Global Agenda: The Russians have come

For most of the developed world, immigration is the biggest issue on the public policy agenda.

immigrants 88 (photo credit: )
immigrants 88
(photo credit: )
For most of the developed world, immigration is the biggest issue on the public policy agenda. In the US, the question of how to deal with the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico is now the hottest topic in Washington. In Europe, virtually every country, from Ireland to Lithuania, is grappling with the range of issues deriving from the mega-issue of immigration - social, cultural, demographic, economic, fiscal, etc. Only Japan is aloof from the debate, its ingrained xenophobia so fierce that it would rather grow old and feeble in ethnic and cultural isolation, than let in foreigners in meaningful numbers. For economists, there is very little to debate because there is overwhelming evidence that immigration is good for the recipient economy, good for the immigrants and - overall - good for the native population. This is true in all places and at all times, from 17th century England, to 19th century America to 20th century Hong Kong and Singapore. The Israeli experience provides one of the best case studies of immigration and how it drives economic growth. This has been true for the last 125 years, since the First Aliyah in the early 1880s began the Zionist enterprise - although earlier waves of Jewish immigration, stretching back to the rise of Safed in the 16th century, tell the same story as the later ones. Whether the immigrants were from Eastern Europe (as in the 1880s, 1900s and again in the 1990s), or Central Europe (as in the 1930s) or from the Middle East or North Africa and whether they came with money or just the clothes they wore, in every case, they made a positive contribution to the economy. The economic history of this country, under the Turks, the British and after the creation of the State of Israel, is primarily a reflection of the ebb and flow of waves of immigration. However, as Europeans and, now, Americans will tell you, there is more to immigration than economics. Money is not everything. Even if you can convince us that immigration doesn't mean "they" take "our" jobs - the standard complaint of the natives against the immigrants - there is still the cultural issue that "they" are not like "us." When wrapped in a demographic overlay - "they" have more children than "us" and will eventually take over - the issue moves from being a problem to being an existential threat. Of course, there is nothing new about this. Chapter One of the Book of Exodus (the one by Moses, not Leon Uris) shows that nothing has changed on this score over the millennia. Israel's big advantage over the US, Australia and other immigration-oriented countries is that its pro-immigration stance is not rooted in perceived economic advantage or need, but in ideological/religious/ethnic imperatives. The result is that the immigrants gain access to the wider society much quicker than in other countries. Even so, the professional literature suggests that immigrants require at least 10-15 years to orientate and culturally acclimatize before they - usually their children - begin to make their mark on their host country. It's always nice to see theory working in practice and it's happened again this week. In the same way as the 1977 elections that brought the Likud to power marked the emergence of the North African immigration of 15-20 years earlier as the dominant element in Israeli society, so the 2006 elections have marked the emergence of the Russian immigration of 1989-1996 as the coming force. The 1977 upheaval marked the beginning of the period of North African ascendancy, which was further enhanced by the rise of Shas in the 1980s, reaching its apogee in the 1990s. The Russian period will be at least as long and their dominance is likely to be more marked. The undisguised horror apparent in their reaction to the success of Avigdor Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu on the part of the Ashkenazi monied class (Kadima), the Sephardi unmonied class (Shas) and the amalgam of fading power bastions gathered under the Labor banner, will drive these groups into alliance in the coalition to be formed over the coming weeks. But they all know that this is a regard action, to delay the inevitable as long as possible. Whether it will be Lieberman or one of the currently unknown persona on his list, or other leaders soon to emerge from the Russian immigrant population, the process is underway. Rhetoric is not Lieberman's strong point, but when the time comes, someone should show him - or whomever it will be - the bit of JFK's inaugural address when he said "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation." [email protected]