20 years in a dream

It fills me with awe to reflect on two decades of Russian immigration.

FSU olim 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
FSU olim 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When I made aliya from Moscow in 1992, I didn't realize I was part of the greatest return to Zion in the modern age. Back then, I was a 14-year-old boy who, together with his mother, faced the challenge of starting a new life in a new land with a new language. Beginning in Ramat Gan and later in Beersheba, I grew to love Israel as my people's historic birthright, the one place in the world where Jews would always have a home. My mother and I did not always have an easy time. It took years for her to find work in her profession as a Russian teacher. I struggled with Hebrew and with the social complexities of being a teenager trying to win the acceptance of his Israeli peers. During the low points, it was the sense of destiny, of my being part of the Jewish people and having a role in the Zionist dream that inspired me. AS A teenager, naturally, it was not my decision to leave my friends and everything familiar to me. I do not remember feeling any anti-Semitism back then. My friends were a mixture of Jews and non-Jews. In other words, I did not flee Russia in the hope of a better life. Therefore, when I reached Israel, I needed my adopted home to inspire me with meaningfulness. And it did not disappoint. I have come to believe that a strong, confident Jewish and Zionist identity is fundamental to the success of the massive Russian aliya. The practical challenges in absorbing such large numbers of people are legion. We have had many successes - the Russian MKs of Israel Beiteinu are but one stunning illustration. But there is much work to be done. The conversion crisis and the employment problems of many tremendously talented Russian olim are two examples that come to mind. A sense of belonging to the Zionist endeavor is what will sustain these new Israelis when the going gets tough, and is what will motivate them to contribute even more to society. This is where education comes in. It is the gateway to full absorption into Israeli society - I know from personal experience. In Russia, I had no chance to learn about Judaism in a way that would make me proud to be a Jew. When I arrived here, I started learning about my past. Without that experience, it would have been nearly impossible for me as an outsider to want to become part of this country's present and future. When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists on Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, he is not only addressing the Palestinians. He is speaking to Israelis as well -- especially olim. Just as the experience of aliya can make one more conscious of the historic significance of the rebirth of the Jewish homeland, the prosaic realities of being an immigrant can blunt one's sense of attachment. I might not have been a member of the Knesset today if my high-school history books had presented the "Nakba" as a valid way of perceiving the establishment of the State of Israel. If post-Zionism had already trickled down to the school curriculum in my time, I do not know if I would have developed a strong affection for my new home. As a teenager dealing with serious social challenges, I needed to know that they were worth it. If I had been taught to give legitimacy to the "Nakba" perception of Israel, how would I have felt about my family's struggles or having left behind friends and loved ones in Russia? THE ROLE of education, however, is not only to engender a feeling of connection to the nation's past and aspirations for the future. It is also to bring out the personal contribution of every individual. Among other things, that means according a place for our unique cultural backgrounds. Whether it is Russian literature or Amharic, it only enriches Zionism to make cultural use of our millennia-long experience in the Diaspora. Valuing the culture that olim bring to Israel lets them know that there is a reciprocal relationship between their commitment to their new homeland and its appreciation of their vast potential to contribute. It fills me with awe to reflect on 20 years of mass Russian aliya, to know that my story is but one of hundreds of thousands. Even with all the difficulties and inevitable disappointments, what has made this aliya a success and the key to even greater achievement is a sense of belonging to the Zionist dream - a dream that is only enriched by making room for the diverse cultures of olim. MK Alex Miller (Israel Beiteinu) is deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member of the Knesset Committee on Education, Culture and Sports.