This year marks the 25th anniversary of a mass immigration wave that would ultimately bring more than one million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Its impact on Israeli society has been nothing short of profound.
By Judy Maltz
Among the immigrants who flooded Israel’s shores after the Iron Curtain fell – and who today account for nearly one out of every five Jews in the country – were doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers, ballerinas, violinists, athletic trainers, writers, poets, hairdressers, masseuses, factory workers and farmers.
By most accounts, this Russian aliyah – as it has come to be known, even though the majority of the immigrants to Israel did not come from Russia proper – is a remarkable success story.
“Within a few years, Israel had to absorb about 20 percent of its population,” notes former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who became the best-known symbol of the international human-rights movement that fought to bring these immigrants here. “There is no other example in the world of such a successful integration.”
But Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist and co-author of “The Million that Changed the Middle East,” a book that explores the effects of this immigration wave, insists that “integration” is the wrong term.
“They never for a second were looking for integration,” she says. “They were looking for leadership. It’s in their nature. It’s in their genes. It’s in their education. And they said it openly – we are here not just to integrate, we don’t necessarily admire your culture, we don’t necessarily admire the country, but we know how to improve it, and we are out to make it better and we know how. It’s a very different concept of immigration, which skips the stage of integration and goes straight to leadership.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that they would do well, considering all the brainpower, culture, discipline and drive these new immigrants brought along with them. But that is easy enough to say in hindsight.
In the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers descended on the country – many of them in the midst of the first Gulf War, when they were greeted at the airport with cardboard boxes containing gas masks – the local housing and job markets were stretched beyond capacity.
Makeshift trailer parks were set up overnight by the Israeli government around the country to provide the masses of new immigrants with temporary shelter. For lack of employment opportunities commensurate with their skills, many doctors, scientists, musicians and artists had no choice but to sweep streets, take jobs as security guards or man supermarket cash registers.
Twenty-five years later, all that has changed. Today, Russian speakers are disproportionately represented among the country’s politicians, doctors, high-tech engineers and computer scientists, math and science educators, and Olympic contenders. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is a Russian-speaker, as are Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and coalition Chairman Zeev Elkin. One of Israel’s most popular singers today, Marina Maximilian, is Ukrainian-born, and the gymnast Alex Shatilov, a two-time Israeli Athlete of the Year, was born in Uzbekistan.
More often than not, Israeli children are getting their after-school training and lessons in gymnastics, dance, music and other activities from Russian-speaking instructors. Mofet, an enrichment program created by Russian-speaking immigrants to help their children catch up in school, proved such a success story that it has become popular among native-born Israelis as well. And Gesher, the flagship theater company established by Russian immigrants, is today one of Israel’s leading cultural exports.
Standing in line these days at the ticket counter of the Israel Philharmonic or the Israeli Opera, an observer can hardly avoid the background chatter in Russian. “They have brought to Israel not only the musicians but also the audiences,” notes Chaim Chesler, the former executive director of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry who served as head of the Jewish Agency delegation in the former Soviet Union at the height of the immigration wave.
Considering how expensive tickets to such performances are, their presence among these audiences speaks volumes about how far they’ve come.
To be sure, they’ve also affected Israeli society in less desirable ways. Alcoholism has been cited as a pressing social problem in Israel since their arrival. So has organized crime, with the so-called Russian mafia discovering in Israel a fertile base for money laundering. Israel’s latest corruption scandal, involving allegations of bribe-taking in the predominantly Russian-speaking Yisrael Beiteinu party, has done little to improve the already tarnished image of a fair number of the community’s politicos.
And not all have felt welcome in Israel. Roughly 300,000 of the Russian speakers who have immigrated to Israel since 1990 are not defined as Jewish according to religious law. They were allowed to come to Israel under the Law of Return, which provides citizenship not only to Jews defined as such by religious law (as the offspring of Jewish mothers) but also to children of Jewish fathers, individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent or spouses of Jews.
Since they are not considered Jewish by religious law, however, they are not permitted to marry in Israel, nor can they be buried among Jews. As a result, many have come to feel like outcasts in their newly adopted homeland. It is not surprising that this subgroup of immigrants, whose Jewish credentials have been called into question by the establishment, has come to represent a disproportionately large share – about one-third – of the Israelis emigrating from the country in recent years.
The Battle Cry
For a generation of Diaspora Jews who came of age in the in the 1970s and 1980s, this was the battle cry. The movement to free Soviet Jewry swept them up like no other cause. The undisputed heroes of this generation were the likes of Natan (then Anatoly) Sharansky, Josef Mendelevich, Ida Nudel and Yosef Begun – their Jewish brothers and sisters who had spent years behind bars for defying the communist regime. As Jewish dissidents, they were also fighting for their right to leave the Soviet Union and immigrate to Israel.
The major advocacy groups operating in the United States were the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the Union of Councils on Soviet Jewry. Another group active internationally was the London-based Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, also known as “The 35s.”
“For American Jews in particular, and to some extent British and Canadian Jews, the movement was propelled in some part by a feeling of guilt – justified or not – for not having done more to assist European Jews before and during the Holocaust,” explains Zvi Gitelman, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan and expert on Soviet Jewry. It received further impetus, he notes, from the civil-rights movement in the United States, which was enjoying its heyday then and naturally embraced the cause.
“Israel as a cause for Jews and some non-Jews had been declining in appeal,” says Gitelman. “Given Israeli policies after 1967 and differences in opinion about those policies among Diaspora Jews, Israel was no longer as much of a uniting force as it had been previously. Soviet Jewry, on the other hand, represented a cause behind which a broader spectrum of people could rally – non-Jews because it was expressed as a human-rights issue, liberals because it was a human-rights issue and an issue concerning freedom of immigration and freedom of expression, political conservatives, especially in the U.S., because it was directly and sometimes indirectly critical of the so-called evil empire – i.e., the Soviet Union. In that way, the Soviet Jewry movement permitted otherwise strange bedfellows to join together and there was hardly anyone who could oppose it.”
Among the early leaders of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was Rabbi Avi Weiss, a prominent figure today in modern Orthodoxy who serves as the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. “There’s a saying that more than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews. I feel very strongly that more than what Western Jews did for Jews behind the Iron Curtain, I believe that the Jews in the Soviet Union rekindled a sense of Jewish identity, Jewish passion and Jewish commitment here in the Diaspora,” he says. “We were the junior partners to the real heroes. Soviet Jews really sent a very powerful message to Jews in the Diaspora that if under those circumstance they could identify themselves as Jews, then it was really a tremendous inspiration to Jews here in the West to do the same.”
“In hindsight,” adds Weiss, whose book “Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist Rabbi” is scheduled for publication in March, “I think there’s an understanding that this was an extraordinary grass-roots movement.”
Although Jews across the globe rallied around the cause, there was one key point of contention among them: Should the Soviet Jews be allowed free choice in deciding where they go when they leave or should their destination be restricted to Israel? Needless to say, many Israeli government leaders favored the latter.
As Gitelman notes, for many years, the U.S. government categorized Soviet émigrés as political refugees who were not included in the usual quotas, thereby facilitating their move to America. During that period, about 90 percent of all the Soviet Jewish émigrés went to the United States. But all that changed in October 1989, when U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese announced a change in policy that would dramatically reduce the number of Soviet dissidents who could immigrate to America. “It was then that the proportion flipped, and 90 percent ended up coming to Israel,” says Gitelman. “There’s a widespread suspicion that this was part of a deal between the U.S. and Israel, under which Israel would go, albeit kicking and screaming, to the Madrid conference where they would talk to the Palestinians. In return, the U.S. would shut off the immigration channel and practically force Soviet émigrés to the one country that would accept them unquestionably and unequivocally.”
Mendelevich was arrested in 1970 when together with a group of dissidents he tried to hijack a Russian plane to Israel. He spent the next 11 years in prison. Only in 1978, he recalls, when Sharansky joined him in prison, did he become aware of the huge international movement outside fighting for their freedom. “We had a chance to talk through the toilet, so I asked him what was going on and whether we are supported, and he told me the whole story,” recounts Mendelevich, who teaches Talmud and philosophy in Jerusalem today. “So I was surprised and pleased.”
How the Russians Changed Israel
The million or so Russian speakers who immigrated to Israel in the past 25 years have left their biggest mark on the country’s political landscape. With a single deviation in 1992, when they helped bring the Labor Party to power, they have overwhelmingly voted for right-wing parties.
“They have undoubtedly contributed to the gradual shifting of the political weight to the center-right,” notes Professor Larissa Remennick from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University. “First of all, coming from the Soviet Union, they have a natural dislike for any political agenda that is socialist or social democratic. Beyond that, it’s important to remember that these Russian-speaking Jews came from a geopolitical superpower with a huge amount of territory, so for many of them, handing over land for peace seems like a madness, especially because Israel is a tiny country as it is. They construe the right-wing narrative in Israel as patriotic, whereas the left wing is seen as defeatist.”
According to the journalist and author Galili, many Russian immigrants’ gravitation toward right-wing parties has a more complex explanation. “They brought with them in their personal and collective baggage traumas acquired in the Soviet system – suspicion, mistrust, fear, anxieties – and they planted them in the Israeli soil full of local traumas. Russian imperial attitudes combined immediately with basic Israeli nationalism and they thrived together, so that had a profound impact on Israeli politics,” she says.
Having come from a society where for many years religious practice was banned, these Russian-speaking immigrants, as opposed to their counterparts from the West, came to Israel with very little knowledge of their Jewish roots. So as they pushed Israel more to the right, they also made it a more secular society. Among their most popular contributions to Israeli life – at least from the perspective of non-believing Jews – have been an array of butcher shops around the country that sell pork and other non-kosher meat as well as their own network of supermarkets that stay open on the Sabbath.
They have also legitimized Christmas, at least in a secular sense. As Galili notes: “If you go out this time of year, you see a lot of Christmas trees. These Christmas trees have nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity. They are part of the Russian culture of celebrating the New Year. When they first came, they were forced to hide these trees because of how Israelis reacted. Over time, Israelis learned it has nothing to do with Christianity. It’s part of a very happy tradition that the Russians brought with them.”
Their impact on Israeli culture, especially high culture, has also been profound. Not only did this aliyah bring with it huge numbers of musicians, actors and artists, says Remennick, but also a passion for activities like chess, gymnastics and ballroom dancing that has caught on among many native-born Israelis as well. The Gesher theater company, their flagship project, is perhaps the best example of how culture can serve as a bridge between Russian-speaking and native-born Israelis, she says.
Lena Kreindlin, the managing director of Gesher, notes that today half the actors in the theater company, which she helped found, are Israeli-born. “We are very proud of this,” she says, “because that was the dream of the Zionists many years ago, that people would come here and bring what they have, mix it with what is already here, and get something new.”
The birth of “Startup Nation” coincided with the start of the huge immigration wave, and for good reason. Many of the new Russian-speaking immigrants were engineers and scientists whose skills helped ignite Israel’s high-tech revolution. “Somewhere between 55 and 60 percent of the new immigrants came with a post-secondary education – much higher than the existing population in Israel,” notes Remennick. “It was basically a free gift because the investment in them was made elsewhere.”
She says, though, that much of this human capital was wasted because the Israeli economy, at least initially, was unable to provide many of the immigrants with jobs that suited their qualifications.
And How Israel Changed Them
Unlike many other immigrant groups, the Russian speakers did not aspire to blend into the Israeli melting pot. “This aliyah came with a lot of energy, a lot of knowledge, a lot of ambition, a lot of desire to succeed,” notes Sharansky, who serves today as chairman of The Jewish Agency after a short-lived political career. “They did have to accept a lot, to learn a lot, to become Israelis, but they insisted that they know very well what kind of system of education they want, what kind of theater, what kind of programs on TV. They insisted that the establishment accept this, and if not, they would create their own parallel system. This never before happened in Israel, and I believe that in the end it played a very positive role because it changed the paternalistic approach to aliyah.”
This desire to do things their own way and serve their own interests has been particularly evident in the political sphere. In the 1992 election, about four different parties vied for the votes of these immigrants, but none succeeded in crossing the threshold to get into the Knesset. Then in 1996, Sharansky created the Yisrael b’Aliyah party, which became a force to contend with before it eventually fused with the ruling Likud. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu succeeded it as the next big so-called Russian party.
But the more time these immigrants spend in Israel, notes Remennick, the more Israeli they become and the less inclined they are to cast their votes with such narrowly focused parties.
“These parties are gradually fading out, with more and more Russian speakers voting like Israelis for the mainstream parties,” she says.
If the Russian speakers who arrived in the early 1990s considered themselves first Russians and then Israelis, notes Sharansky, the reverse is true for their children.
A key indication that they have become more Israeli, he says, is that they are having larger families: “In the former Soviet Union, one or two children were the norm. Now they’re having three or four.”
Life in Israel has also reshaped their priorities, Galili notes. “Many of them brought to Israel money they intended to use for burial, but they ended up using that money here for trips abroad and gifts for their grandchildren.”
Life in Israel has also had a profoundly positive effect on their longevity. Galili cites statistics that show that Russian speakers in Israel live on average 10 years longer than they did in the old country. “It’s a combination of better diet, better climate, and especially better medical care,” she explains.
Meanwhile, in the Diaspora
Today, Israel is by far the biggest center of Russian-speaking Jews in the world, but certainly not the only one. Large communities of Russian-speaking Jews exist today in New York, Toronto, Berlin and Australia – not to mention an estimated 900,000 left behind in the former Soviet Union, mainly in Russia and Ukraine. Globally, there are estimated to be anywhere from 3 million to 3.5 million Russian-speaking Jews.
Not only in Israel have they done well for themselves. The Russian-speaking Jewish community in the United States, for example, boasts such luminaries as Google co-founder Sergey Brin, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, celebrity novelist Gary Shteyngart and actress Mila Kunis.
Aside from speaking a common language, these Russian-speaking Jews share a strong commitment to preserving their heritage. That may explain why Limmud, the organization that sponsors Jewish learning and cultural events around the world, had to set up a special satellite that caters exclusively to Russian speakers. “You have so many Russian-speaking Jews in New York, but when Limmud New York held an event in the Catskills, none of them came,” recounts Chesler, the founder and executive director of Limmud. “Our first Limmud FSU event, though, was mobbed. The thing is that they prefer to be in their comfort zone among their own.”
Since Limmud FSU was established in 2006, more than 30,000 Russian speakers around the world have participated in its events, reports Chesler.
The Russian-speaking Diaspora communities also share a strong commitment to Israel and tend to be less critical of the country than their non-Russian-speaking counterparts in the West.
“They understand that a strong Israel is the base for their security and the Jewish identity in the Diaspora, and that’s the reason they’re so Zionist and so pro-Israel,” says Alex Selsky, CEO of the World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry, who immigrated to Israel at the age of 16. “I truly believe we must do everything to strengthen their influence in the Jewish institutions in the Diaspora because these people represent the future leaders of the pro-Israel advocacy movement abroad.”