The Million Russians That Changed Israel to Its Core

A new book examines the politics, culture and ultimate impact of the wave of immigrants who arrived in Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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The final week of 2012 was a stormy one in Haifa: The rabbinate warned restaurant and hotel owners that if they celebrated the new year of the Gregorian calendar, they would lose their kashrut certification. Business owners and assorted organizations protested the rabbinate's crude threat, especially in a mixed city such as Haifa.

Evidently, such protest would never have come about without the great immigration of the 1990s, which is described in Lily Galili and Roman Bronfman's book "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

"In the Soviet Union a fir tree was the symbol for the beginning of novi god - the new year. It was a private, family holiday that was not imposed by the government, was not dictated by the party - a splash of color in a gray life. Upon their arrival here, the vast majority of immigrants were detached from any connection to the Jewish holidays, and wished to reconstruct something of the tradition they had brought with them. In the communist state, they had no knowledge of Christmas, and Sylvester - the pope for whom New Year's Eve is named - was utterly unknown to them. The decorated tree was an object that was meant to bring joy and beauty, which were so sorely lacking in their lives.

"The reaction of the veteran neighbors was one of both furor and terror, in light of the number of 'Gentiles' who filled the country with Christian symbols. The immigrants were frightened. It was only in Israel that they learned the Christian meaning of the holiday, and at first they gave it up with heartache. Here and there the trees hid themselves away in the corners of their apartments, shamefaced and mainly uncomprehending of a complex meeting of cultures.

But then the masses arrived, and the new immigrants felt that their sheer number enabled them to ignore the Israeli response. Slowly but surely, the fir trees moved from the private realm to the public domain, and even began to give pleasure to the veteran neighbors. Today they are part of the late-December landscape, and there are also clubs and pubs that cater on New Year's Eve only to veteran Israeli revelers, who sprinkle around Styrofoam in the guise of snow."

That is an ostensibly minor example, but it actually points to a genuine change in the Israeli streets. "The Million that Changed the Middle East" deals with the immense influence the wave of immigration from the Soviet Union has had on Israeli society primarily - but not solely - from the political-social angle. Its authors - Lily Galili, who covered the great immigration as a correspondent for Haaretz for some 20 years, and Roman Bronfman, formerly the most prominent left-wing member of Knesset from the so-called Russian community - construct the story of this immigration around the axis of political goings-on. They rely on statistical data and polls that have been conducted and published over the years, on research studies, articles and individual testimonies.

Loan guarantees

The authors begin their story toward the end of the 1980s, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir realized that Mikhail Gorbachev was prepared to release those Jews who longed to leave the Soviet Union, because he wished to obtain American loan guarantees for the far-reaching reforms he had planned.

Bronfman and Galili describe the clandestine and open channels through which the State of Israel acted to advance this immigration, and the various interests involved, such as the desire to bolster the "demographic data" (a euphemism for increasing Israel's Jewish population ). Shimon Peres, for example, felt that strengthening the Jewish population in Israel would provide sufficient self-confidence for the country to launch peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians, for their part, are depicted as having been terrified by the mass immigration: "The PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and the leaders of the Arab states - Hosni Mubarak, Hafez Assad and King Hussein - convened a special summit meeting to discuss ways to persuade the leadership of the Soviet Union to prevent the Jews' departure for Israel." According to the authors, the fear of this influx of new immigrants boosted the willingness of the Palestinian leadership to strive for peace agreements.

Galili and Bronfman also describe the hopes and fears that affected Israeli society: "The Ashkenazi middle class and its elite impatiently awaited human reinforcements in the form of white, educated immigrants who would save the country from what appeared to them a process of Levantinization. Groups of Mizrahim made noises of complaint and anxiety over their loss of demographic power - and of the political strength they had acquired thanks to that power - during the decades of being disadvantaged and kept out of the bastions of power. The Arabs in Israel were filled with fear of land being expropriated for the purpose of settlement of the Jewish immigrants, and apprehension that they would be pushed out of workplaces that would prefer to absorb the latter."

A 1989 article in Maariv by journalist Amnon Dankner, "Hurry, hurry brothers," dealt with "the vulgar aroma in the air" and hoped for the arrival of "half a million or more Jews who like to study and read, go to the theater and concerts." Other writers, Galili and Bronfman point out, "lauded the character of the Jewish genius inherent in this immigration, as compared to the dependent Mizrahi immigration."

From a political standpoint, the left was convinced that the secular educational profile of the immigrants would draw them into the peace camp, and the right was positive - based on the political tendencies of the Soviet immigrants of the 1970s - that they would be getting "natural human reinforcements."

The authors expand on the matter of Israel's intervention in American immigration policy. After years of campaigning on their behalf by American Jews, the United States opened its gates to receive the Jews of the Soviet Union, but the State of Israel viewed these Jews as "dropouts": "Not less important than the opening of the exit gates of the Soviet Union was the closing of the United States' gates to the swarming of masses of Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union to it. In 1989, when departures began to be allowed in significant numbers, the dropout rate in Vienna [among emigrants hoping to go to the U.S.] was some 83 percent, a huge contrast to Israel's Zionist-demographic dream ... The role Israel played in locking the gates of the United States became in retrospect a move of such importance, that even after more than two decades, many are claiming their share in it, although only few dispute the centrality of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in promoting the move ... Some see in this move an act of coercion, tainted with violation of the emigrants' freedom of choice. Some overlook completely the moral aspect of the move. Both schools of thought see it as an outright Zionist act, even if an aggressive one."

Shamir pressured the U.S. State Department to do away with "the 'refugee' clause that granted refugee status in the United States to the Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union." He also termed that emigration policy "an insult to Israel": "From October 1989, every Soviet exit visa received by a Jew who sought to emigrate was valid for departure only to Israel."

Dan Meridor, who served as justice minister in Shamir's government at the time, termed the phenomenon "cruel Zionism," but views it as legitimate, "along with a slight dash of moral doubts." The authors cite in this connection the American journalist Gal Beckerman of The Forward: "Many Soviet Jews perceived this as a betrayal by the United States," Beckerman writes in his 2010 book, "When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone." "Their plight had served as good ideological ammunition when the Cold War raged, but now that they were no longer needed, America would not make the necessary sacrifices to take them in."

Deceitful promises

The bureaucracy of absorption in Israel turned out to be riddled with failings: Jews who had been successful in Russia, despite being Jewish, were unable to find in the promised homeland employment commensurate with their education and skills. They were sustained by deceitful promises (the West Bank city of Ariel, for example, was marketed as a university town in the center ), and soon enough there were signs of a real housing shortage, which also trickled into other parts of society.

The government's various branches did not operate in coordination. The establishment quickly changed its tune: from positive references to "the Jewish genius," it began shoring up stereotypes of Russian prostitutes, mafia and fake diplomas. "Overstating the quality of the immigrants was a marketing measure designed to prepare the public for the difficulties entailed in mass absorption. Destroying the positive image of the immigrants - from above and below - was designed to provide excuses."

The book proceeds to describe the assimilation of the Russian community, its separatism and influence. The authors contend that Yitzhak Rabin owed the electoral reversal that brought him to power in 1992 to this segment of the population (four Knesset seats that the Labor Party received because of the immigrants' lust for vengeance against the Likud party, which had failed in absorbing the mass immigration ).

The book also deals at length with the development of the Russian-language media in Israel - Channel 9, Radio Reka and the birth of dozens of newspapers of all kinds: "At their height, the number of publications in Russian - daily newspapers, weeklies, journals and also freebies containing mostly advertising material - exceeded a hundred ... Under the auspices of the veteran Israeli society's lack of interest, under the cover of foreignness and not understanding the language, the Russian-language media could do whatever it felt like, operate in a world of other norms and ethics alien to Israeli life. This task also drew educated writers, with immense talent and amazing mastery of the secrets of the Russian language, who had developed amid the existence of a totalitarian state."

"The Million that Changed the Middle East" is a very interesting book, full of statistics and factual information, and an intelligent and considered analysis of those. One of its clear-cut objectives is to shatter a few of the persistent myths and stereotypes that have attached to this large group of new immigrants. It does so in a businesslike and balanced manner, which does not spare the rod either from veteran Israeli society or the Russian population. An interesting example concerns the sweeping belief of the Israeli public (including many in the Russian-speaking community itself ) that the Russian-speaking population leans clearly toward the right politically: "In the mid-1990s the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace in Memory of Emil Greenzweig conducted an interesting experiment: Groups of immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States were presented with the political platforms of all the parties in Israel translated into Russian, after the party's name was deleted. Most of the immigrants chose Meretz. The revelation of the party's identity aroused great surprise among them. After all, in the real test of the elections only 4 percent of them supported the party to which they were naturally inclined in the blind test. The image was more powerful than reality, and underscored even further the left's missed opportunity and failure."

Prisoners of Zion

Several important themes are missing from this book. For example, the underground struggle - full of suffering and heroism - of Prisoners of Zion and the refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and of their relatives and supporters in Israel and the United States. That campaign had a substantial impact on the opening of the Soviet gates and the subsequent immigration to Israel. Nor is there hardly any reference in the book to the ambivalent relationship between the 1970s immigration from the Soviet Union and the 1990s immigration - a relationship whose importance the authors concede, but did not describe in depth.

In Galili and Bronfman's opinion, the newspapers "were both an important connecting point between the more veteran immigrants, from the '70s, who had found a new source of employment, and the new immigrants, who needed the press also for such basic service as instructions in managing a bank account, an alien procedure for someone who came from a country where there were no checkbooks. About the affiliation formed at the time between the immigrants of the '70s and '80s and the new immigrants, the late sociologist Prof. Baruch Kimmerling said, 'the two waves ultimately complemented each other, with the members of the elite of the first wave, among them Prisoners of Zion, refuseniks and assorted intellectuals who until recently had advocated for the dream of absorption, being the ones who laid the institutional groundwork for the growth of the socio-cultural and ethnic enclave.' Later on this affiliation would also be translated into the political arena and into parties founded by the two immigrations, which became entangled in mutual dependence."

The absence of a description of the connection between the two immigration waves from the Soviet Union is also reflected in the treatment of the Zionist Forum - mentioned a number of times as "the most powerful immigrant organization," the institution whose presidents and executives, such as Sharansky and Bronfman, went on to wield great political influence. The book provides no background information on the growth of this organization from a nearly underground institution of a few passionate and committed individuals. Nevertheless, "The Million that Changed the Middle East" is an in-depth and complex historical survey, succinct and readable. It looks from a broad perspective at processes that took place and are still taking place in a shifting Israeli society. The book makes manifest the profound commitment of its authors to understanding the community of Russian speakers in Israel in particular and Israeli society in general: "Israel is much better at operations," the authors write in an early chapter of the book, "than at the longtime management required to put together an absorption policy."

As the new civil year 2013 begins, it seems one can extend that statement to Israel's diplomatic, political and social conduct as a whole, in all its population segments.

"Meat Grinder" (2006).Credit: Ania Krupiakov

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