The Russian wave

The thorough secularism of Israel’s population from the former Soviet Union, coupled with the thrust of its politics, severely tests the notion of the Jewish state as the forge of a national Jewish identity.

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 ( 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.
Russian immigrants 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 culture.”
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.
Here we 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.
Blazing the 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.
Other 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 Lieberman.
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 still glistened.
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’ socio-cultural consciousness.
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.