Insights from an Israeli Member of Knesset – A Frank Discussion with MK Ksenia Svetlova
“Israel has strayed from the route”
“I am a product of this country,” 38-year-old Knesset member Ksenia Svetlova exclaims proudly, “I have been living here for 25 years.” A Russian-born immigrant to Israel, she studied Middle Eastern History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and went on to become a respected Arab affairs correspondent for a number of international media. She speaks four languages and is currently completing a doctorate. Her decision to enter politics, as a member of the Zionist Union party, was the “intolerable” diplomatic and socioeconomic situation in the country. “The time came for me to roll up my sleeves and try to improve the situation from the inside.” Listed in 21st place, she found herself in the Knesset when the party won 24 seats in the March 2015 elections.
Svetlova’s story is an amalgamation of parcels of history of Jewish immigration to Israel. Israel comprises many immigrant communities, yet her story stands out for its remarkable achievements. She explains that her mother decided to move to Israel when she was 14, feeling “something bad would happen in Russia”. She alludes to the fact that they were Jewish. They immigrated to Israel to reach their motherland. “You always lose something when you leave a place,” she says of her native Moscow.
A leftist and a reformist, Svetlova is considered a ‘rare breed’ of a politician at a time when being in the opposition is not easy. Yet she has remained true to her instincts. She opposes religious coercion and endorses progressive denominations of Judaism. She does not subscribe to the non-egalitarian nature of Jewish orthodoxy in Israel, and believes that people should be able to choose a pluralistic form of religion. This outlook evolved after she was refused a divorce for two years by the Chief Rabbinate. In Jewish religious law, a husband must present his wife with a “get” (divorce) document to effect the divorce, a system perceived by some as favouring men and being open to abuse. “I am trying to raise awareness of how intolerant the religious parties can be towards those different from them.”
“We cannot give up. It is not easy to be in the opposition but I am an optimist. Today, we have more hate for the other than we have love for ourselves,” she says of the current climate of racism and xenophobia.
She recently returned from a J Street conference in Washington DC. “It was the highlight of my trip,” she says of the annual event organized by the US-based lobby group that seeks to end the Israeli-Arab conflict through diplomatic means. “Although in 2015 there was gloom at the J Street conference after the Zionist Union, a centre-left party, lost the elections, our position has not changed.” She stresses the shared values between her party and J Street. “I have no magic solution,” she says honestly about the ongoing conflict, “but hope comes out of despair.” She supports the two-state solution and regional discussion towards peace with all of Israel’s Arab neighbours.
Her decision to study Arabic at university stems in part from the fact that her father was an art historian and she was impressed in her youth by Islamic architecture and the art of Ancient Egypt. “How can we live in a region and not understand the language which is spoken there?” she wonders, incredulously. “We must try to learn history and not just through the eyes of the conflict.”
As a mother of six-year-old twins, she ponders what type of country she is leaving for her daughters. She hopes that they will be able to live in Israel and not be “forced to leave in 20 years’ time. We should not lose our humanity or empathy due to the conflict. We should not forget who we are.”
She continues: “Israel is in free fall. Look at who our allies are today: Saudi Arabia and Russia.” She believes Israel should draw inspiration from more democratic allies. She recognizes that no country is perfect but believes there is a lot to fix in Israel. One thing is certain, she and her regional parliamentarians have their work cut out for them.