Many of the immigrants who arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union in 1990 came off the plane carrying dogs in their arms. This seemed odd, since Jews are not noted for their friendliness to dogs. An enterprising journalist soon reported that the immigrants were trying to take with them out of Russia anything they could sell in Israel. There weren’t any carpets left, but they had heard that well-to-do young Israelis in Tel Aviv were buying dogs as pets.
The immigrants arriving toward the end of 1990 were given instructions at the airport for using gas masks, but Saddam Hussein had, in effect, done them a favor by distracting the attention of Arab countries from the huge immigration of Jews to Israel and concentrating their attention on the Gulf. With few Arab protests, about 200,000 immigrants arrived in Israel between January and December 1990, including 183,000 from the Soviet Union. Just before the fighting started the rate of immigration swiftly rose. In December alone 36,000 immigrants arrived in Israel. When the war began this rate was cut in half, and in February 1991 only 3,000 Soviet immigrants arrived.
The Soviet Jews said they were waiting to see what happened. Now they are starting to emigrate once more, and 200,000 more Jews are expected to arrive during 1991. If this trend continues, as many as a million Jews will leave the USSR for Israel during the next few years. Since Israel’s current population is only about four million, adding a million people would radically change Israeli life—it is as if the United States were to absorb the entire population of Italy within five years.
The immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel is closely linked with the possibility of their immigration to the United States. During the Seventies and Eighties about 350,000 Jews left the Soviet Union with Israeli visas, but when they reached Vienna many changed their destination and went to the United States. Indeed, during the late 1980s, about 85 percent of the emigrants went to the United States.
The main organization dealing with the immigration to Israel is the Jewish Agency, which is an unofficial arm of the Israel’s government. That many of the Soviet emigrants during those years wanted to go to the United States brought into play two other Jewish organizations dealing with immigration. The two are HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), both independent of Israel. HIAS dealt with the immigration of those who wanted to go to the United States, especially with the paper work required for getting immigration visas from Washington. The JDC provided Soviet immigrants in Europe with food, clothing, housing, and education while they waited to go to the US, Israel, or other countries. The Jewish Agency, on the other hand, gave help only to those who wanted to continue on to Israel. The JDC made an agreement with the United States government by which the US would pay the expenses of each person who was later accepted as an immigrant to the United States.
The Soviet Jews went by rail or plane to Vienna, since there were no direct flights to Israel at that time. In Vienna a Jewish Agency representative collected their passports and asked each one where he or she wanted to go. The usual answer was “to the States,” and the people who gave this answer were transferred to the care of the JDC, which sent them to Viennese hotels and their files to HIAS. Anyone who wanted to go to another country, for example Germany, went directly to that country’s embassy in Vienna.
Then, with Gorbachev’s rise to power after 1985, the stream of emigrants increased enormously. In order to keep down the costs of waiting in Vienna, an expensive city, the emigrants were transferred to working-class resort cities in Southern Italy, particularly Ladispoli. This created a bottleneck, and a request was made to increase the staff of the American immigration office (NIS). This request was granted, and the staff was increased to a maximum of two hundred employees.
Three serious controversies soon developed. The first was a disagreement between the Israeli government, speaking through the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish organizations outside Israel. The Jewish Agency claimed that the emigrants “belonged to Israel” since they had left the Soviet Union with Israeli visas. In the United States, some American Jews supported the Zionist principle of “the centrality of Israel in Jewish life,” while others upheld the liberal principle of giving each emigrant freedom of choice.
The second controversy was between Israel and the United States, again with the Israelis claiming that the emigrants “belonged” to them. The third was on the question of increasing the American immigration quota. During the Seventies and the early Eighties Jewish immigrants from the USSR to the United States were accepted as part of the quota allotted to Soviet refugees. But with Gorbachev the quota was no longer sufficient, and the question was whether to increase it. At the same time, organizations of Asian immigrants (mainly from Vietnam and Cambodia) were also demanding an increase in their quotas.
The Israeli government did not want the quota to be increased, but it hesitated to say so publicly, since there was considerable support among American Jews for the principle of giving emigrants the freedom to choose whether to go to Israel or elsewhere. Strong pressure by Jewish organizations on the Reagan administration led to a considerable expansion of the category of immigrant “parolees,” i.e., immigrants who cannot become citizens or receive government support, but who have the right to work if their guarantors accept responsibility for them. Expanding this category placed a heavy financial burden on American Jews, and some American Jewish organizations tended for this reason to direct the immigrants to Israel.
American law requires that immigrants who enter the US as refugees prove 1) that they are persecuted for their politics or religion in their country of origin; and 2) that no other country is willing to accept them. HIAS gave the Soviet emigrants help in showing that the first condition was fulfilled. Since Israel was eager to accept them the refugees could not satisfy the second condition; but the Reagan administration chose to ignore this fact.
After negotiations in 1989 Shultz and Shevardnadze reached an agreement in October, allowing direct immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States. The paper work for immigration to the United States could now be taken care of in Moscow; those who did not directly apply for immigration to the United States had to go to Israel. Immigrants could fly to Israel directly. No doubt a large number of those who apply to Israel rather than to the United States do so because the American quota for Soviet immigrants is limited and Jewish applicants for immigration to the United States now have many competitors. They are also aware that however much they would prefer to live in New York or California, Israel does not want to raise the US quotas for Soviet Jews, and American Jewish organizations are not on the whole demanding that they be raised. Once the immigrants arrive in Israel their preferences are not so clear. A poll of a representative sample of Soviet immigrants to Israel in April 1991 by the Dahaf Institute asked, “In which country do you think you would get along better?” Forty-six percent said Israel, 11 percent said the US, and 40 percent said there was no difference between the two.
Before and after Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles last January, the main topic of conversation here has been the Russian immigrants. In order to absorb a million immigrants Israel needs, according to the most conservative estimates, an additional $20 billion (at 1990 prices) during the next five years not only to provide for basic necessities such as food, housing, and medical care but also, mainly, for investment that will create jobs. Commercial banks in the US and Europe would have to put up a large part of that money and they will not do so unless the loans are guaranteed by the US government. Two questions are being asked: one in public—will the US supply the money and guarantees required? The other in private—will the US exact any political price for these guarantees. If Israel can’t borrow $25 billion during five years, it will be faced with an extremely severe economic and social crisis.
The immigration to Israel could therefore change the meaning of the phrase “pressure on Israel.” Israel, as the country receiving the most US aid, has been given $3 billion a year in economic and military aid from the United States since 1973, and “pressure on Israel” used to mean the threat of reducing this sum. In fact, this is no threat at all, since the political influence of the Israeli lobby and its American Jewish supporters in Congress and elsewhere has been powerful enough to insure that the $3 billion was paid annually. Now Israel’s need for an additional $25 billion makes it, at least potentially, more vulnerable to American pressure than ever before, especially during lean times in the US.
This could be the political significance of the Soviet immigration for Bush’s “New Order” in the Middle East, if there is to be one. Whatever happens, however, the effects on Israel will be dramatic. Israel, still in some respects a third world country, will be absorbing much of the educated elite of a superpower. While only 0.6 percent of employed Israelis have degrees in the natural sciences, people with such degrees make up 7.1 percent of the immigrants. That is, there are proportionately twelve times as many people with degrees in the natural sciences among the immigrants as among the Israelis. There are also thirteen times as many engineers and architects, four times as many technicians, and nearly six times as many doctors. The proportion of skilled and unskilled manual workers is much smaller than it is among the Israelis.
Some of these statistics may be misleading. A good many people who got on the plane to Israel as, say, Mr. Rabinowitz, may get off as Dr. Rabinowitz, and some immigrants probably managed to add several years of university studies in a few hours on the plane. Aside from forgeries, it is very difficult to evaluate Soviet university degrees by Western standards. For several years Israel has been giving qualifying examinations to doctors from abroad (while exempting doctors from the United States and Canada, where the standards are considered high). Among the Russian doctors who took these examinations last year, 70 percent failed. Only 15 percent of those who passed managed to do so without taking a special course. The Russians complain that the examiners are unfairly giving them failing grades to protect the interests of the local doctors’ guilds. The Israeli examiners claim that the exams are easy and point out that 65 percent of the doctors coming from Argentina passed the test without a preparatory course, as well as 75 percent of the doctors from Western Europe.
Still, medicine and the biological sciences do not have high status in the Soviet Union, and the prestige of doctors there is lower than in the West—much lower than that of physicists, for example. The various Israeli employers I have talked to have conflicting views. Some of them are immensely impressed by the education, skills, and seriousness of the immigrants; others have only contempt for them, and claim they stumble when dealing with modern technology. But most economists agree with Michael Bruno, governor of the Bank of Israel, that successfully absorbing a million Soviet immigrants would mean that Israel’s “human capital”—the economic value of the work force, of which education is a component—will double.
The Soviet immigrants have enormous advantages over Israelis in education. About 40 percent of the immigrants have had between thirteen and fifteen years of schooling, in contrast to 15 percent of Israelis. Sixteen percent of the immigrants went to school for more than sixteen years. Israeli universities estimate that 2 percent of the Soviet immigrants—four thousand people—are qualified to teach in universities. Among them are a relatively large number of mathematicians—enough to fill several times as many mathematics departments as Israel now has. And those who are yet to arrive are thought to be more talented and qualified, since people who have more to lose have been in less of a hurry to go. A colleague at the Hebrew University, who is from the previous generation of Soviet immigrants, said to me recently, “The mathematicians who left for Israel are the ones they would wrap in paper bags in Russia. Some of the ones they wrap in cellophane went to Princeton and MIT. Most of the best mathematicians are still in the Russian academies.”
Few Israelis really know the immigrants, yet they talk ceaselessly about what they are like, and much of what one hears is predictable. Before the wave of immigrants arrived, it would have been rare to find an Israeli computer programmer who wrote or even could recite poetry. No one is surprised that the Soviet immigrants are much more likely to do so. As one would expect, they are also deeply suspicious of anything that smacks of ideology, especially socialism. I heard from a teacher that an immigrant boy complained to him that instead of being taught mathematics in school he was being taught “Leninism.” The boy, it turned out, was referring to compulsory Bible lessons: for him the Bible is part of Israel’s official ideology, not part of its culture, and any official ideology for him is “Leninism.”
During the 1930s, Israel also had a wave of immigrants that were much more highly qualified than the rest of the Jewish population: the settlers who were fleeing Hitler. As with the Soviet Jews, many among the German immigrants were not Zionists, and their cultural and professional qualifications were impressive. They were thought to be amazingly competent and responsible, but the settlers from Eastern Europe tended to see them as humorless, soulless, psychologically blinkered, and unable to comprehend suffering. The prevailing attitude toward today’s Russian Jews is different. Far from perceiving them as machinelike, people talk about their “Russian soul.”
But such images are, after all, largely based on the fictions people create. The facts show that the Soviet immigrants are older than the other Israelis, with fewer children and young people among them. The median age of the immigrants is thirty-two, of the Israelis, twenty-seven. Infants and children under five make up 12 percent of the Israeli population but only 8 percent of the immigrants. Thirty-four percent of the immigrants have only one child, as opposed to 21 percent among Israelis. The average Soviet immigrant family consists of three people. They are, on the whole, mature, well-educated, professional people with small families. Many are fluent in English and mathematics.
The immigrants are called “Russian immigrants,” although in 1990 59,000 arrived from the Ukraine (including 12,000 from Kiev), 23,000 from White Russia, 26,000 from the Central Asian republics such as Tashkent, and only 45,000 from Russia itself (15,000 from Leningrad, 10,000 from Moscow). During the Seventies a far greater proportion of immigrants came from the Baltic republics, and many of them could remember Jewish life free of Soviet rule. Hardly any such people are among the current arrivals. They are products of the Communist regime, even though most of them were never Communists, and very few could be called even “cynical Communists,” that is, those who, for career reasons, have their names on the lists of government posts that are open only to Party members—the nomenklatura.
There is a nasty racist edge to the questions Israelis raise about the Soviet Jews: Do they “look Jewish”? Are they in fact Jews? The nineteenth-century British psychologist Francis Galton invented a technique for constructing a collective portrait of particular groups by putting one picture on top of another. By mapping the common points of all the pictures, he arrived at a portrait of a typical group member. Many Israelis have constructed such a mental picture of the numerous immigrants who appear on the television screens here almost every evening.
The older immigrants “look Jewish” to the Israelis, but then old people often look Jewish. The traditional stereotype of a Jew is an old person. The young immigrants tend to look Russian—with snub noses, high cheekbones, wide Slavic faces among the women, fair hair, light complexions, and even steely blue eyes, instead of the “suffering” brown eyes of the Jewish stereotype. In general, to Israelis the Soviet immigrants look like gentiles. Many Israeli Jews of European origin (Ashkenazis) say: “Great, they’ll improve the race, the next generation won’t look so Sephardi,” while a Sephardi told me, “They are even more Ashkenazi than the Ashkenazis. Real Christians, it’s frightening.”
That the Russian immigration will change Israelis not only culturally but also physiognomically is felt to be a source of hope by the Ashkenazis and of fear by the Sephardis. People are often embarrassed at first to speak about such feelings but they tend to emerge as one talks. In the Israelis’ attitudes toward the many Soviet Jews who don’t look Jewish, one may detect an erotic ambivalence toward the beautiful gentile.
The Israeli minister responsible for immigrants when they arrive is Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, a representative of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party. His office provides them with the government’s “absorption basket,” including a mortgage for buying an apartment, a school for learning Hebrew, and temporary housing. Peretz has acquired the reputation for being one of the most incompetent ministers in Israel’s history. He has not even managed to rent an office in any of the cities in which there are thousands of immigrants, and the facilities for looking after them are in a chaotic state.
Peretz also caused a stir when he said that a third of Soviet immigrants are not Jewish. Some people thought that this was an attempt to distract public attention from his incompetence, but Peretz was mostly concerned not to offend two of the most powerful communities in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox and the Sephardis, each of which is uneasy about the Soviet immigration. The immigrants are entirely European—that is, non-Sephardi—and very secular—that is, they are seldom religious, and hardly ever ultra-Orthodox.
The storm that greeted Peretz’s statement soon subsided. Speaking against immigration in Israel is like speaking against motherhood, and the Sephardis who openly did so—one of their local leaders even wrote a letter to Gorbachev asking him to stop Jews from leaving—were severely criticized. Some Sephardi Israelis of Moroccan origin then invited the new immigrants to an Oriental feast, as if making a grand conciliatory gesture.
Still, when stories and pictures of a revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in Israel began to appear—including pictures of people alleged to be immigrants receiving incense from bearded Russian Orthodox priests—Peretz’s claim that one third of the arrivals are not Jewish was strengthened in the public mind.
Soviet Jews are officially those who identify themselves as Jews when they fill in the box labeled “national’nost” in the Soviet census. This does not mean “nationality”; the closest approximation in English might be “ethnic group.” Since being a Jew in the Soviet Union is no great honor, and until quite recently had many disadvantages, some Jews undoubtedly “converted” when they responded to the census. Those who listed themselves as Jews may be taken to consider themselves Jews, but since there is a high proportion of mixed marriages among the Soviet Jews, there are a great many spouses and children who are prepared to consider themselves Jewish even though, according to Jewish religious law, they are not Jews, because their mothers are not Jewish. The proportion of such non-Jews may be a third, as Peretz declared, or it may be half or more. No one knows, and aside from Orthodox Jews no one wants to know.
On the whole, however, these secular Russian immigrants have a clear interest—both personal and collective—in a secular Israel in which they will not have to conform to religious laws they don’t believe in. The theological situation was summed up by a mining engineer I talked to from the Ukraine: “God is something very nice for parasites. Working people have no time for him. My husband and I are working people.” This could become an important political fact, since their secularism could lead the immigrants to oppose not only the Orthodox parties but also the parties of the right that depend on the Orthodox parties for support and make many concessions to them.
The fight for the “Jewish souls” of the immigrants is very intense. The Immigrant Absorption Ministry has indeed failed dramatically to help arriving immigrants, but the ultra-Orthodox officials who run it are much more concerned with what it calls their “spiritual absorption.” To learn Hebrew the immigrants are sent mainly to schools that are run by the Orthodox, where they are subject to incessant religious missionary activity. The men and boys are required to wear skullcaps, and the women and girls are required to dress in accordance with Orthodox custom—long-sleeved dresses, no slacks or short skirts, etc. This indoctrination is called “Yiddishkeit” and one often hears from Orthodox spokesmen that Yiddishkeit never hurt anyone.
This Passover the Absorption Ministry distributed specially printed Passover Haggadas with a Russian translation for the immigrants. One of the passages in the Haggada is a fable of four types of sons, among them a wise son and an evil son. In the ministry’s Haggada the illustration of the wise son is of an Orthodox man with a full beard and a large black skullcap, while the evil son, a clean-shaven young executive without a hat, is portrayed as a secular Jew. The ministry’s spiritual concern, moreover, is not only for the living but also for the dead. Before an immigrant killed in a traffic accident could be buried in a Jewish grave, a circumcision was performed on the corpse. (This necrophilic item was reported on the back pages of the Israeli press, but became a central item on Soviet television.)
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
June 27, 1991