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article imageIsrael's 20-year-old Russian community

By Paul Iddon     Oct 1, 2012 in World
The one million strong Russian community that immigrated to Israel during and after the Fall of the Soviet Union has clearly made its mark on Israeli society.
They "rescued" the country was the statement incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made in reference to Israel's Russian population. He also stated that they constituted "one of the greatest miracles that happened to the state." (Jerusalem Post, September 6, 2009).
Their immigration was made possible when the last Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Soviet Jewry the option of emigrating from the USSR. About one million Soviet Jews subsequently made their way to Israel as immigrants, availing of the State of Israel's Law of Return. At that time the United States shifted its policies with regard to its former policy of allowing Soviet Jews into the United States as refugees fleeing the repressive Soviet state system. Israel however was able to accept them as immigrants who were given Israeli citizenship due to their religious backgrounds. 300,000 of roughly 1,000,000 immigrants aren't technically Jewish under the terms of the rabbinical law. But nevertheless were able to make aliyah. (Previously in the Soviet Union 600,000 Jews had been able to immigrate to the United States in the 1970's and 1980's. However their emigration from the USSR was only allowed with the explicit consent of the KGB).
This large influx of Russian Jews to Israel in the early 1990's saw to a sharp decline in housing availability. This resulted in a rise in the price of residential apartments which was accordingly counteracted by programs which saw to an extensive construction of new residential buildings and the implementation of other related construction programs across the country. In the intervening time over 400 caravan parks were set up across the country. Interestingly, after this period Russian citizens who had previously lived in more urban European settings found themselves moving to Israel's urban centers (such as Haifa, Tel Aviv, Ashdod -- which is sometimes jokingly referred to as 'Little Moscow' due to the amount of Russian communities there -- etc.) whilst other Russian immigrants who had previously lived in the likes of the Caucasus settled in the outskirts of such places. Another interesting aspect of the immigrants settlement was the opening of stores selling non-kosher foods, the most salient being the sale of various different pork products. Although pork was sold in Israel beforehand its marketing the mass selling of it in cities with large populations of more Orthodox and conservative Jews saw to many complaints and disputes between communities, which in turn saw to pork stores being relocated to industrial parts of cities.
Neighbourhoods populated predominately by these Russian immigrants also sprang up throughout the 1990's. This saw to parts of the immigrants sticking firmly to their old countries culture rather than completely assimilating and adapting the prevailing culture of their new homeland. However, Israeli born children of these immigrants have integrated into wider Israeli society very well. A recent study showed that 68% of Israelis born to immigrants that were part of the early 1990's Russian immigration-wave feel "solely Israeli." (Hareetz, December 26, 2011).
Nevertheless, there are still signs of animosity between the now over 20-year-old Russian community and the native-born Israeli population. The Guardian in an article on the subject quoted Lily Galili -- an Israeli journalist penning a book about the social implications of the 1990's influx of Russian Jews -- explaining that there is "some sense of alienation between Russian immigrants and native-born Israelis. There is not much social interaction. There are still places for 'Russians' that 'Israelis' don't go and aren't wanted -- and vice versa." (The Guardian, August 17, 2011)
The Russian-Israeli population has been known for its secular and liberal political outlook. However they haven't for the most part associated themselves with left-wing parties in Israel that espouse similar outlooks due to the Russian communities more hawkish and right leaning views with regard to the Palestinian issue. As well as this their past experiences living under the Soviet system leads many to associate left-wing politics with the kind of repressive state politics that existed in the days of the Soviet Union. Avigdor Lieberman the Moldovan born politician and present foreigner minister of Israel is probably the most notable politician to have roots emanating from the broader Russian-Israeli community. He is also known for his ardent opposition to peace negotiations with the Palestinians and his advocacy of the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, he has recently for example called for the ousting of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
Another interesting cultural aspect and effect the 20-year-old community has had in Israel is the degree of their Jewishness. Many of the Orthodox and conservative Jews in Israel don't consider these immigrants Jews at all. This is because of the intense and long-term suppression of practices related to the Jewish faith in the former USSR as well as these Jews assimilation into that relatively Atheistic society. However there are many exceptions, many of these immigrants are eager and indeed do pursue educational programs to get a deeper understanding of their cultural and religious identity. (God's Business - Russians in Israel, Al Jazeera English, 15 October, 2007 -- YouTube link).
Yet another interesting and encouraging aspect of these cultural and social developments are the stories of the Russian-Israelis who have returned to Russia, a country which had been notorious for its anti-Semitic state policies since the days of the Tzar. Today however this has changed. Several thousand Russian-Israelis have returned -- at least 100,000 -- and began a revival of Jewish cultural life in that country. Russia's chief rabbi Berl Lazar was quoted as saying that, "When they [Russia's Jews] left, there was no community, no Jewish life. People felt that being Jewish was an historical mistake that happened to their family. Now, they know they can live in Russia as part of a community." (100,000 Former Soviet Jews In Israel Return To Russia, The Toronto Star).
To evaluate the Russian migrants to Israel have done considerably well, aside from making up hundreds of thousands of the country's doctors, engineers and graduates this ethnic sector of the population is also considerably young and well educated meaning they constitute assets for their home country, not liabilities. It is therefore clear that they have had and will continue to have profound effects on their country's culture, politics and society.
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