• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Great White Hope

My own impression is that the Soviet Jews are fairly immune to indoctrination not only in traditional religion but also in civil religion. On the first day of Secretary Baker’s recent visit to Jerusalem an Arab murdered four women. Seeing a band of Russian musicians playing outdoors near the center of Jerusalem, an angry woman approached them and asked them to stop. “This is not a time to be happy, now is a time of national mourning in Israel,” she shouted at them. The trumpeter stopped playing and said in broken Hebrew, “Here in Israel not communism. Here capitalism, here freedom”—and they went on playing all the more loudly.

The Israeli left-wing parties hope that such irreverent immigrants will be so opposed to religious legislation that they will not support Israel’s government, which is both right-wing nationalist and clerical. But to deduce the new immigrants’ future voting patterns from their secularism itself requires a leap of faith. I was able to see a privately conducted survey of the views of the immigrants in 1990 by a reliable public opinion expert. One clear and striking finding was that the immigrants’ political views are even more hawkish than most of the rest of the Jewish population in Israel. More than half of the respondents said that Israel should keep all the occupied territories, even if Israel were guaranteed adequate security arrangements and in exchange for giving up the territories, could live in peace with the Arabs. By contrast, more than half of the other Israeli Jews expressed the opinion that Israel should be willing to give up at least part of the territories in return for a secure peace. About 85 percent of the immigrants believe that the Arabs could, and should, be expelled from both Israel and the occupied territories. Among Israeli Jews, by comparison, about 70 percent believe that it is desirable to expel the Arabs, while 15 percent believe that it is politically feasible. Moreover, about a quarter of the Israeli Jews think that it is necessary to speak to the PLO, while only 2 percent of the immigrants think so.

A colleague of mine, a professor from Russia who is active among the immigrants on behalf of the Labor party, tried to explain their views to me. The immigrants come from the wide expanses of Russia to this tiny country, he said; and then Israel’s left-wing politicians tell claustrophobic Russians that even this country, for all its tiny size, must be divided. This seems a lunatic notion to them. And since they come from a country where entire nations have been transferred from place to place, the idea of transfer doesn’t seem terrible to them.

How such political views will be expressed politically is not yet clear. Most of the immigrants who replied to the poll I earlier cited—70 percent—had not yet decided which party they would support, but among the 30 percent who had decided, a clear majority favored Likud over the Labor Alignment. When the same immigrants were asked for their views of Israeli leaders, 11 percent had a “very favorable” opinion of Sharon, and 35 percent, a “somewhat favorable” view; 8 percent had a “very favorable” view of Prime Minister Shamir, and 43 percent were “somewhat favorable.” Not even 1 percent had a “very favorable” view of Shimon Peres, and only 15 percent were “somewhat favorable” to him. Gorbachev is as popular as Shamir among the immigrants, and both of them are more popular than Yitzhak Rabin.

One of the participants in this popularity contest is the famous refusenik Natan Sharansky. He is as popular as Yeltsin, with 7 percent having a “very favorable” view of him and 35 percent “somewhat favorable.” The immigrants have no recognized leader, but Sharansky is perhaps the best known, and one hears rumors that he is quietly organizing a political party. Ideologically it would probably tend to the right. In a poll conducted by the Tazpit survey organization, 53 percent of the immigrants said they would vote for a purely Russian list for the Knesset.

If a “Russian list” is established, this, in my view, could be all to the good. Even if the list’s supporters are hawks, the representatives on the list will have to concern themselves with the interests of the immigrants generally. This means that the Russian list will have to be pro-American in some degree, since the only hope for obtaining enough money to absorb the immigrants is from the United States. This could blunt the claws of the hawks among them.

The prevailing view of the Israeli press is that if elections were to take place in Israel tomorrow, the right-wing parties would be strengthened, particularly by the support of the Soviet immigrants. On the other hand, it is difficult to predict how the immigrants would vote in the future if, as could well happen, a social and economic catastrophe occurs partly as a result of the immigration, and the rightist government is held responsible. In such circumstances the Soviet immigrants could not expect much sympathy. In a poll of Israeli Jews taken by the Dahaf survey organization 63 percent said that they are not willing to lower their standard of living for the immigrants, while 34 percent are willing to do so.

Clearly the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have very different attitudes toward the immigrants. Before the present immigration Israel had a slight majority of Sephardis, with a large majority of Sephardis in the younger age groups, a fact which seemed to ensure a heavily Sephardic Israel. The Russian immigration will now increase the proportion of Ashkenazis, much to the dismay of the Sephardis. The newspaper Hadashot (April 24, 1991) quotes a Likud member of the Knesset who is the mayor of one of the development towns established in Israel during the Fifties to absorb the mass immigrations that still have huge Sephardic majorities: “I am beginning to hear new tunes,” he said. Some of the mayors of development towns are afraid. They say that because of the Soviet immigration, the Sephardis will have to go back to their previously low status as second-class Israeli citizens. The same Knesset member quoted a colleague: “The immigration will destroy the prospects of young leaders that were coming up in the development towns during the Seventies and Eighties; they will all be replaced by Yasha, Grisha, and Misha.”

The immigrants themselves speak with contempt for the “Asiatics”—their name for the Sephardis. An immigrant couple I know was offered a place in a development town not far from Jerusalem which is mostly populated by Sephardis. “I want to live near you Europeans,” the wife said to me, “and not near the Asiatics in that town.” A Russian immigrant taxi driver who had somehow arrived through New York defined a Sephardi to an American visitor as “a Hebrew-speaking Puerto Rican.” When the Soviet immigrants I have talked with use the word “Asia” to refer to the Sephardic Jews, the word stands for dirt, lack of culture and hygiene, and shouting in the streets.

The government is seeking to direct Soviet immigrants to the north as part of programs for the “Judaization” of the Galilee, where there is a large concentration of Israeli Arabs. So far, 32 percent of the immigrants live in the north, while only 22 percent of Israeli Jews live there. The government has always wanted to change the “demographic balance” between Jews and Arabs in the Galilee, partly out of fear that the concentration of Arabs in the Galilee will someday lead to their demand for autonomy, or for the separation of the Galilee from Israel and its annexation by one of the Arab states bordering on it (Jordan, Syria, or a possible future Palestinian state).

If large numbers of Soviet Jews are to be installed in the Galilee, the government might expropriate Arab land on which to settle them; there have already been attempts to expropriate land from the Arabs near Nazareth. Arabs both inside and outside Israel almost unanimously oppose the immigration, but the Israeli Arabs most of all, since they understandably fear that the settlement of the Russian Jews will be directly at their expense.

A far more serious issue concerns the effect of the immigration on the settlements in the occupied territories, which are intended by the right wing to block any future political agreement in which Israel would give up territories for peace. The Israeli government promised the United States and the Soviet Union that it would not send the immigrants directly to settlements on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But if the pressure of immigrants causes the cost of buying or renting apartments in Israel to rise, and Israelis therefore are impelled to move to the heavily subsidized apartments in the territories, then it doesn’t matter who the settlers are. The Housing Ministry’s current plans are to build 24,000 new housing units for 90,000 people in the territories. Last year the Housing Ministry, which is run by Sharon, spent $700 million there on new construction.

The Bush administration has said that the question of settling immigrants in the territories is a test of the good faith of the Israeli government. Sharon, for his part, has been provocatively settling them in the West Bank in order to create tension between the Bush administration and Shamir. But all this is a mere sideshow. Whether indirectly or directly, the immigration will increase the settlement of Jews in the territories, and enlarging the settlements is undeniably the policy of the Israeli government.

For all their numbers the immigrants, with the seriousness of their problems in finding jobs and housing, are strangely isolated in Israel. They sometimes seem to be living in a cultural space station detached from Israel’s gravity and connected to signals coming from the home station in Russia—a kind of Jewish Soyuz. They work hard at learning Hebrew, but for them Hebrew is merely an instrument for getting along at work. Their preferred language remains Russian. Michael Gendlev, a poet and doctor who emigrated to Israel in 1977, writes in the liberal-left journal Politika that until the latest Soviet immigration about two hundred Soviet Jews who call themselves writers and poets had come to Israel, of whom he estimates that there are twenty to thirty who are not hacks. During 1990, another four hundred registered writers arrived, some of them more reputable; today there are more than thirty Russian language periodicals in Israel.

Some Ashkenazi Israelis long for closer relations with the new immigrants, and arrange meetings with them in which they try to create rapport, for example by singing songs of socialist youth movements of the 1940s and 1950s. They forget that some of the songs, for example, one about General Budenny, a comrade of Stalin’s, are Stalinist compositions about the heroic Red Army. The immigrants cringe with embarrassment.

That the Soviet immigrants are having severe difficulties making a living is evident. Israelis see them collecting unsold vegetables thrown away at the market and they hear stories about suicides among them. A few days ago I left my house and saw a young man sitting on the nearby railway tracks. Two women were trying to persuade him to get out of danger. The young man was silent. I heard one of the women say, “He’s certainly a Russian—they have nothing to live for.” As it turned out, the young man was not a Russian, but the fact that this was the first explanation that crossed the woman’s mind was not surprising. The next morning I saw the following headline in the Dvar newspaper of May 1: “Immigrant Student Hangs Self; His Wife Attempts Suicide Immediately Afterward.” A family friend is quoted as saying: “Igor missed Russia and it was hard for him in Israel.” Not far from where I live, a street that used to be quiet at night is frequented by dozens of Russian prostitutes. “These women were not prostitutes in the Soviet Union,” a Russian friend tells me. “Poverty is driving them onto the streets.”

Israel has absorbed mass immigrations before; between 1949 and 1973 the GNP grew by 10 percent each year; but after the Yom Kippur War this growth came to a standstill. As a result of that war Israel more than doubled the size of its army, and its defense expenditures fluctuate between a quarter and a third of GNP. The financing of defense by inflation got out of hand, and during the 1982 Lebanon War it led to hyperinflation of Latin American proportions.

Finding jobs for the new immigrants would require renewed growth in the economy, but the present right-wing government will not do what Ben Gurion did in the 1950s, when he limited the defense budget to 8 percent of GNP in order to absorb the mass immigration. The risks of war and civil strife in Israel are so high that foreign and Israeli entrepreneurs will not take the chance of investing in Israel unless they have guarantees that their money will be protected. The Shamir administration refuses even to try to negotiate a political agreement that would make Israel attractive to investment, and in Israel today there are no significant internal sources of investment. Whatever economic policy is adopted—whether the free market, Gosplan, or “the Israeli method” of allocating funds to entrepreneurs close to politicians in power—outside investment will be necessary for growth that can lead to employment.

Loans will be needed to provide for housing. Ariel Sharon, as housing minister, controls $4.5 billion for construction and is in charge of distributing government land to contractors. He thus wields enormous political leverage. If he succeeds he will become a strong candidate to take over as premier from Shamir. If he fails, it could be the end of his career. So far he has been failing. One newspaper headline called him “a bulldozer with a motorcycle engine,” because 25,000 new immigrants per month require at least 6,000 new housing units per month, and so far fewer than half that number are being built. In December, when 36,000 immigrants arrived, construction began on only 2,600 apartments.

The only government that could be expected to provide the required sums for housing as well as other needed investments is that of the US, whether directly, in the form of grants, or indirectly, as a guarantor for loans from private banks. Will the US do so if the Israelis continue to resist any negotiation with the Arabs? Most of the immigrants in the poll I mentioned earlier (about 70 percent) believe that the immigration will work against the interests of the Arabs, and only 10 percent believe that the Soviet immigrants will have a positive effect on the well-being of the Arabs. On the face of it, the Soviet immigration is indeed bad news for the Arabs, and thus for an agreement between them and the Israelis. Shamir has twice declared that “a greater Israel” is necessary to accommodate the immense new immigration, and that these new immigrants will keep in office the right-wing bloc that rejects any territorial compromises. (Defense Minister Moshe Arens says that “the last one to use the formula ‘peace for territory’ was Hitler.”) The immigration will also directly and indirectly expand the settlements in the occupied territories, thus closing off more possibilities for trading land for peace.

On the other hand, the Soviet immigration can also serve as the best instrument the United States has had so far for bringing Israel to a peace agreement. The current right-wing Zionist dilemma is not one of “territories v. peace” but of “territories v. immigration.” Absorbing immigration and consolidating the Jewish settlement in Israel are the two central Zionist values. But the Israeli right wing will be faced with a difficult decision if the United States would provide support for the immigration only if Israel were to give up territory as part of an agreement with the Arabs. (The recent rescue of the Ethiopian Jews was impressive and moving testimony to the strength of the commitment of the Israeli government and public to Jewish immigration, without regard to economic or social consequences. No one asked whether the Ethiopians were educated—they are not—or whether they were white.)

American pressure could take two different forms: holding back the economic aid and loan guarantees needed to absorb the immigrants, or increasing the US immigration quotas for Soviet and Israeli Jews. Financial pressure is perhaps more likely and would in any case be more effective in the short run.

American spokesmen like to say they rule out “pressure” on Israel, but in fact it is only the word “pressure” that is ruled out. It can be called “reassessment.” When Baker recently met with Palestinians in Jerusalem, they understood him to say, in effect, forget about the possibility that the President will put economic pressure on Israel. The grants are given by Congress and Israel again has extensive support there. But Baker’s own record shows that this claim is only partially correct. The administration has much room for maneuver in distributing the funds appropriated by Congress and it could cause Israel grave problems even if the Congress votes for aid to Israel. Baker underlined this in 1989 when he stalled for a year in giving Israel a guarantee for a loan of $400 million to help settle the immigrants. This is, after all, only pocket money in comparison to the $10 billion in grants and guarantees Israel intends to request in September.

I have heard it argued that the same factors that make Israel vulnerable to pressure—unemployment, lack of housing, etc.—also lead to pressure within the United States, particularly by Jewish organizations, to help the unfortunate Jews coming out of the Soviet Union. Just as public opinion forced the President to help the Kurds, it may also force him to help Israel if the situation of the Soviet immigrants becomes more visibly pathetic. But the immigrants obviously do not lack medicine, blankets, or temporary shelter. The credits and loan guarantees that are needed for economic development involve abstract transactions that may not easily lend themselves to emotional campaigns. It is too early to say whether the newest condemnation by both Baker and Bush of increasing West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace means that the US intends to bring serious pressure on Israel. What is clear is that the administration is in a stronger position to do so than any US government in many years. The prospect for peace is still one of hope against hope, rather than of hope abandoned.

May 30, 1991

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print