Sunday 28 September 2008

Numbers that Count

Each year, just prior to the Jewish New Year, the Israeli government publishes its latest population statistics. This year's numbers were published last week and make for some interesting reading.

There are currently 7.3 million people living in the State of Israel, a growth of approximately 1.6% over the previous year. Of these, 5.5 million are Jews and 1.5 million are Arabs. The remaining 300,000 are mostly foreign workers. The statistics are sliced and diced in almost every way, highlighting the number of men versus women (women rule), the number of young and old, the number of marriages and divorces and almost anything else that one may wish to know. For me, there are two or three statistics which stick out above all else.

Firstly, whereas the number of Jews in the diaspora is shrinking, Israel is the only country in the world where the number of Jews continues to grow. Although it is true that many Jews from the diaspora are choosing to make their homes in Israel, the number of new immigrants to Israel during 2007 was less than 20,000 which neither accounts entirely for the increase of the number of Jews in Israel, nor the decrease of the number of Jews in the diaspora. So one can only concluded that the increase in Israel, whilst greatly assisted by immigration, has a lot to do with natural growth. Equally, one is forced to conclude that the decrease in the diaspora is largely driven by assimilation. These numbers serve to reinforce the famous prediction of Zeev Jabotinsky who proclaimed "Liquidate the diaspora before the diaspora liquidates you". Thankfully there were sufficient followers and believers who were prepared to commit themselves to ensure continued Jewish existence by moving to the Land of Israel. I have no doubt that these actions have served to strengthen and secure the future of the Jewish nation.

Along the same lines, a second statistic that caught my attention was the fact that Israel's Jewish population represents just more than 40% of the world's Jews. Although Israel does not quite yet have a majority of the Jews in the world, it does now have the largest Jewish population after it surpassed the number of Jews in the USA a year or two ago. This gap has now grown further since the number of Jews in the USA has fallen whilst the Israeli population continues to grow. It seems inevitable that Israel will soon house a majority of the world's Jews if the current trends continue.

The third fact which really caught my attention was the one that 3.8 million of Israel's citizens were born in the country. For most countries, it is obvious that most of its citizens should have been born there. For Israel, however, a country that started out life 60 years ago with a Jewish population of 646,000 and a total population of 806,000, this is a big achievement. Most of the early population growth was down to immigration in the same way that much of Israel's early years relied heavily on the active support of diaspora Jews. The balance has now shifted to the point where the Jews of the diaspora are relying more on Israel. This is not to say that Israel does not benefit from donations made to key institutions by wealthy diaspora Jews and from the large number of Jews who are tourists in Israel each year. It is, however, increasingly the case that Israel provides the support to the Jews outside of Israel, be it financial, emotional, religious or security support. As is evidenced by the numbers, the Jewish diaspora will be increasingly dependent upon Israel as the population gap continues to grow.

What is particularly interesting for me is the life expectancy of children born in Israel in 2007. For women this is 83 years old and for men 79 years old. This adds the quality aspect to the quantity. Not only are there more and more Jews living in Israel, it appears as though they have a quality of life that affords them the privilege to live a long life as well.

Having been fortunate enough to be born during the years following the establishment of the State of Israel, I have always come to regard Israel as a natural and integral part of the Jewish world. It would be hard for me to think of the world without the existence of Israel. Even so, it is not difficult for me and others like me to understand what may have happened to the Jewish world in the absence of a Jewish State.

We have a great deal to be thankful to Jabotinsky and his colleagues about. Not only did they accurately predicted the damage that assimilation could cause to the Jewish population, but they were prepared to take up the fight to ensure that there would be a Jewish state to provide a solution to this problem.

Happy New Year.

Rain at Last

The skies have finally opened. We had a few drops the day before yesterday, but they could hardly be called rain. In fact, in most countries, the event would have gone completely unnoticed. It lasted about 3 minutes and hardly even wet the ground. But in an area where there has been no precipitation at all, not even a tiny drop, for more than 5 months, this was a momentous event. The schoolchildren came pouring out of their classrooms to run about in the "rain" and to experience the unique feeling of being outdoors and getting wet. What excitement there was.

This was followed yesterday by a slightly heavier and more extended downpour, probably 10 minutes in all. This could qualify as rain, and maybe even as the "yoreh". As far as I know, Hebrew is the only language which has a unique word to describe the first rains of the season - yoreh. And, in a region where rains are almost as unique as the peace that we desperately seek, it is very appropriate to have a special word that serves to add the desired importance to this much anticipated event.

You may recall reading in my previous blog, The Water Conundrum, about the predictions that taps would run dry in Israel during the summer of 2008. Well, they did not. Many regard this as a miracle. But this country is a water miracle. How we manage to survive each year with seemingly lower and lower rainfall, and higher and higher demand is nothing short of miraculous. In my previous blog, I was critical of the way in which the authorities have managed, or mismanaged, this summer's drought. And yet, without any drama, fanfare or significant rationing programs, we seem to be at the end of the danger period. This is a miracle.

True, we cannot suddenly celebrate the end of the drought on the basis of a few drops of rain that were hardly sufficient to water the garden. But this does hopefully signal the end to the dry season, and the start to a rainy season that will rival that of 1991/2.

As I previously mentioned, the summer of 1991 saw Israel's primary water source, the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) drop to 214.87 metres below sea level. This is agonisingly close to the level of 215 metres below sea level when all pumping from the Kinneret would be halted. All the water experts agreed that it would require approximately 10 years of above-average rainfall to fill the Kinneret from that low point. And yet, during the rainy season that followed, the Kinneret was filled to the brim. In fact, there was even a requirement to open the sluice gates to prevent the Kinneret from running over. Whilst this is remarkable, what is even more remarkable is that this happened without major flooding of any type. Being able to absorb the equivalent of 10 years of above-average rainfall in one season without any flooding or disaster can only be described as a miracle.

When measured about two months ago, the level of water in the Kinneret reached 213.38 metres below sea level. At its low point this year, it will not be too far off the low level in 1991. When the traditional Jewish prayer for rain begins in about three weeks' time, we will be praying for an additional miracle in the rainy season of 2008/9. In addition to praying for enough rain to fill the Kinneret, we will also require sufficient rains to fill both the coastal and the mountain aquifers. Despite the good rains of 1991/2, there was not sufficient to replenish the supplies in the aquifers. As a result, the aquifer levels are lower than they have been previously, and in danger of permanent damage due to over pumping.

Those people who do not believe in miracles require only a short visit to Israel to be convinced that the fact that we manage to get by in spite of the way in which the water resource is handled can be nothing short of miraculous. We hope and pray that these miracles continue. Perhaps the new miracle will be that the relevant authorities will be more proactive in managing our most scarce and precious resource.

I suppose we can only pray for so many miracles!

Friday 26 September 2008

What to do about Iran

It is true that the Islamic Republic of Iran has outwardly become more anti-Israeli since Ahmadinejad became President in August 2005. It is also true that Iran was not exactly a friend of Israel under the rule of those that preceded him following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 - Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami. There are, however, two main differences between Ahmadinejad's brand of hate of Israel when compared to that of his predecessors. Firstly, Ahmadinejad has no shame in screaming his hatred from the rooftops, even at the podium of the hallowed UN General Assembly. Secondly, Ahmadinejad is building a nuclear bomb.

Ahmadinejad's rhetoric has been aggressive and hate-filled from the moment he was elected to the high office of President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most of his vitriol is directed at Israel, although he has reserved choice words for the US and other Western democracies. On the very day that I am writing this, Ahmadinejad has had the honour of speaking at the UN. No surprise that he used this opportunity, as always, to promote hatred towards Israel, Jews and the US. His distinctly undiplomatic style crosses the border of defamation and should not be tolerated by the UN in accordance with the terms of its charter. To actually invite somebody like Ahmadinejad to address the General Assembly is an insult to Israel and the other countries that he continuously insults.

Ahmadinejad's outbursts have prompted former Mossad Chief, Ephraim Halevy, to comment that he is Israel's greatest gift. Halevy's contention is that Ahmadinejad has united the international community against him and Iran, which serves an Israeli interest. I have a slightly diluted view of the extent to which this serves Israel's interests. The fact is that ordinary peace-loving democracies which respect the rule of law and the rights of other nations to exist are unable to simply stand by and watch the Iranian rant. This includes even countries that are not Israel's biggest supporters. The fact that some countries that are not big friends of Israel are forced to criticise Iran's actions does not turn them suddenly into big friends of Israel. I feel sure that these same countries would stand by and criticise Iran verbally if the worst happened and an open conflict occurred between Iran and Israel. Make no bones about it, they are not suddenly inclined to sell weapons to Israel or make any concrete contributions to the Jewish state as a result of Ahmadinejad's insults.

What is more worrying is the nuclear bomb that he is building. Even though he initially tried to conceal the true intention of the country's nuclear enrichment program as part of it's production of domestic electricity, he has recently made less effort to try to hide what he is doing. It seems fairly clear to all concerned that something sinister is going on. The concerns that Israel and other Western countries have of allowing a nuclear bomb to fall into Iranian hands centres mainly on the lack of stability shown by Iranian rulers and governments. It is hard to trust them with such a weapon when one gets the impression that they could fire the button on any day that they get out of bed on the wrong side. To date, the possession of nuclear weapons has been used as a tool to maintain the balance of power, for example in the Indian subcontinent with India and Pakistan. Due to Iran's inherent instability, and in light of the recent tirade of hatred flowing from its President, allowing Iran to possess nuclear weapons is an entirely different and extremely dangerous proposition.

So, what can Israel do about this unsatisfactory state of affairs? Diplomatic efforts have been sporadic to say the least. The US has made some diplomatic noises in support of Israel's position. The matter has been discussed at the United Nations and at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Voices of protest have been raised, condemnations issued and sanctions imposed. But all this counts for very little when somebody with the resolve of Ahmadinejad is determined to develop a nuclear weapon despite the views of the world. Whilst he is still not openly admitting to the fact that his uranium enrichment program is for the purpose of developing weapons, he has been keen to publicise the progress that Iran is making in reaching the point of perfecting enrichment to produce reactor fuel. There are mixed views outside of Iran about the true state of the progress that is being made. Whilst the Americans believe that the true position is behind that stated by the Iranian President, the Israelis have stated that the true position may be further ahead. Diplomatic efforts are clearly not currently working, and it is questionable as to whether tougher diplomatic initiatives would be more effective.

Much has been written about Israel's military options. Precedents were created when Israel destroyed both the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak in Operation Opera in 1981, and the Syrian nuclear site under construction near Dayr az-Zawr in 2007. Both were destroyed by pinpoint air force raids and, apart from a few raised voices and verbal utterances, went without response from either of the countries.

Despite two successful missions to its credit, I don't see the Israeli Air Force carrying out a similar attack in Iran. It is true that much has been written about the plans that have already been formulated by the IAF which has served to hype up this possibility. The IAF is even reputed to have carried out a preparation exercise off the coast of Greece during the past few months. At the political level, however, I believe that such a decision is much more difficult.

Iran, in the light of all the hype about the possibility of an Israeli attack, has been making military noises of its own. It is reported to have no less than 600 Shahab medium and long-range missiles pointing at Israel and ready for firing at any given moment. The latest version of the missile, Shahab 3, is reputed to be strong, accurate and capable of carrying conventional as well as unconventional (nuclear and chemical) warheads. In addition, Iran has test fired missiles recently and has held a number of military exercises. It would appear to be ready for any attempt by Israel to destroy its nuclear sites.

In view of Iran's military preparations and statements of intent, it would be safe to assume that Iran would respond to any attack by Israel. Even if the Israeli jets succeed in hitting their target and returning to Israel undetected, the first discovery of an Israeli attack by Iran will solicit a response. Any attack by Iran on Israel would inevitably be accompanied by an attack on the north of Israel by Iran's proxy army in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and an attack on the south of Israel by Iran's allies in Gaza, Hamas. This means that Israel will need to be on a full war footing before the first jets leave their bases en-route to Iran. All civilians would need to be in bomb shelters, a widespread call-up of reserve soldiers will be required and all Arrows anti-Shahab missiles should be ready to fire.

Clearly, none of these preparations can be made without alerting the world to Israel's intentions. It is hardly possible to put 7.5 million people onto a war footing without the rest of the world noticing. When considering thise together with the prospect of an all-out war with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and whoever else may choose to join, the possible use of military force looks a distinctly unattractive option.

So how can this matter be taken care of? The best alternative from an Israeli perspective is a solution internal to Iran. In just the same way as Ahmadinejad was explaining in New York this week that he is not advocating a violent end to Israel's existence, but rather one which comes about by political evolution, so it is that I wish the same upon him. He faces a Presidential election in 2009 and, if the information that we receive from Tehran is accurate, he is up against some significant opposition. This same information indicates that the election will be won and lost on internal matters - the economy and social issues - rather than the foreign policy issues that he seems to have focused much of his Presidential time on. As such, the best approach for Israel, the US and other Western countries is to shore up the opposition as much as possible to ensure that a new President comes to power in the next election. Although we cannot be guaranteed that he will better than Ahmadinejad, it is clear that it can also not get much worse. It is hoped, however, that an evolutionary change will bring somebody to power who has a more engaging approach with the West. This will hopefully ensure a peaceful but decisive resolution to the Iran nuclear issue.

Whilst Ephraim Halevy may be believe that Ahmadinejad is Israel's greatest gift, I believe that it will be a greater gift when he is removed. It is my personal hope that this latter gift is received as soon as possible.

Thursday 18 September 2008


In the 219 years since George Washington was elected the first President of the United States of America in 1789, America has never had a lady President. In fact, America has never even had a lady Vice President although that may change if John McCain gets his way in the upcoming presidential election. The first woman to be appointed US Secretary of State was Madeleine Albright in 1997, only 11 years ago. The current serving Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, is the second lady to serve in this position.

In contrast to that, Golda Meir was elected Israel's first lady Prime Minister in 1969. She was, at the time, only the third woman in world history to hold the post of Prime Minister following Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka (1960) and Indira Gandhi of India (1964).

It now seems inevitable that Tzippi Livni will follow in Golda Meir's footsteps by moving into the Prime Minister's office after having served as Foreign Minister. During her time as Israeli Foreign Minister, Livni appears to have built a good working relationship with her American counterpart at the State Department. Although not a great deal has been written about the relationship between the two ladies, it is interesting that Livni's entry in The Time 100 list of most influential leaders and revolutionaries is written by Condoleeza Rice (see Time 100 List). Even though their main objective of advancing the peace process has not yielded significant achievements, they seem to have built a strong bond with each other.

So how will Livni interact with the new American administration from her new position as Prime Minister? For starters, as the leader of the country, Livni will be forced to focus more on the White House than the State Department. On the face of it, she seems not to have a great deal in common with McCain or Obama. But the interesting question is whether McCain, in the event that he wins the election, will use a strategy of involving Sarah Palin in any work that he does with Tzippi Livni. Despite the fact that Palin seems hopelessly underqualified for such a role based on her previous experience, it may make sense for McCain to deploy Palin to attempt to build a strong working relationship - woman to woman. This may allow him to get through to Livni in a way that he, on his own, could not hope to achieve.

Livni, as a former army officer, former Mossad agent, lawyer and seasoned politician is clearly a tough cookie. Even in Israel where girls are regarded as being very tough, Livni is no pushover. Palin, despite her stint as Governor of Alaska, seems softer in her approach although still very resilient. It would be very interesting for me to see these two ladies build a relationship in the interests of making some progress towards a peace arrangement.

The obvious problem in all of this is the fact that women do not have the same status in the Arab world as they have in other parts of the world. The leaders of all the Arab countries and groups who would need to be involved in a peace agreement are men. They are also men who appear to come from a background where male domination remains a strong cultural value and phenomenon. Whilst they may have had to get used to working with Rice and Livni over the past few years, it was always in the knowledge that their respective bosses were both men. Now, at least in Livni's case, the buck stops with her.

Having seen male predecessors and counterparts fail to achieve anything of meaning over the course of sixty years, it would be interesting to see whether the Ladies-in-Waiting are able to create a lasting peace in the Middle East. I, for one, am happy to give them the chance.

Sunday 14 September 2008

Jobs for the Boys

Israel adopted the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system when it declared independence in 1948. This system was inherited from the pre-state political system of the "yishuv", the organisation of Jews living in Palestine during the period of the British Mandate. The essence of PR is that the representation in the elected assembly (in this case, the Knesset) is in direct proportion to the popular vote. So, if Party A wins 25% of the popular vote during the election, Party A will have 25% of the seats in the assembly.

There are certainly advantages to this type of electoral system. Professor Douglas J. Amy argues very strongly for a PR electoral system for the USA in his article "What is Proportional Representation and why do we need this Reform?". The main advantage that he cites is that minorities are afforded representation in the elected assembly in proportion to their minority status. He mentions both ethnic and racial minorities as well as women, who he feels are better represented under a PR system. Additionally, Amy mentions the fact that there is larger voter choice under a PR electoral system. All voters have the opportunity to vote for all parties standing in the election, and not only the candidates who happen to be standing in your voting constituency.

In Israel, however, it is clear to me that PR has not been successful. I believe that it has contributed to an environment where the elected representatives are not answerable to the people that have elected them. This is because of the primary system in which candidates are elected to party lists by paid-up members of their party. In principle, the candidates receiving the most votes in the party's primary get the highest places on the party's list. The higher the candidate's place on the list, the more likely the candidate is to be elected to the Knesset. Having said that, most parties reserve particular places for special groups of candidates. For example, a party may decide that it wishes to have a woman amongst its top ten candidates. If a woman is not elected in her own right to one of the top ten positions, the woman with the highest number of votes will automatically be promoted to the tenth position. The first two or three positions are usually reserved for the party's leaders to prevent them from having to suffer the indignity of fighting for votes in a primary. In general, it is more important for a candidate to gain a higher position on the list than it is for the candidate to ensure that his party gets a higher share of the national vote, although this is clearly also important. So candidates are more likely to pander to the party members who vote in the primary, than to the electorate at large who they really represent.

If I have the need to approach a member of the Knesset to represent a personal interest that I may have, who do I turn to? There is nobody who represents me and my interest despite the fact that my chosen party may be in power. If I am a voting party member, I can be sure of gaining the attention of any number of the members of the Knesset. But as an ordinary non-member of any party, I have no hope. This is where the constituency system is so much better. All citizens, party members and others, living in a certain geographic area are represented by an elected member whether you voted for him/her or not. This member is directly answerable to all residents in the constituency and relies upon them for re-election when the next election comes around. PR seems to lack this personal accountability.

In addition to the lack of accountability, PR also seems to contribute to attracting only a certain type of person to run for office. As an ordinary citizen, I would have no hope of gaining entry to one of the lists unless I have a long-standing relationship with a significant number of party members who I can rely to vote for me. There is no opportunity for me to stand as an independent who could be a solid representative for my consitituency and fight the election on the basis of local politics. Instead, PR forces all candidates to play a national political game which can often become dirty and even crooked. One only needs to cite the example of Naomi Blumenthal, a Likud Knesset member who was convicted of bribing party members to vote for her by entertaining them at a luxury hotel. She was the one who got caught, but there are no doubt others like her. All of this results in a certain type of person being attracted to offering him/herself for election, and frightens others off who may be excellent value as a representative. It leaves a strong feeling that the environment is one where there are only "jobs for the boys", and one where newcomers are not welcome and have little prospect of breaking in.

Amy's contention that minorities, and minority parties, have better representation has proven itself to be true in the Israeli example. This has, however, become exaggerated to the point where minority parties have way more power than their minority position justifies. There could be as many as twenty parties running in a general election. Any party achieving more than the threshold, currently just 2% of the national vote, will be guaranteed a seat. This contributes to the reality that Israel has never yet had an election result where one party has achieved an outright majority. Instead, the largest party may hold anything between 25% and 40% of the total seats on offer with the remaining seats being broadly distributed amongst smaller niche-interest parties. This requires a coalition to be constructed in order to form a government. In the process of forming a coalition, the minority parties are able to extract high value from the leading party in exchange for joining the coalition and supporting the government. The value that the minority parties are able to derive is usually significantly beyond what their minority position justifies. They have become experts at this process, and would be happy to sell out to either a left or a right-wing government as long as their demands are met. In addition, the smaller parties are known to change their stance mid-term and begin to demand additional value from the government. Usually, these demands are also accompanied by threats to leave the coalition if they are not met. Where the coalition is made up of a number of such minority parties, the leading party unfortunately spends more time keeping the coalition together than running the country, and this inevitably contributes to a very unstable system of government.

Whilst arguing persuasively for a PR system in the USA, Amy is fair enough to mention the fact that PR does not work particularly well in Israel and Italy. He attributes the PR problems in both these countries to thresholds that are too low. He uses Germany as an example of a country that has successfully adopted PR. Here, the threshold is 5% of the national vote. If the 5% threshold had been applied in Israel during the 2006 election, it would have reduced the number of parties sitting in the Knesset from 12 to 7.

In addition, he suggests applying PR to smaller electoral districts rather than one large district as is the case in Israel. So, instead of having one district with 120 seats, the idea is to split the country into say 10 districts of 12 seats each. The 12 seats would be divided according to the PR vote in that district. I imagine that this could work, on condition that the candidates for each electoral district are selected by people from within the district. This would address the problem of accountability to the people who are being represented.

It sounds to me as if Professor Amy is really advocating a PR system that is a hybrid. Without acknowledging all the problems with the way in which PR is applied in Israel, he is suggesting a slightly mixed system that plugs many of its weaknesses. I believe that his suggestions are workable, and would represent significant progress if adopted in Israel.

The likelihood of this happening unfortunately seems very remote. The problem is that the people who are responsible for adopting and agreeing these changes, are also the ones that are potentially threatened by them. Which of the "boys" are likely to amend a system that guarantees "jobs for the boys"? It seems that it is more than just the electoral system that needs changing!

Friday 12 September 2008

The Russians Have Come

Twenty two years have passed since Natan Sharansky was released by the Soviet authorities and expelled from Russia. He was the most celebrated refusenik, but there were many others in Russia - ordinary men and women who were, perhaps, not as willing as Sharansky to raise their profile and risk imprisonment. It took three years following Sharansky's release for the Soviets to open the doors to these ordinary men and women, and allow them to emigrate. In 2009, we will celebrate 20 years since the Iron Curtain was finally lifted for Soviet Jews and they were allowed to leave Russia.

In the years following 1989, more than 1 million Russians have made Israel their new home. It has not been easy for them, nor for those Israelis who have had to adapt their lives and their country to accommodate a population increase of more than 20% within the space of a few short years. Inevitably, the process of integrating more than a million new immigrants causes friction, and leaves many people feeling unhappy and badly done-by on both sides of the equation.

The Russians have had to deal with many negative accusations by native Israelis over the years. In the first few years of the immigration, many were accused of using Israel as a convenient staging point to ultimately immigrate to other countries, particularly the US. It is true that of the 71,000 Soviet Jews who left Russia in 1989, only 12,500 remained in Israel. They have also been accused of bringing unwanted vices to Israel such as prostitution, alcoholism and Mafia-style gangs. There is no doubt that all of these have been on the increase in Israel over the past twenty years. There has also been a question mark around the dedication of the Russian immigrants to Judaism, and claims that a high proportion of the immigrants are not even Jewish. The Russian community stands accused of using Israel as an economic convenience, and of having no interest in the Jewish identity or values of the State of Israel. Many of those who have come to Israel are the in-law families of people who are not halachically Jewish but, by virtue of having one Jewish grandparent, are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Food chains like Tiv Taam, which cater to the Russian eating habits and particularly their search for non-kosher food, have sprung up all around the country. One cannot argue with any of these assertions and accusations.

I feel that, alongside the negative points some of which are mentioned above, there are at least as many positive points to be raised. It is my assertion that the Russian immigration has been a very good thing for Israel and has generated many positive outcomes.

For starters, it has increased the Israeli market by 20% with all that is associated with that. Not only does it create a larger consumer base, it also provides more people to counter the growing Arab population within our borders and a larger pool of people who will fight in the army when called upon to do so.

It has been quoted that a very high proportion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union - around the 80% mark - own the homes in which they live. This signals the economic contribution that Russians have made. Considering most of them arrived in Israel within the last twenty years with little or no financial backing, this is a huge achievement. This means that they have done whatever it takes to become financially independent. Although many of the new immigrants were highly educated, their education was limited to a small number professional categories, most commonly medical professionals, scientists, engineers, academics and musicians. For some such as dentists and doctors, they were obliged to re-qualify in Israel to ensure they were up to the required standard. For others, the language barrier made it very difficult for them to immediately begin working in their field e.g. academics. For a great many others, the Israeli economy was simply unable to absorb all the professionals in that category as the market is too small. This led to many situations where highly educated people were forced to carry out menial tasks, such as cleaning, in order to survive. This did not deter them, and many were known to hold down more than one job in whatever work they could find in order to earn a living. One has to admire this determination and the achievement of getting to such a high level of financial dependency in a short period of time.

Many of the Russian immigrants were trained to an extremely high level in their fields. This is particularly true of scientists, musicians, sports people and performing artists. The Russia in which they grew up demanded and tolerated only the very best and most professional in their fields. Israel has been the grateful beneficiary of these people and the high standards of work that they bring with them. Many of the technical people in Israel's most famous high-tech companies include Russians amongst their number. When examining Israel's representatives at the recent Beijing Olympic games, it will come as no surprise to find out that most of the gymnasts and synchronised swimmers have Russian-sounding surnames. Equally unsurprising is the fact that the most spoken language amongst the musicians in Israel's orchestras is Russian.

As a result of the large number of former Russians based in Israel, it has turned Israel into an attractive tourist destination for Russian visitors. During 2008 so far, Russia has provided the second highest number of inbound tourists to Israel. Admittedly they are not the big spending tourists that are characteristic of American and European visitors, but they bring their welcome clientèle and foreign currency to Israel all the same.

In recent years, Israel seems to have become attractive to the Jewish oligarchs from Russia. This represents something of a doubled-edged sword. On the one hand, many of them have invested heavily in Israel by buying properties and building business empires in Israel. One has gone much further by buying a local soccer club and by undertaking huge charitable projects which have attracted a great deal of media interest and publicity. On the other hand, there are often question-marks around how their money was made, and they usually come with a long list of people that they have made enemies of along the way. This has even included the Russian President who, in turn, has been less friendly to Israel as a result of his perception that Israel is housing one of his sworn enemies and an enemy of the Russian state.

For me, the most important thing is that many Russians who had been forced away from their Jewish roots by an intolerant Soviet regime are now "assimilating" back towards Judaism. Ironically, this includes those who are not halachically Jewish. By default, they study a Jewish syllabus at school, take off Jewish holidays and, despite the fact that their parents may choose to feed them pork bought at Tiv Taam, they are becoming more Jewish than not. They speak Hebrew, at least when not at home, and will serve in the Jewish army when their turn comes.

All of this requires that Israel becomes more tolerant towards the Russian community. Solutions need to be found for many problems which they have presented. Not least of these is how to treat soldiers who are not halachically Jewish and who are killed in action during their service to the Jewish homeland. I have been embarrassed by the reaction so far which, in some cases, has resulted in parents choosing to bury their soldier sons and daughters in Russia rather than in Israel. At least, this guarantees that the appropriate level of respect is accorded to these young men and women. The Israel Defence Force is under an obligation to urgently address this problem with the Rabbinate to allow these young men and women to be accorded the deserved national honour that is bestowed upon their Jewish colleagues.

But this is only a part of the story. Israeli society needs to be more tolerant and welcoming of the Russians. This will allow for their contribution to Israel to be doubled and tripled over the coming years. Although the stereotyping is almost impossible to remove completely, greater acceptance and respect will go a long way.