Analysis: Lost in the desert

Israel's only solution to world Jewry's problems seems to be aliya.

lost in desert 63 (photo credit: )
lost in desert 63
(photo credit: )
Often, and especially with politicians, what is not said in a speech is more important than what is. The only discernible actionable statement to come out of the speeches of the three non-Russian-speaking Israeli politicians at Wednesday's Tribute to Soviet Jewry was about bringing more Russian-speaking Jews to Israel. This speaks volumes about the extent to which Israeli officialdom is blind to the broadest and most worrying trends of the Jewish world. This was noticed by the Russian-speakers in the room at the Jerusalem International Convention Center and by veterans of Jewish organizational life. This is significant because the deepest troubles afflicting world Jewry today - assimilation, lack of identification with Judaism and Israel - have hit the Russian-speakers hardest. And Israeli officialdom's only solution on hand seems to be encouraging everyone everywhere to make aliya. The Soviet Jewry struggle is usually seen for the most noticeable changes it left in its wake - the massive aliya to Israel that added 1 million citizens to the country, alongside untold energy and intelligence that continues to be one of the engines fueling Israel's economic growth; or the culture of noisy activism it launched among hundreds of thousands of American Jews, overturning the old quiet way of conducting Jewish politics, and immeasurably advancing Jewish interests, human and civil rights in America and around the world. But the struggle is also important for the gaping hole it left behind. The Jews of the Russian-speaking world, with their culture, literature and religion, were for centuries the largest single mass of Jews in the world. And they were held together in large part by external bigotry, confined in their millions to specific sections of the Russian Empire and segregated from non-Jewish society. This only ended with the Soviet dictatorship, under which a culture of anti-Semitism flourished that memorably affected every Russian Jew you can find. Then, suddenly, Soviet Jewry was freed in 1989. But unlike Jews in the free nations of the West, Soviet Jews didn't have the communal institutions or awareness for maintaining Jewish identity in a free society. Now free for almost a generation, Russian-speaking Jewry is scattered around the world and is quickly fading away from the Jewish people. According to Jewish Agency aliya-eligibility figures, what is left of Soviet Jewry in FSU countries - estimates speak of up to 700,000 - barely knows it is Jewish. The 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews of Germany are assimilating at astonishing rates, live in scattered communities across Germany and have tense political and institutional relations with the much smaller German Jewish community. In America, a population of some 700,000 Russian-speaking Jews has an assimilation rate of 80 percent, while other significant communities, such as some 50,000 each in Australia and Canada, are doing no better. In part, this assimilation demonstrates the failure by most Jewish communities, including in many parts of the United States, to embrace and integrate these Jews and their families. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, already secular from their Soviet background, are being lost because communities have failed in engaging them. While it's true that Russian-speakers in Israel are integrating more and more each year and entering the mainstream of Israeli life, in the West they are being lost. Is the answer aliya, as the Israeli politicians propose? Will 700,000 Americans, some of them in America almost two decades, come to Israel in the name of a Jewish identity they were forbidden to explore as children and did not encounter as adults? Perhaps, like Natan Sharansky, the politicians would have been better off confining their thoughts to remembering the struggle itself, or offering ideas on how to bring the disappearing Russian-speaking Diaspora, ignored by much of the organized Jewish world, back to the cultural roots it has barely known. The Jewish world outside Israel helped save Soviet Jewry from its Egyptian enslavement, but has it done much to bring that community, once freed, across the desert to Sinai?