The prevailing language at Beit Hanassi on Tuesday afternoon was Russian, the mother tongue of nearly all the close to 300 people assembled in the main reception hall.
They were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the start of the mass aliya from the former Soviet Union, and the issuing of a stamp to mark the immigrants’ impact on Israel’s demography and on its achievements in all spheres of endeavor.
The event was initiated by Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, who made aliya from Leningrad in 1979. Before becoming a government minister, Landver was chairwoman of the National Union of Immigrants from the FSU, a member of the Ashdod City Council and a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Agency, whose chairman Natan Sharansky made aliya in 1986.
All participants in the program – both speakers and entertainers – were born in the Soviet Union. Even President Shimon Peres was born in a part of Poland that later became part of Belarus in the Soviet Union.
In reviewing the enormous contribution that immigrants from the FSU have made to Israel, Peres credited his mentor David Ben-Gurion with having predicted that this would come to pass.
Peres recalled that in the spring of 1961, he had accompanied then-prime minister Ben-Gurion to France to meet with president Charles de Gaulle.
After dinner, de Gaulle invited them to join him and prime minister Michel Debré for coffee. De Gaulle asked Ben-Gurion to reveal his most secret desire, saying that he knew Israel lacked territory and water. He asked Ben-Gurion whether he would like part of Sinai, the mountains of Moab or water from the Litani River.
Ben-Gurion said that had the question been put to him 20 or 30 years earlier, he might have presented de Gaulle with a map, but now he had only one central dream – more Jews in Israel.
“Really?” de Gaulle exclaimed. “More Jews? Are you sure? Where will they come from?”
“The whole world,” replied Ben-Gurion.
“Even from America?” asked de Gaulle.
"Yes,” said Ben-Gurion.
“They’ll relinquish their Cadillacs?” de Gaulle persisted.
“Of course,” retorted Ben-Gurion.
“And where else will they come from?”
De Gaulle was shocked. “Has anyone come from France to Israel?” he asked.
“Rothschild,” came the reply.
“He’s not French, he’s Austrian. Where else?”
“The Soviet Union.”
This time de Gaulle was totally amazed. “What, the Communists will allow them to leave? That’s simply incredible!”
Ben-Gurion regarded de Gaulle with equanimity and said: “The day will come when Communism will produce the least intelligent administration in the world and the most intelligent people in the world. When that happens, the establishment will collapse, the gates will open and the Jews will come.”
Twenty years ago, Peres said on Tuesday, Ben-Gurion’s prophecy came true.
“This was an aliya of intellectuals. We stood with our mouths gaping and rubbed our eyes in disbelief. Olim from the Soviet Union.”
These immigrants changed Israel’s capabilities, and gave Israel a new edge that compensated for the lack of territory. They greatly enhanced Israel’s scientific and technological know-how, “turning tiny Israel into a great state,” Peres continued.
They also changed the fate of the Jewish communities within the Soviet Union, said Peres. Instead of being repressed, they rose to new heights, and instead of being subject to the whims of dictators, they became the proponents of freedom in their home countries.
The immigrants strengthened Israel’s national security, demonstrated tremendous courage on the battlefield, shone in the classroom and upgraded the standards of education, he said. Towns in the periphery began to flourish after their arrival because they contributed so much to theater, art, music, journalism and many other fields, said Peres, naming some of the FSU immigrants who had brought honor and glory to Israel, among them Yevgeny Arye of the Gesher Theater, chess champion Boris Gelfand, champion pole vaulter Alex Averbuch, artistic gymnasts Alexander Shatilov and Irina Risenson as well as skating stars, medical experts, scientists and researchers.
In Israel today, said Peres, there are more Russian speakers and more Russian culture than in any other country in which the national language is not Russian.
Landver spoke in similar vein about the contribution of the immigrants and said it was unfortunate there was not enough room at Beit Hanassi to invite all the achievers.
She hoped to make up for that next month, at a mega event in Latrun to celebrate the victory of the Red Army over the Nazis. Among the 10,000 invitees will be many veterans of the Red Army, who with their courage and fighting spirit and defeat of the Nazis contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel.
She was proud that immigrants from the FSU had overcome obstacles such
as language problems, being dumped in slums and being given menial jobs
such as janitors and security guards when they were academically
qualified for much greater things.
Landver said more could be done to make them feel welcome. “I call on
Israeli society to be warmer and more embracing of immigrants from the
FSU,” she said, and also urged the media to refrain from stereotyping
and stigmatizing immigrants from the FSU.
The entertainment program in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian began with the
singing of “Blue and White,” which was the unofficial anthem of Russian
refuseniks and dissidents and the first Hebrew song that most of them