Although many Russian women with engineering degrees are among the beneficiaries of affirmative action, we hate it with a passion because it reminds us of the discrimination we faced in the Soviet Union.  I have no idea what they mean by “less support for on-demand abortion,” but I doubt that a majority of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union oppose abortion.  Because there was no other birth control in the Soviet Union, the number of abortions in a woman’s lifetime was often in double digits.  Although I doubt Russian women think of abortion as a right or need the cloak of “choice” to talk about it, they just can’t imagine life without it.  I’m sure if I stayed there a little longer, I’d have an abortion too.  I’m glad I didn’t: I would be miserable now.  Having said that, Russian women in the US choose civilized birth control and do not expect “needing” an abortion.  We don’t care much for Planned Parenthood endorsements.

Then there is the issue of racism:

Lurking behind these much-discussed reasons for Russian Jewish conservatism is the fact of deeply ingrained Russian xenophobia, which some say the nation’s Jews have internalized despite being an oppressed group themselves. This, say some, makes them more susceptible to the racial dog whistles employed by conservative politicians. Weeks before the 2008 election, Walter Ruby reported for the Jewish Week that he did not have to search Brighton Beach very hard before finding Russian-speaking Jews who subscribed to a Sarah Palin’s view of the United States; one real, one fake; one implicitly white, one not. “The president of such a great country ought to be a real American, by which I mean a white person,” one respondent told Ruby. Others expressed the fear that a Barack Obama victory would lead to “black triumphalism” and increased crime.

Never mind the gratuitous slap at Sarah Palin whose family is not white.  There is racism within the Russian Jewish community, it’s real and in your face, not “lurking” at all, and mainstream Americans are put off by it, as they should.  (Although Russians often make naive statements on race, e.g. black people wear a lot of clothes because they get cold, or black people are really good with foreign languages because they are musical, that make their new compatriots uncomfortable.)  It’s also true that, unlike Palin or Reagan, Obama doesn’t look too American to us.  But that’s because when we listen to him talk we don’t hear him expressing the values that, in our opinion, made this country great.  I suppose it’s convenient to write us of as racist, per template.

Former SF mayor Willie Brown and girlfriend Sonya Molodetskaya in lion's den that is Jewish Family and Children's Services 10th Annual Emigre Community Gala. April 2011.

Russians usually don’t intermarry, but we are practically obsessed with “real America”.  To wit, when I started dating DH, my aunties would ask about him.

“Is he an American?”


“What do his parents do?”

“Well, they are retired now, but his dad is an engineer, and his mom was a teacher.”

Inevitable reaction: “Wow!  Dad an engineer, and mom is a teacher.  A real American family!”  Is it racist, awfully bigoted all around or too darn cute?  You decide.

Anyhow, back to political affiliations, Michael Barone put it really well:

I have long felt that, in answer to the question posed by Norman Podhoretz in his book  Why Are Jews Liberal?is that American Jews, who are mostly descendants of immigrants from the pre-1914 Russian Empire, are liberals because they’re still voting against the Czar. It follows that recent Russian Jewish immigrants are conservatives because they’re still voting against Leonid Brezhnev.

Numbered less then 3/4 million and firmly settled in deep blue states, Russian Jews are a throwaway demographic.  If English language press covers Russian Jews, the articles are often mean-spirited.  We are somewhat an embarrassment to the native Jewish community.  Truth is, liberal-minded individuals like to shower immigrants with pity, but prefer not to look at who immigrants are.  Hispanics, for instance, are staunch social conservatives, but vote Democratic.  Probably because they were welcomed by a Democrat resettlement committee at a border crossing.  Since for most liberals politics revolve around lifestyle issues (hence the prominence of culture war causes like gay marriage and abortion) they should take a look at their position on immigration.



  1. […] Edge of the Sandbox – Voting against Brezhnev […]

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  2. I was born in the former Soviet Union, grew up in San Francisco and am married to African-American man (albeit an engineer). Who knew Willie Brown and I had so much in common?

    Comment by Alina Adams — May 2, 2011 @ 12:35 am

  3. Discussions of which people fall in which ideological group get very confusing. To me, affirmative action is more of an economic issue than a social one, and hispanics are far from socially conservative because of their obsession with sexual attraction (I hope I’m not being stereotypical, but that has been my experience). As for the russian jews desiring strong leaders, they can find them in either major party.

    Comment by daniel noe — May 2, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

    • I don’t think Shteyngart (and others) were talking of strong *leaders*. He thinks that we want authoritarians.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — May 2, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

      • I was using them as synonyms. I meant to say there are authoritarians in both major parties.

        Comment by daniel noe — May 3, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

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