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Israel was changed dramatically a couple of decades back with a wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. Those immigrants now account for more than 15 percent of Israel's population.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports on the role they're playing today in shaping the country.

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PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This bar could easily be in Moscow. A party is in full swing. Everyone's speaking Russian. The menu offers 15 brands of vodka. Yet we're just a stone's throw from the gates of Jerusalem's Old City. Some of the world's most religiously conservative people live in this neighborhood. That doesn't deter these revelers drinking and dancing the night away. They're part of one of the more unusual migrations of modern times.

When the Cold War ended, Israel's population was just under 5 million. The Russian speakers who poured in from the former Soviet Union added roughly another million to that number.

LILY GALILI: I think it's an unbelievable phenomena by all criteria. It's like America - United States - absorbing all of France, Belgium and Netherlands, I think.

REEVES: Lily Galili is an Israeli journalist who's just written a book about this. Jewish immigrants arrived from across the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. But they're still widely referred to in Israel simply as Russians. Galili remembers that when this mass immigration began in 1989, Israel's leaders were eagerly looking forward to it for many reasons, including...

GALILI: To change demography - Arabs, Jews - they were saying, oh, this country is becoming part of the Levant. We need you with your culture and educated children, come.

REEVES: There were plenty of issues. Israel's Arab population was worried about becoming more marginalized. Some of Israel's Jewish majority also had concerns. The new arrivals qualified for citizenships under Israel's Law of Return if they had or were married to someone with one Jewish grandparent.

Rabbinical law, though, says that Jewishness passes through the maternal line. This defined more than 300,000 of the Russian-speaking immigrants as non-Jews. Galili says that was very tough for the new arrivals to accept.

GALILI: And they come here and they have the non-Jewish mother and the Jewish father. And suddenly, this motherland who's expecting them to come says, oh, I forgot to tell you, you are not Jewish here.

REEVES: There are no civil marriages in Israel. If Russian Israelis defined as non-Jews wish to marry, they must go abroad or convert. Galili says conversion is not a popular option.

GALILI: Because they find it offensive. They feel Jewish. They were raised Jewish. They have Jewish names. They once suffered from being Jewish in the Soviet Union. Now they suffer from being Russians in Israel.

REEVES: A lot of the Soviet immigrants ended up here, beside the Mediterranean in the port city of Ashdod. The influx was so great that after 1990 Ashdod more than doubled in size within a decade. It's now Israel's fifth largest city with a population of more than 200,000.

The Russians are making their mark. You only have to wander through town to see that. Many signs are in Cyrillic. There are Russian products, books, beer, pork sausages.

Stanislav Fishbein is a Ukrainian who migrated here 18 years ago. Becoming an Israeli wasn't easy, he explains speaking in Hebrew.

STANISLAV FISHBEIN: (Through Translator) In the beginning, of course, the language was a serious problem. And in addition to that, we didn't know about the tradition. I didn't know about the Judaism and about Hanukkah, for example. But now I do and I like it.

REEVES: Fishbein is in a restaurant, lunching with some clowns and acrobats from a Russian circus. He's the ringmaster. One reason the circus is in town, he says, is to cheer people up.

In November, Israel's military launched more than a week of missile and artillery strikes against the Gaza Strip to stop Palestinian militants firing rockets. Some of those rockets targeted Ashdod, which is about 15 miles from Gaza.

Twenty years ago, some of the new arrivals knew very little about the war simmering away in this region for decades. Inna Israeli says she came from St. Petersburg in 1990 so that her daughter could grow up in her own Jewish homeland. Back then, Inna wasn't even sure where Gaza was.

INNA ISRAELI: (Through Translator) We didn't know. We didn't think about that.

REEVES: Realtor Dima Esterman says he did know about the conflict when he arrived in the early '90s, but adds...

DIMA ESTERMAN: (Through Translator) When I arrived here, I thought this problem would soon be settled. I was on the left, and I thought it was possible to reach an agreement with the Arabs. But after 20 years, I no longer think an accord is possible.

REEVES: That worries Esterman. He has a young daughter who'll one day serve in the Israeli military.

ESTERMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: He's not happy with the idea of young women going to war. Yet he believes in this region there will always be wars.

ESTERMAN: (Through Translator) Only war. Here, everything is decided through war from a position of strength.

REEVES: Esterman's now right wing. That's true of most Israeli Russians. Galili, the journalist and writer, says this is partly simply to do with being immigrants.

GALILI: Immigration is a tremendous crisis, and you have to restructure your identity because it's a crisis of your identity. So out of all - the many choices, they restructured their identity around national and nationalistic symbols.

REEVES: Galili also argues that the Russians associate the left with the Soviet Communism they left behind. Their arrival changed the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Galili says they came from an empire that was once so vast and powerful that they now inherently resist the idea of conceding land.

GALILI: They look at the size of this country and they say, what, that's it? And you mean you want to give back territories? You must be crazy.

REEVES: Israeli Russians form the electoral base of the influential nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu. The party is allied with Likud, forming a bloc that's leading the polls ahead of this month's election.

One reason the Russians fascinate Galili is because their experience chimes with her own story. She moved to Israel from Poland in the '50s when she was 8. Back then, immigrants to Israel were dropped in the deep end, she says.

GALILI: You had to become an Israeli in a second: language, name, love of the country, the whole package. I had no contact with my culture, not even with my friends.

REEVES: Now it's different.

GALILI: They come. They have the Internet. They have satellite. They know everything that's going on in Russia.

REEVES: Galili thinks that's proving a major factor in defining the relationship between the Russian-speaking community and their fellow Israelis. She says the Russians are integrated into Israeli society and they're a big asset to the economy. Yet, some 20 years on, many of them still choose to remain culturally separate.

GALILI: And it applies to the younger generation as well, which never stops to amaze me. Because even people who are now, let's say, 30 and they've been here for 20 years, they grew up here, when they go home, most of their friends are still Russian-speaking.

REEVES: Back in Ashdod, a group of actors gathers in the city's Russian theater. Their playhouse is inside a bomb shelter. They include biologist Vladmir Dzyakevich.

VLADMIR DZYAKEVICH: I am 32 years old, and I came from Moscow 20 years ago.

REEVES: Dzyakevich holds strong views about this question of the Russian Israelis and their cultural identity.

DZYAKEVICH: Israel is my home and my only home. But I feel that, as a person, I'm -culturally, I'm torn inside because I feel a very deep connection with the Russian culture, with the Russian literature.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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