Immigrants and Crime: The Case of FSU Immigrants to Israel

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Researcher Michael Philippov exposes stereotypical views of Russian immigrants and suggests that many Israelis are ignorant of the reality which immigrants face after their immigration. Philippov challenges the accusation that Russians brought crime to Israel and suggests that criminality is a product of Israeli society's obtuseness and indifference. He encourages Israel to consider Aliyah absorption seriously and to focus on fundamental problems such as: lack of development of the peripheral regions, insufficient investment in education, and the clear and untreated trends of school dropout.

Crime, Stereotypes, and Political Hay

Three months ago, IDI published the 2009 Israeli Democracy Index, which revealed a complex picture of the state of the community of "Russian" immigrants in Israel. The study emphasized the radical political opinions harbored by many of the immigrants, the economic hardships from which this community continues to suffer, the fact that much of this community lives in remote areas of the country, and the desire of many of this community's young people to leave the country – a desire that is increasing with time. As is the case in every country, immigrants to Israel experience a deep crisis – financial, social, and psychological. They are torn from their support structures, from family and friends, as they leave a familiar reality and are required to adjust to an alien one. They experience economic and occupational setbacks, and many are unable to regain the social standing they once enjoyed in their country of origin. When high expectations fail to materialize, the disappointment and feelings of frustration can be very difficult indeed.

Studies on this subject revealed stereotypical views of immigrants held by older, "veteran"  Israelis. Many Israelis do not comprehend the reality in which the immigrants live. They believe that the State invests more than it can afford in the immigrants and receives little in return. More than two thirds of native Israelis believe that the "Russian" immigration increased the level of crime in the country. In light of this prevalent view, it is no surprise that the shocking murder of the Usherenko family in Rishon LeZion has led to a powerful burst of public discourse on this "typical Russian" behavior.

Over the past few weeks, we have heard much about "Russian" culture: the high percentage of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel from among their ranks and their excessive consumption of alcohol, which has apparently damaged the enlightened and civilized State of Israel. Debates have increased over the Law of Return and the importance of scrutinizing applicants for immigration to Israel due to problems which arose from the Russian aliyah. As usual, there are Russian-speaking politicians who are quick to protest, making political hay of any incident and quickly proclaiming any criticism to be racism.

Implications of Periphery Life

In all the unholy mix of ignorance, racism, and populism, few address Israel's broader social values, how policy makers and society as a whole embraced its immigrant groups, and whether there is a correlation between these experiences and criminal behavior.

The true picture is complex and worrisome. On the one hand, despite difficulties in the assimilation process, immigrants who arrived in Israel as adults are involved in crime less than native Israelis – both Jews and Arabs (see the police data presented by Lily Galili in Haaretz, 8 Nov. 2009). The percentage of adult immigrants among Israeli criminals is lower than their share of the population, and this holds true for all types of offenses.

On the other hand, there is an immense gap between the rosy picture painted by Russian speaking politicians and the reality on the ground. According to the data available to us, the ratio of involvement in crime among minors born in the former Soviet Union is high compared to their share of the total population. A high percentage of children born in the former Soviet Union are dropping out of school, committing crimes, and closing themselves off socially. A previous study by the Knesset's Research and Information Center states unequivocally that there is a direct correlation between the school dropout rates of students from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and the crime rate in this group. According to one study conducted at Haifa University, the collapse of the family and the social and educational environment of the immigrant children in Israel sow juvenile delinquency. The Child Safety Council also presents a similar picture and notes a higher dropout rate of immigrant children in comparison with the more veteran population. It should be emphasized that this was not the case in the early 1990's, when immigrant youth excelled in school to a far greater extent. The dropout phenomenon has been increasing over the years.

When examining the statistical data, it is important to stress that we are discussing youngsters who have grown up in Israel, or were even born here, and who have been raised within its education system. It is high time that the Israeli public take note of the significance and implications of life in the periphery, of the absence of symmetry between jobs held and education and/or training, and of the language problems still rampant after 20 years of Israeli citizenship.

"Aliyah absorption" must be more than a pretty slogan

The future appears very dim for children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who do not grow up in middle class Jewish-Russian families that hold education to be a supreme value. Many sobering questions remain as to what will become of immigrant children from low income families, in neglected peripheral regions, whose parents are themselves struggling to integrate into a new society.

It appears that Israeli society does not understand the "Russian" immigration at all. We do not always know the right questions to ask and, therefore, we cannot identify and deal with the true problems. It is unfortunate that the considerable effort made to encourage immigration, which has nearly come to a complete halt in recent years, has taken precedence over dealing with the fundamental problems that plague Israeli society. In a way, the "Russian" immigration has served to expose these societal problems: the lack of development of the peripheral regions, the insufficient investment in education, the clear and untreated trends of school dropout, and so on. In a small country like Israel, any social process evolves rapidly. Therefore, if we do not begin to take concrete action to effectively deal with these issues, a generation of young Russian immigrants, who are growing up in poor families in the periphery, will undoubtedly begin to alter crime statistics, which are currently dominated by other segments of the population. Even then, however, it will be wrong to say that the "Russians" brought crime to Israel, because this criminality will be a product of Israeli society's obtuseness and indifference.

Decision makers must realize that an "aliya-absorbing state" is not merely a pretty slogan that appears in school books and Jewish Agency pamphlets. The fundamental problems of the integration and assimilation process of immigrants in peripheral areas must be clearly identified and addressed – not just in the initial period following their arrival, but for many years after. Greater attention paid to the fate of our Russian immigrants will not only benefit them, but will better Israeli society as a whole.