Israel should become a center of Russian Jewish culture – again

A combination anti-Semitism, the tightening of political screws and a likely economic crisis could push a substantial number of Russian Jews to emigrate.

JEWISH IMMIGRANTS from the former Soviet Union 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
JEWISH IMMIGRANTS from the former Soviet Union 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Jews tend to be different from other immigrants. Mass immigration usually involves the poor and the downtrodden, while the wealthy and the successful tend to stay put in. Among the Jews, however, the prominent, the well-established, the better educated and the well-off are often forced to flee along with everyone else.
When Emma Lazarus wrote her poem carved into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty about “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” and “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” she very likely had in mind the Russian Jews who then, in 1883, had started in growing numbers to flee from a wave of pogroms sweeping through the western and southern provinces of the Empire following the assassination of Czar Alexander II.
But along with those “huddled masses” there came artists and musicians of the Yiddish theater, which had just been banned in Russia, making Second Avenue on New York’s Lower East Side the center of Yiddish culture and feeding Broadway and Hollywood a stream of superb cross-over talent. Leading Yiddish writers, including Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch and of course Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevic Singer, lived and worked in New York for long stretches. The Forward, published in Yiddish, competed in quality and circulation with the mighty New York Times and other English-language newspapers, and the 23 radio stations broadcasting in Yiddish in the New York area offered a wide variety of political, cultural and entertainment programs.
A similar thing happened in Israel during the 1990s, when some 800,000 Soviet Jews made aliya. It was the golden age of Russian-language print and television journalism in Israel, as a number of brilliant, prominent and outright famous Russian-speaking writers, journalists, musicians and actors from all over the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel.
The efflorescence of Yiddish culture in the United States was shortlived, lasting less than 100 years. That was to be expected, because many of the newcomers – especially better educated and higher-earning professionals – soon assimilated and learned English, while their kids, born in the United States or brought over at a very young age, tended to be embarrassed of the “old country” and its language. In Israel, the end came a lot sooner – and not only because Israel, unlike the United States at the turn of the 20th century, devoted considerable resources helping the ex-Soviet olim learn Hebrew and assimilate into Israeli society.
What happened was that when they had left their homeland around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, they feared an anti-Semitic backlash from the various nationalist and proto-fascist movements that popped up in those turbulent times. But in Russia, at least, anti-Semitism was held at the margins of society, and Russia in the 1990s appeared to be on the road to becoming a European democracy. As a result, many members of what is called in Russian “creative intelligentsia” felt a pull to return.
Some prominent figures, including Dina Rubina, one of Russia’s preeminent contemporary writers, still lives in Israel. Writers working in Russian are numerous enough to form an association, the Union of Russian-Language Writers of Israel. However, many others have returned.
I met several in Russia in recent years. They view themselves as Israelis – and not only because they have kept their Israeli passports. During the years of living in Israel they developed a love for the Jewish state and consider themselves its citizens. Many go back and forth between Moscow and Tel Aviv, but their work and their creativity is expressed in Russian and in the Russian cultural context. It may come as a surprise that some of those patriotic Israelis are not Jewish; they are married to Jews but never converted to Judaism themselves.
Russia is at crossroads. Its annexation of Crimea has unleashed a nasty wave of nationalism, raising to nationwide prominence several ultra-nationalists who now regularly spout their philosophy on national television. While their retrograde glorifications of soil, purity of blood and Russian Orthodox religion surely have anti-Semitic undertones, they have not come out into the open – at least not yet. There is little doubt they will – especially as Russia’s plans for gaining more territory in Eastern and Southern Ukraine have suffered a setback and the frustrated imperial nationalism starts looking for domestic scapegoats.
Writing recently in The New Republic, Julia Ioffe, a Soviet-born Jewish emigre herself, analyzed the rise of anti-Semitism in Russia and the role the official propaganda is starting to play in it. Her piece was occasioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s demand for an apology from the state-owned Russia Today channel for airing an anti-Semitic, stereotype-filled video about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Alarmingly, while democratic Western governments unanimously condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea and trouble-making in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, European right-wing and neo-Nazi parties have been equally vocal in their support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. Their list includes one of the most odious political parties to emerge in post-World War II Europe, the Jew- and Gypsy-hating Jobbik in Hungary, the direct heirs to the Arrow Cross Party that aided Hitler in the murder of 565,000 Hungarian Jews. The attraction is mutual: in an article in Foreign Affairs, Mitchell A. Orenstein looks at Putin’s support for right-wing parties in Europe, including the odious Jobbik.
Jewish emigration from Russia has come in waves. One wave took place during Brezhnev’s detente with the United States, coming to an end with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The second occurred in the 1990s and was much more massive in numbers. It is probably a matter of time before we see the next, and possibly final, wave.
The exact number of Jews in Russia is unknown. Estimates are in a 200,000-250,000 range, but because of traditional anti-Semitism and discrimination during the Soviet era, many Russian Jews prefer not to admit their Jewishness officially. A large number of mixed marriages, as well as high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, actually make it easy to conceal one’s Jewish origins.
Since 1970, many more Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and other European countries than the number of those who identified themselves as Jews in the 1959 Soviet census. Some estimates put the number of Soviet Jews (including those with at least one Jewish parent) at as many as 750,000.
Another burst of anti-Semitism, combined with the tightening of political screws and a likely economic crisis, could push a substantial number of those Jews to leave Russia. Even though there are large communities of Soviet Jews now living in Germany and in the United States, Israel, with its thriving economy to which Russian-speaking scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs contribute mightily, will beckon many of them. It could be made even more attractive if Israeli authorities encourage another wave of development of the Russian Jewish culture in the country.
The author is a New York-based economist and writer. He is a regular columnist for Moscow Times, Russia’s independent English-language daily, and RBK, a business newspaper. In 2004-08 he worked as a consultant on Russian-speaking community development for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. His detective novel, Murder at the Dacha, set in Moscow in the 1960s, was published by Russian Life Publishers in 2013.