An immigration like no other

Never before, or since, have so many been absorbed by so few with such rapidity and relative success.

Natan Sharansky in talks merging his Yisrael B’Aliyah party with the Likud of then prime minister, the late Ariel Sharon, in 2003. (photo credit: GILI COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS)
Natan Sharansky in talks merging his Yisrael B’Aliyah party with the Likud of then prime minister, the late Ariel Sharon, in 2003.
Having arrived in Moscow for a film festival in the early 1960s, one of its Israeli guests climbed the stage in a Moscow park and sang as planned several Hebrew and Yiddish songs, in between numbers by leading Soviet singers.
The audience, thousands, responded with thunderous applause peppered with loud bravos. “No doubt there were many Jews among them,” wrote Arieh “Lova” Eliav in the closing paragraphs of his 1965 Hebrew bestseller, Between the Hammer and the Sickle: Personal Experiences among the Jews in the Soviet Union.
After the concert ended, dozens crowded around the Israeli performer, some requesting her autograph, others handing flowers. And then, when all had dispersed and the singer was leaving, a young man caught with her, grabbed her hand, and uttered several sentences in Russian of which she understood not a word.
Silence fell between the two Jews when the Russian said “ya Israil!” meaning “I am Israel!” by which the Israeli was not sure whether the man was telling her what name his parents gave him, or where his heart was, or both. And a moment later, when the Russian understood the encounter must end, he pressed the woman’s hand and uttered the only Hebrew words he could retrieve from the bottom of his memory: “Yom Kippur! Yom Kippur!” he said, to which the Israeli, choking, responded in kind: “Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur.”
Exotic though this tale now sounds, it happened but two generations ago, and a mere one generation before a million Soviet Jews – including, in all likelihood, that man – arrived in the Jewish state against all forecasts, and made it there against all odds.
ELIAV HAD SPEN T several years in Moscow as an Israeli diplomat tasked with clandestinely mapping, contacting, and encouraging Soviet Jewry. Having traveled from the doorstep of Scandinavia to the trans-Siberian frontier, his reports were stirring.
In Samarkand’s carpet market, for instance, he cautiously approached a frail, “Jewish-looking” peddler who responded faintly to the Israeli’s Yiddish greeting and was stunned to hear him declare “I come from the Land of Israel,” before reporting he had recently emerged from 12 years in a gulag after previously losing two sons in the war.
In Moscow, the Israeli diplomat saw a simple Jew arrive at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day reception, where the man improvised a minyan and began praying Maariv while Soviet diplomats, functionaries, and decorated generals watched in transfixion.
And in Tbilisi, reported Eliav, a story circulated about a synagogue that was about to be razed by Stalin’s goons when the local Jews stood between the bulldozers and their shrine, until the elephantine vehicles left the scene and never returned.
Exposing the system’s obstruction of Jews’ advancement in academia, politics, and the military; joining audiences in sporadic Yiddish singers’ concerts; and showing how memorials in cemeteries were the last surviving venue of regular Jewish gatherings – the Iron Curtain emerged as the impassable river Sambatyon beyond which, according to Jewish tradition, lurked the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Liaising with the Jews could not be an Israeli diplomat’s formal assignment in those distant days; that is why the book was published under a pseudonym, Ben- Ami, or “son of my people.” The Soviets would not approve a function, or even just a nominal title, like Consul for Jewish Affairs, because they claimed the Jews were happy Soviet citizens who had voluntarily parted with their tribe and its heritage. As they saw it, there were no Jewish affairs in their land, just like there were no social classes there.
Israel, and the rest of world Jewry, of course disagreed. Not only was there a Jewish affair in the USSR, it was a very bad affair, a tragedy that in terms of its anti-Jewish nefariousness and Jewish helplessness was second only to the Holocaust.
Watching Soviet Jewry whither under an omnipotent empire’s restrictions of emigration, obstruction of social mobility, banning of Jewish education, and disruption of religious observance – Jews elsewhere read accounts from there grimly; rather than be seen as seeds of a happy future, they were seen as epitaphs on a buried Jewish past.
What began with a czarist prohibition of the Jews’ entry now became a communist prohibition of the Jews’ departure. It was a paradox that every Jew lamented, and none could affect.
And all this was before the Six Day War, when the Jewish state and the Soviet Union still had normal diplomatic relations.
Things became even worse following the war, as Israel defeated Moscow’s allies and Soviet hostility to the Jews and their state multiplied.
So disillusioned had Israelis become that as late as 1987, with Mikhail Gorbachev already in power, the Foreign Ministry’s chief expert on the USSR, ambassador Harry Knei-Tal, said in a lecture that Soviet Jewry would not be released, that even if it had been freed the number of the emigrants would prove small, and of those only a minority would choose to land in Israel.
Hardly three years later, all parts of this pessimism proved unfounded.
THE SUDDEN DI SCHARGE of S oviet Jewry a quarter-of-a-century ago resembled in many ways the biblical Exodus, but in one way it was its antithesis: there was no Sinai to brave. What the biblical Israelites took 40 years to cross, this immigration overflew in three hours.
Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport in droves, week after week, month after month, for the better part of a decade, the “Russian Immigration” now seemed to come in such quantities and at such a pace that some feared the Jewish state might crumble under its weight.
The influx followed a protracted, worldwide struggle, launched on May Day 1964, when a thousand Jewish students emerged outside the Soviet mission to the UN and demanded freedom of religion for Soviet Jewry. What gradually became a global movement involving thousands who continuously rallied and picketed in five continents, became such a fixture of Jewish activity that no one expected, much less prepared for, its swift success.
Now, faced with the resurging influxes, some in the Israeli government recommended the establishment of tent cities and the institution of busy work, lest thousands remain roofless and jobless while winter descended on the Jewish state.
That was how the great immigrations of the 1950s had been absorbed, and it was the only analogy that the unfolding situation could bring to Israeli minds. But the analogy was wrong.
The post-Soviet immigration was unlike any of the Zionist enterprise’s previous or subsequent immigrations. Unlike the First Immigration, the one that began in 1882, this one’s members were very secular; unlike the two that followed it, which brought here die-hard socialists, these immigrants loathed socialism; and unlike the first mass-immigration, that of the 1930s, this one lacked money.
They lacked capital, and they also had few children, but they had education, and they were economically motivated like no other immigration Israel had ever absorbed.
It was against this backdrop that the government of Yitzhak Shamir adopted a policy that was pretty much the inversion of the policy with which Israel absorbed the previous mass immigration.
Back in the 1950s, the government trucked new immigrants on roads it paved to new cities it built where it housed them in housing projects it constructed and put them to work in labor-intensive factories it financed. This massive effort, which involved thousands of bureaucrats and billions in taxpayer funds – was a success in the short term. In the longer term, however, it produced an economic mess and a social tragedy.
Economically, the subsidized low-tech factories could not compete with low labor costs in other emerging economies. And socially, the remote towns’ inhabitants gradually came to feel disenfranchised.
Recalling this precedent, the government decided to let the markets absorb the multitudes.
This revolutionary attitude was helped by political coincidence, as the migratory dam burst open in 1990, just when the Likud-Labor coalition broke up while 185,237 immigrants landed in Israel. This political confluence was further dramatized with a US decision the previous year to limit its own absorption of Soviet immigrants, fearing that, unlike Israel, it would have to absorb unpredictable numbers of non-Jewish immigrants as well.
That is how the gathering immigration wave was greeted by a government that believed in capitalism. The result was a sharp tilt away from managed absorption toward self-help.
Shamir’s new government came into power in June, and by July it introduced a policy whereby a family of three received upon landing in Israel, along with their new Israeli passports, the shekel equivalent of $2,500, which was immediately deposited in newly opened back accounts. An additional $7,500 was paid in several subsequent monthly installments. In addition, there was a free, six-month Hebrew course as well as tax breaks on durable goods, free health insurance, and some mortgage discounts.
At the same time, the government launched a construction drive, whereby then-housing minister Ariel Sharon oversaw the building of 144,000 new apartments within half-a-decade. For the short term, dozens of mobile-home parks were scattered across the country.
There were enormous obstacles, including Sharon’s omissions of administrative licensing procedures and disregard for contracting prerequisites, in addition to a heavy budgetary burden; the absorption budget swelled fivefold to $1.4 billion and the housing budget bypassed the education budget as the second-largest national expense, most of which was used for housing assistance and to provide infrastructure for privately built housing projects.
Unlike previous policies, no one now looked into which part of the country new immigrants were headed, what they intended to do, or how well they progressed in their Hebrew studies, before a bureaucrat would grant them with this or that aid.
Instead, the working assumption was that this immigration, once given an opportunity, would storm the labor and housing markets.
That is indeed what happened. The socalled “Russian Immigration” had been oppressed not only nationally and socially, but also economically. Now that they were suddenly citizens of the West, often well-educated, and seldom burdened with more than a lone child, the immigrants made few demands and ventured out to seek work.
The problems were immense.
The modest Galilean town of Upper Nazareth, for instance, was joined by 10,000 immigrants by 1992, but half of them were jobless. Such was, at the time, the new immigration’s overall employment rate, and among the lucky who did find jobs, only three in five were working in their professions and at positions on par with their backgrounds.
The markets’ dynamics, whereby many immigrants initially shared apartments because they could not afford rents, not to mention mortgages – sent many to the outlying towns where housing was much cheaper. The result was a drastic social rearrangement, whereby the new immigrants gradually comprised up to half the population in towns like Beit Shemesh outside Jerusalem, Kiryat Shmona off the Lebanese border, or Dimona in the South.
It was an uneasy transition, whereby the previous mass immigration’s predominantly traditional and Middle Eastern population was suddenly sharing space with a largely European and secular population.
In the 90s this created a local crisis in Beit Shemesh when new immigrants opened a non-kosher deli, in a town where the availability of such food was previously unthinkable.
In what would be an emblem of the new immigration’s pragmatism, an arrangement soon evolved whereby the store opened, but in an industrial area.
There could be no equivalent solutions concerning the problems the immigrants met in the labor market.
With a disproportionate share of professionals – of the first 400,000 immigrants, more than 3 percent were doctors, and more than half of those failed the Israeli licensing exams – many engineers, scientists, managers, musicians, surgeons and technicians could not find work in their professions. Thousands took menial jobs.
Then again, many soon found ways back to their professional origins, if even in less prominent positions. Engineers became technicians, doctors became paramedics, and pianists became music teachers.
It wasn’t ideal. Indeed, professional frustration fueled the emergence of immigrant parties, first Natan Sharansky’s, then Avigdor Liberman’s, two political experiments whose success, while reflecting the new immigration’s resilience, also reflected its absorption’s flaws. Even so, while improvised and imperfect, the immigrants’ occupational absorption was sufficiently successful for hardly any of them to return home.
This was besides the fact that many of them opened businesses and quickly reached a level of affluence of which they could not dream back where they came from. Other immigrants joined the hi-tech sector, whose inherent adventurism suited them just right.
At the same time, some 200,000 of the immigrants remain under-absorbed, because the Chief Rabbinate sees them as insufficiently Jewish, compelling them either to not marry Jews or to marry them abroad.
It is the last aspect of an otherwise well-absorbed immigration that remains sorely unsolved. Then again, a growing number of immigrants are being converted by modern-Orthodox rabbis, often through the IDF. Judging by the rest of this absorption process’s dynamics, this population’s Jewishness will be questioned by no one within a generation.
As opposed to the rabbinate, the new immigrants’ most efficient absorber has been the IDF. In what clearly reflected a healthy immigrant reflex, the immigrants-children’s share in combat units was higher than the veteran population’s, as the immigrants understood that is the place where one becomes a true Israeli. Between attending Israeli schools and serving in the IDF, the immigrants’ children became total Israelis, with unaccented Hebrew.
TWEN TY-FIVE YEAR S ON, the Russian immigration’s next generation is mostly deep in the middle class, educated, employed, and housed, if even no more perfectly than veteran Israelis their age.
Pessimism proved unwarranted from the onset, when an improbable consumerist boom triggered by the new immigrants fueled the Israeli retail sector, shortly before their entrepreneurial drive helped fuel Israel’s hi-tech revolution.
It was, in all, a singular immigration, not only in terms of Israeli history, but in terms of any immigration; for never before or since have so many been absorbed by so few with such rapidity and relative success.
Back in 1928, then Moscow-based Hebrew theater troupe Habima arrived in Jaffa as part of a world tour. After learning of the growing risks where Stalin’s rule was taking root and Jewish culture faced his approaching assault – the actors decided to stay in young Tel Aviv.
Having become Israel’s national theater in 1958, in January 1990 Habima returned to Moscow for the first time since its abrupt departure. On its return leg, one month before the USSR’s dissolution, the theater brought on its plane 125 immigrants.
Russian Jewry’s oppression had thus ended, and their exodus had begun.