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  Russian Influx Shatters the Melting Pot

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foeign Service
Sunday, April 26, 1998; Page A1

HAIFA, Israel – Like a massive earthquake followed by endless aftershocks, Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to allow Jews to leave the Soviet Union en masse nearly a decade ago has reshaped the political, cultural and economic landscape of Israel and continues to redefine the Jewish state.

Both in its massive scale – nearly a million former Soviet immigrants will have arrived by 2000 – and its astonishingly high educational and professional quality, the Russian influx is unlike any previous surge of immigration to Israel, which this week celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding. It is as if the United States had suddenly absorbed the entire population of England, with Scotland's added for good measure.

Even now, immigrants from the Soviet successor states continue to land at Ben-Gurion Airport at a clip of more than 150 a day, dwarfing all other current immigrant groups to Israel and altering neighborhoods, offices and the country's political calculus.

The "Russians," a generic term encompassing immigrants from all 15 former Soviet republics, have confounded expectations in Israel. Having once been seen as a threat to jobs, wages and prosperity, they have in fact helped reinvigorate the Israeli economy.

For immigrants who arrived in the early 1990s, the unemployment rate, about 7 percent, is below that of other Israelis. Most own their own apartments. Half own cars. The once-gaping disparity in earnings is closing as Russians steadily move up the corporate ladder.

"If you look at the U.S., France, Germany or Canada, their immigrants are always less skilled than the native population," said Rachel Friedberg, an economist at Brown University in Rhode Island.

"But the Russians are actually more skilled than native Israelis – more engineers, more musicians, more physicians," Friedberg said. "Over time they've done incredibly well."

From its founding in 1948, Israel has been a country of immigrants, and it remains emphatically so today. Half the exceptionally young population of 5.9 million was born elsewhere. Nearly all the cabinet ministers in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition government are immigrants or the sons of immigrants from a broad spectrum of the Jewish diaspora – Russians, Ukrainians, Moroccans, Yemenites, Spaniards, Tunisians, Austrians, Hungarians, Iranians, Romanians and Kurds.

As in the United States, immigration is central to Israel's self-image and to its drive and ambition. It is also a wellspring of personal heartache, social upheaval and political tension.

The gauzy myth of an Israeli melting pot, nurtured for decades by Jews who flocked to the new country seeking social harmony in a land of their own, has yielded to a harsh new reality: a culture at once richer and more diverse, but also far more balkanized than its founders ever imagined.

A New Breed of Immigrant


Just look south of Tel Aviv, to the town of Bnei Ayish, where a construction manager from Moscow who barely knew what a bar mitzvah was a decade ago is now on the verge of becoming mayor.

Grigory Lifshits arrived in Israel in 1992 and moved to Bnei Ayish, which consisted of a few hundred families, most of them immigrants from Yemen who settled there in the late 1950s. The families lived in bungalows, worked in the groves and fields outside town, kept kosher kitchens, sent their kids to a religious school and attended synagogue regularly.

Lifshits, now in his late forties, represented a new breed of immigrant for Bnei Ayish – urban, professional, college-educated and secular.

"Few of us knew the first thing about Judaism in Russia," said Lifshits, who is one of just a handful of Russians in Bnei Ayish who wears a religious skullcap.

The Russian settlers in Bnei Ayish soon became a flood, and the Yemenites who had been there for years began talking about a "Russian takeover."

What had been a settlement of 1,500 people swelled to a town of 7,000. Three-story apartment blocs – referred to by the Yemenites as "high-rises" – sprouted to house the newcomers. The apartment blocs were in the southwest of town; the Yemenites' bungalows were in the northeast.

In their part of town, the Russians opened delicatessens – one called Arbat, after Moscow's famous pedestrian street – selling ham and bacon. Few attended synagogue; almost none kept kosher. They built secular schools for their children. They opened a new community center where the lingua franca was Russian and the sport of choice volleyball.

Swamped by the newcomers, the Yemenites despaired. Nearly two-thirds of the town is now Russian. In local elections this November, the Russians will easily capture a majority of the town council seats. Lifshits, once a loyal Communist Party member in Moscow, is the odds-on favorite to become the new mayor.

"There are even rumors that they want to build an Orthodox church," said Yishiye Yidye, the Yemenite deputy mayor who has watched the town's transformation with dismay. "This would be the worst thing that could possibly happen."

Lifshits scoffed at the idea of an Orthodox church but acknowledged that cohabitation has been strained. "The tension hasn't reached the point of violence," he said. "But there is tension."

Redefining Israel


The bitter divisions within the Jewish state, once glossed over when Arab enemies loomed larger, have been brought home to Israelis by the Russians with all the subtlety of a poke in the eye. The Russians now comprise nearly a fifth of the nation's population. Many are ignorant of Judaism, and at least a quarter of them are not even regarded as Jewish, including the husbands, wives and children of those who are.

Yet the Russians in Israel are so numerous, and their sense of culture so strong, that few feel ostracized.

"Why should we be integrated?" said Eduard Kuznetsov, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner who is now chief editor of Vesti, Israel's largest Russian-language newspaper. "Why shouldn't we fight and protest to advance our rights? If you're big enough you can fight to keep your own culture.

"Is there tension [in Israeli society]? So what? Tension is part of life."

Said Sergei Michael, a Russian immigrant and activist in Israel's Labor Party: "The reality in Israel is many nations, societies and ethnic groups actually opposed to each other. There's no mosaic because the pieces don't fit."

It is dawning on Israelis that Russians not only are making good much more quickly than was forecast, they also are redefining Israel and what it means to be an Israeli.

Take the case of Michael Kagan, who went to work in Israel for a small high-tech company called Intel Corp. in 1983. A young engineer from Leningrad, Kagan had arrived in Israel during a briefer exodus of Soviet Jews in the 1970s. He hadn't the slightest expectation of the wave that followed.

Intel's development center in Haifa had just 40 employees, and Kagan was the only one from the Soviet Union. The company's second Russian immigrant wasn't hired until five years later.

Then came the deluge – a shock wave of Jewish emigres from the disintegrating Soviet empire starting in late 1989 that nearly tripled the number of engineers in Israel and helped fuel a high-tech boom that persists today.

These days, Intel's ultramodern office complex in Haifa – the firm's only development center outside the United States – has 800 workers. Of those, about 150 are Russians. Kagan, now chief of the microprocessor design department, makes recruiting trips to Moscow to help meet a soaring demand for engineers that Israel's universities cannot satisfy.

"There's a huge need right now in Israel for high-tech engineers," said Kagan. "Immigration from Russia has been one of the key factors enabling this growth."

One Israeli commentator, writing last week in the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, likened the immigrants' arrival to a $10 billion aid program from the former Soviet states. Economists regard the Russian immigration as an infusion of highly trained human capital that Israel itself could never have generated so quickly.

The Russian impact has been felt everywhere, from the northern town of Metulla, where Moroccan kids play ice hockey under the tutelage of Russian coaches, to the southern desert city of Beersheba, which says it is home to more chess grandmasters than any place on earth, all but one of them Russian-born.

In the coastal town of Ashdod, Russians have started an international summer jazz festival, now entering its fifth season. Nearby, in the Barzilai regional hospital in Ashqelon, a majority of the staff physicians are Russian, including the chiefs of the surgery and oncology departments. In practically every corner of Israel, native-born Israeli music teachers have been squeezed out of business by a deluge of job-hungry Russian violinists and pianists willing to work for less.

"I have a notebook full of Russians – 60 names – who are qualified music teachers in search of work," said Hanita Zvevner, director of the music conservatory in Ashdod. "There aren't enough students for them all."

A Political Force


As the Russian immigration made itself felt, the expectations that attended their arrival ran full force into very different realities. Some Israeli women's groups had hoped the new immigrants would swell their ranks and add muscle to the abortion-rights movement in Israel. But Russian women have mostly stayed away.

The Israeli liberal establishment, descendants of Europeans, saw the Russians as natural allies who would help neutralize the growing influence of the Sephardim, immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. But in the 1996 elections the Russians, in the form of a newly formed party called Yisrael B'aliyah (Movement for Israel and Immigration), joined forces with the Sephardim and helped elect Netanyahu, a conservative prime minister.

Peace activists assumed the Russian Jews, once an oppressed minority themselves in the Soviet Union, would identify with the Palestinians and press for a negotiated settlement. Few of the new arrivals appear to feel sympathy for their Arab neighbors, or for the idea of trading West Bank land for peace with the Palestinians.

"There is a Soviet mentality that is still alive – paternalism ... and territorial chauvinism," said Roman Bronfman, a political scientist who arrived from Ukraine in 1980. A member of Yisrael B'aliyah, he is a moderate member of the Israeli parliament. "Although the Soviet structure broke down, the mentality is much slower to die."

Even the best-known Russian immigrant, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, has surprised many Israelis. Many see him as a hero for his courage in defying his Soviet jailers and persecutors. For the 1996 elections he helped found Yisrael B'aliyah, which stunned analysts by winning seven seats in parliament.

Sharansky's prize was a cabinet seat as minister of trade and industry. Perhaps inevitably, his transition to government has come at a price. Beleaguered by the rough-and-tumble of Israeli politics and by deep splits in his own party, Sharansky is losing some of his moral aura and starting to be seen as another in the country's clamorous ranks of right-wing politicians.

Sharansky is disturbed no more by the suggestion that he has become a politician than by the notion that Israel is changing.

"There is a new type of integration, a new type of Zionism – not a melting pot where all these cultures have to disappear," he said. "There is no such thing as a new type of Jew. There are Russian Jews and American Jews and Moroccan Jews, and we want their tradition and their mentality and their knowledge and their experiences. ... The big challenge for the state of Israel is how to become the state of all the Jews, where all the Jews feel that they are part of it, when people who are coming after thousands years of life in diaspora have different concepts of everything including, what it means to be a Jew."

Clash of Cultures


That challenge is felt first in the main immigrant reception hall at Ben-Gurion Airport – Israel's Ellis Island. A day in January brought a typical melange: 30 immigrants from Kiev, 25 from Simferopol and 25 from Odessa, all in Ukraine; 20 from Moldova; 40 from Minsk, Belarus; 30 from Moscow; and 30 from Tblisi, Georgia. Only two flights arrived with immigrants from outside the former Soviet Union – Poland and Ethiopia.

The immigrants wandered blinking into a spotlessly bright room of blond wood furniture and potted plants. A little girl from Moldova in a green felt hat clutched her doll and gazed at the photographs on the wall: camels in the Judean desert, a fisherman on a kibbutz, a hot-air balloon festival.

Russian-speaking officials attended briskly to the arrivals, entering their names into computers, handing them identity cards, six months' free medical insurance and, for retirees, social security checks. Israel has become a relatively rich country, and it treats its immigrants accordingly.

There are immediate cash distributions: about $540 for a family of four. The same family can also expect benefits amounting to $10,000 in the first year.

The airport immigration center is run by Boris Hellman, a Soviet emigre. When he arrived with an earlier wave of Soviet immigrants in 1973, he received about $40. "Now is a much better time to come," he said.

Israelis, particularly North Africans who arrived in much more difficult circumstances in the 1950s, tend to resent the recent Russian emigres. They are regarded as unappreciative, arrogant and only vaguely committed to Judaism and their adoptive country.

Often enough, the Russians agree. They see Israeli society as having done them precious few favors.

Many complain of discrimination on the job, of receiving lower wages than native Israelis for the same work. Among intellectual emigres from Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is common to sneer at the idea of Israeli culture.

Russian teenagers are volunteering for elite fighting units in the army at the same rate as other Israelis. But older emigres, jaded by a lifetime of Soviet patriotic songs and slogans, wince at the idea that they owe Israel their affections.

"It's a part of Russian culture not to be very patriotic; to be ironic, sarcastic," said Kuznetsov, the editor. "I'm not sure we need patriotism here."

On Thursday, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding. This is the first of several articles that will survey the Jewish state, its views of its first half century and its relationship with American Jews.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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