ISRAELI JUBILEE : A Nation of Immigrants
Russian Influx Shatters the Melting Pot
Washington Post Foreign 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."
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