The writer is
a member of the Board of Yerushalmim, a fellow of the Jewish People Policy
Institute and a contributing editor at Jewish Ideas Daily
(www.jewishideasdaily.com) where this article was first published. He is
currently writing a biography of Rav Kook.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, some one million Jews have come to
Israel from the former Soviet Union, enlarging the country’s population by 25
percent and forming the largest concentration of Russian Jews in the world. They
have left their mark in almost every walk of life and yet, as a group, they are
still something of a mystery.
Sustained inquiry into this great Russian
immigration is still in its early stages, and so a recent issue of the journal
Israel Affairs, devoted to that effort, is especially welcome. This is not the
first collection of its kind, but it significantly advances our basic
understanding of a massive and complicated movement of people – and of the
mirror they hold up to Israeli society.
ONCE UPON a time, new immigrants
to the Jewish state were “absorbed” into a homogeneous society. Today that
society is much more heterogeneous, and though “absorption” – i.e., assimilation
and amalgamation – may still figure in official terminology, it is far from the
governing idea where the Russians are concerned.
maintain their own newspapers, television stations, schools and, lately, social
media. This doesn’t mean they are living in Russian enclaves. Rather, they are
creating a socio-cultural milieu fitted to a world in which linguistic and
national borders are more easily traversed. As Maria Niznik notes in her
contribution, “a large group of [Russian] immigrant youth have become bicultural
or globalized rather than assimilated into the dominant Hebrew
Nor is it clear just how much Israel wants to “absorb” them. If
each wave of immigrants has brought its own difficulties, this one highlighted a
perennial Israeli headache: determining “who is a Jew.”
Indeed, it turned
that headache turned into a mind-bender, not to mention a vehicle for the
further consolidation of the Chief Rabbinate’s political power. Some Russian
newcomers had two Jewish parents, some had one, some had a Jewish grandparent,
and some had no Jewish ancestors at all, but were married to Jews. For the
Christians among them, according to one of the journal contributors, living in
Israel has paradoxically reinforced their religious identity.
come to what is perhaps the defining quality of the Russian immigration. The
Soviet Union forcibly reduced all groups to their ethnic identity and nothing
more. For Jews, one feature of that identity was a marked devotion to education
– traceable to the traditional Jewish passion for literacy, to their
self-positioning within the Soviet empire as Europeans (rather than Slavs) and,
in the case of their outsized contributions to physics and mathematics, to their
attraction to islands of scientific objectivity that ideology and its policemen
could not touch.
Through the mid-’90s, Russian immigrants to Israel were
disproportionately urban and well-educated.
They and their children
brought an intellectual edge and a competitive spirit somewhat out of step with
Israel’s educational system, which tends to prize the cultivation of social over
intellectual capital. This store of Western educational capital helped them
resist obvious pressures for “absorption” in ways that Mizrahi immigrants before
them (and their Ethiopian contemporaries) simply could not.
trail for these later immigrants were the Soviet dissidents and refuseniks of
the 1970s and ’80s. Yet many, and perhaps most, of the newcomers bore, if
anything, a greater resemblance to the so-called “dropouts” who, during that
earlier period of much more limited emigration, had opted for North America over
Israel. The “dropouts” gave the first indication that behind the Iron Curtain
lay not millions of Natan Sharanskys and Ida Nudels yearning for Zion, but
millions of men and women, rightly suspicious of all ideologies, whom decades of
Soviet policy had alienated from Jewish tradition and history, and who simply
sought better lives and opportunities.
This unexpected feature of Soviet
Jewry would recur with a vengeance when the great masses of post-Soviet
emigrants chose Israel because America was no longer so welcoming.
surprises were in store. Soviet Jewish dissidents and refuseniks had generally
been either democratic political activists who made common cause with non-Jewish
dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, or cultural activists focusing on the
preservation and transmission of Jewish ideas; there were also some religiously
inspired figures, like Yosef Mendelevich. None prepared the Israeli and Jewish
public for the peculiar mix of attitudes that characterizes the later
immigrants, and is personified in Israel’s current foreign minister, Avigdor
As Ze’ev Khanin documents in the Israel Affairs collection,
early attempts at creating a centrist, wide-tent Russian political party
(Yisrael Ba’aliya) foundered as the immigrants went either Left or, more often,
Right. Today, three-quarters of Israel’s Russians are either with the Likud or
with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Their rightward orientation springs
from a well-founded suspicion of state institutions, reinforced in many cases by
their having been directed on arrival to peripheral development towns. Perhaps
as a consequence, they have tended to look for strong leaders, which may explain
how many ended up voting for Ehud Barak in 1999, while his military decorations
IN PERHAPS the most interesting article in the journal,
Julia Lerner observes that Lieberman is a paradigmatically “post-Soviet” figure
of the sort increasingly familiar in the FSU: ethno-national, authoritarian,
committed less to ideology than to “the rational management of a national
collective and its elements based on ethnic and cultural hierarchies, and
accompanied by a taken-for-granted distinction between ‘civilized’ and
‘uncivilized.’” Viewed in this light, the well-advertised disdain of most
Russian immigrants for anything smacking of the East is not racism as such, but
is due rather to a Russian equivalent of the French mission civilisatrice.
Indeed, Lerner says, it is this enduring sense of themselves not as emigrants
but as bearers of a proud civilization that forms the spine of the immigrants’
There are, of course, Russian Israeli
scholars and intellectuals who are composing fascinating chapters in liberal
democracy as well as in religion, theology and mysticism. And yet, overall, this
population’s thoroughgoing secularism, coupled with the thrust of their
politics, severely tests the notion of Israel as the forge of a national Jewish
identity. Along with Russian Jewish communities in the Diaspora, the Russian
Israelis are, rather, participants in a kind of transnationalism that has shown
itself to be strikingly resilient, even as it does not run along conventionally
liberal or Jewish lines.
Not that the Jewish line is in such great shape
itself. Dialogue from the Heart of Confusion, a remarkable Hebrew book published
in 2008, chronicles a year-long series of discussions among Russian and “native
Israeli” teachers at a Tel Aviv high school that has tried to preserve immigrant
cultures in a manner frowned upon by classical Zionism.
In the course of
the dialogues it becomes clear that bringing Russian culture to native Israelis
has enabled many positive things to happen – perhaps precisely because, as one
of the book’s authors notes, today’s Israelis are nearly as estranged from
tradition and history as are their fellow Russians.
It is well known that
the Hebrew word for immigration to the Land of Israel is “aliya,” which means,
literally, ascent – elevation.
Conveying the numberless layers of
longing, imagination, passion and hope with which the Land of Israel has been
associated over the millennia, it often obscures the reality that the act of
immigration is also nearly synonymous with dislocation and disorientation,
followed over the long term by adjustment and integration. In case anyone needed
reminding, the great Russian Jewish immigration is a reminder of just how
complicated, and how unpredictable, those processes can be.