Ethnography and Russian Israelis in Tel Aviv: Getting Reluctant People to Speak


by Daiva Repeckaite

Guest blogger Daiva Repeckaite is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and 
Cultural Anthropology, VU University Amsterdam. Her thesis research is 
on networking practices and ideas about citizenship of Russian-speaking 
Israelis, particularly those living in poorer areas in Tel Aviv. Daiva 
has carried out her first fieldwork in Israel for eight months in 
2009-2010, and is currently in Tel Aviv to do additional interviews and 
participant observations.

Anthropologists can never agree on whether going to the field requires a sort of purification from preconceptions and theories, or should fieldwork and theoretical inquiry go in parallel. Openness is a matter of pride, and ethnographers love claiming they express their findings in their informants’ words, rather than imposed structures ‘from above’. All of this popped up in my fieldwork in an unexpected way.


My PhD research is on the models of citizenship and belonging in the new country as constructed through in-group networking practices and discourses. I carried out a large part of my fieldwork three years ago, with a still-vague idea about theories and analytical frameworks to use. Since many of my interviews happened in South Tel Aviv, a poorer part of the city, we were always surrounded by diverse immigrant groups: African asylum-seekers, Filipino guest-workers and others. Some interviewees expressed dissatisfaction with the competition for housing and jobs with non-citizens, whom they occasionally construed as the fundamental Others – as we in Anthropology like to say, with a capital O. This was when I came up with an idea that their views on asylum-seekers can be a good litmus paper for the ideas about citizenship that I wanted to explore.


Having returned from the field, I quickly realized that the topic of interethnic relations in South Tel Aviv is among the ‘sexiest’ and gets my abstracts accepted to conferences. It was not my main topic in the beginning, but the lack of elaborate and up-to-date quotes from my informants was compensated by internet forums. In one forum, users actively discussed issues in South Tel Aviv, suggesting that non-citizens bring crime and drugs[1]. Of course, in my papers and presentations I explained that any negative feelings towards other ethnic groups are merely results of the vulnerable position of these Russian-speakers as workers, and the feeling of disillusionment when they came to Israel on the basis of an ethnic privilege, but were thrown into the same pot with non-citizens in the labor market.


While I was touring conferences, the situation changed for the worse. Far-right groups rallied and attacked African immigrants in South Tel Aviv, and reported crimes by asylum-seekers were met with racist outcries (extensive coverage on the situation is available here, one example of a right-wing rally is here, videos and analysis here). Reading the news, I always wondered where my Russian-speakers were. People from ex-USSR tend not to mobilize for demonstrations. However, I expected that they would be concerned with the growing tension in the neighborhood and, judging from the narratives collected earlier, I expected that these concerns will relate to the way they see themselves as citizens. In Israel, Russian-speakers are often stereotyped as predominantly right-wing, as the main party representing them is a ‘hawk’ in relation to the Middle East conflict.


Last month I arrived in Tel Aviv again, determined to find my old informants, add new ones and explicitly ask what they thought about interethnic relations in their neighborhood. But guess what? All of them so far appeared to be doves of peace and multiculturalism. Asked about life and safety in a troubled Shapira neighborhood, one informant said, “Just like any other neighborhood.” A bar owner, asked about whether he heard about far-right demonstrations in the area and conflicts with Africans said, “Maybe in some other neighborhood, I haven’t heard anything, here everyone lives peacefully.”


The informants so far show that they do not need their lives to be explained using models of working class alienation and citizen privilege construction. Instead, they refuse to participate in the debate. At the same time, my intuition was that something might be hiding between the lines. This is not the first time people try to present themselves positively and favorably during an interview. Possibly, three years ago they were more relaxed about expressing whichever thoughts they had, but when the tensions turned violent, they do not want to be associated with the violent side.


This is a good chance to reflect on interviews as a method. Interviews are a method that helps informants feel in the center of attention, and ethnographic interviews are expected to allow them time to talk and to frame the story in their own words. On the other hand, interviewees are never purely channels of information about themselves – they consciously or subconsciously construct a story they like. This may be a story of victimhood, heroism, non-conformism, etc. So, just when an ethnographer sharpens her sword to defend the widely stereotyped group and explain its stance, the group presents itself as happy interculturalists.