Russian-Israeli relations are rapidly deteriorating as both countries engage in a tit for tat on visitor screening
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had 15 “republics” and countless “autonomous regions”, but really only two republics mattered: the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The rest were window dressing. The USSR had only three capital cities that mattered, Moscow, Leningrad (St. Petersburg today), and Kiev. The rest were “provinces”.
After the fall of the USSR in 1990 and the free for all that followed, Soviet Jews, those who have not emigrated to Israel or America in the 1970’s like my family had done, did what Jews always do: split into parts. One part stood in long lines at the consulates of countries that represented Israeli interests in the now defunct USSR, which had no diplomatic ties with Israel since 1967 and begged to be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the auspices of the Law of Return. The other part became busy appropriating anything of value that could be appropriated.
Enterprising mid-level managers in major industrial corporations, many of them Jews, suddenly became “owners” of said corporations, overnight billionaires in dollar terms. All it took was guts and small startup capital to hire enough bodyguards to avoid being killed by rival claimants to the loot. So was born the disproportionately Jewish oligarch class of Russia and Ukraine.
The oligarchs, never to be ones to put all their eggs in one basket, did not neglect to get their Israeli passports just like their less enterprising Jewish comrades had done, though their physical presence in Israel was not required and was often unwanted.
Israel, awash in American technology improved by Israel’s own contributions as well as indigenously developed top-notch military tech has always been a target for Russian espionage, but now there was a truly golden opportunity to infiltrate Israel with hundreds if not thousands intelligence operatives. After all, Israel’s founding mission was to provide a home for all Jews and the impact of a million repatriates, many with engineering degrees, on a country in dire need of more Jews and more engineers could not be overstated. They all got in and nobody was vetted.
One of the less advertised aspects of Israeli culture is its pervasive addiction to sex as a commodity. Prostitution has always been prevalent in Israel due to an unusual combination of factors. While having a Western-style liberal and secular legal code and criminal justice system, Israel, rather uniquely for such countries at least until recently, has large segments of its population wherein premarital sex is not part of the norm. These include most Israeli Arabs and religiously observant Jews for whom sex before or outside of marriage often involves prostitution. In addition, Israel has a kind of a hyper-charged, masculine popular culture, a culture continuously on a testosterone high, a culture that is more eastern than western in its view of sex as just another commodity to be bought and sold.
While before the breakup of the USSR supply of sex workers was limited to women at the very lower rungs of Israeli socioeconomic ladder, the opening up of the Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and of course Russia itself combined with the lack of economic opportunity in these regions to provide a nearly inexhaustible supply of sex workers to match Israel’s nearly insatiable demand for them.
Helping matters was the regrettable yet undeniable fact that most Jews who were admitted to Israel after the fall of the USSR had been somewhat or completely assimilated into their host societies. They bore slavic first and often even last names, had very little if any knowledge of Jewish history, traditions, or religious observances, and many where from mixed families or had non-Jewish spouses. This made it quite possible for girls whose names were something like Maria Ivanovna Matveeva, a completely Russian name, to be granted an Israeli passport under the law of return if she could recall having a Jewish grandmother.
The result of the supply-demand equation and the ease with which it could be satisfied was a flood of sex workers from former Soviet Union or FSU into Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Israel’s close relations with the countries of the European Union with which it enjoys visa-free travel made Israel the ideal sex-trafficking hub for supplying sex workers not only for the Israeli market, but for the much larger markets of western Europe.
Finally, the integration of the Israeli financial system into those of the West including Western Europe and the US, made Israel a prime destination for money laundering by FSU oligarchs and other wheeler dealers of varying degree of corruption.
And so it came to be that the lawlessness of the FSU states combined with the Israeli need to give refuge to ex-Soviet Jewry without first inquiring who was a genuine repatriate and who wasn’t to make Israel the perfect hub for FSU and specifically Russian and Ukrainian criminal and espionage activities. Today, three decades after the initial big bang, the acrid heartburn of those events is finally making itself felt. The West has stopped basking in the glow of its Cold War victory and is beginning to view Russia again as its primary rival. Reckless American adventurism in the Middle East has thrown the region into turmoil and allowed Russia a foothold in it, making the Russian threat to Western interests that much more severe.
All of a sudden, western technology transfer to Russia via Israel ceased being a non-event and the loss of prestige that Israel had suffered in the West by being the hub of international sex trafficking and money laundering began to take its toll on Israeli interests abroad.
While the flow of repatriates from the FSU to Israel is now but a small trickle, Israel has visa-free travel with all FSU states and that opens the way for easy entry by people who are less than genuinely interested in Israel’s wonderous archeology and top-rated beaches. That being said, this is a fully two-way street. Israel is awash with citizens who have Russian names, speak fluent Russian and can physically pass for a Russian or a Ukrainian any day of the week and twice on the Sabbath. This makes it easy for Israeli security services to spy on Russia and other FSU countries, gathering valuable intelligence that Israel can use for its own benefits or trade for other goodies with intelligence services around the globe.
This underground spy war conflated as it is with criminal elements is normally kept well hidden by both Israel and Russia since it does not accrue to the credit side of the ledger for either country, which makes its recent eruption into public view that much more surprising. As I am writing these lines, Israel and Russia are in the midst of a full-blown and very public spat involving an Israeli woman detained in Russia on drug trafficking charges and the general treatment of travelers attempting to enter both Israel and Russia.
Just yesterday, 46 Israeli arrivals in Russia including many women and children were detained by the Russian authorities and subjected to several hours of aggressive questioning before being allowed to proceed to their destinations. In response to official Israeli protest, Russian authorities claimed that Israel had refused entry to nearly six thousand Russian visitors this year alone.
Both Russia and Israel are interested in maintaining healthy and close cultural, touristic, and economic ties. It appears, however, that the volatile situation in Ukraine, which has a complicated to say the least Jewish past and present as well as in Syria where top level Western military technology is pitted against the best of the Russian one will overcome any warm feelings between the two countries. Until the situations in Ukraine and in Syria lose their poignancy expect the Russian-Israeli spat over visitors and other seemingly mundane matters to escalate potentially setting those relations all the way back to Cold War levels.
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