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.

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