By: Ksenia Novikova
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, over 1.6 million people left the USSR. Over 900,000 Soviet Jews arrived in Israel. The massive migration to Israel caused the Jewish Israeli population to increase by 18 percent. Russian immigrants arrived in the 1970s through exit visas after the USSR lifted their ban on Refusenik emigration. The 1970s aliyah combined with the massive 1990s aliyah increased the total number of Russian-speakers in Israel to more than one million. Israel’s population was 4.8 million in 1990 and 6.4 million in 2000. From 1990-1995, 114,000 immigrants arrived each year. One-third of this group came from Russia, one-third from Ukraine and the other third came from various former Soviet republics. Former Soviet Union (FSU) immigrants have maintained their cultural identity, gained political power, and significantly influenced Israeli society. Soviet Jews have successfully integrated into Israeli society, but they choose to remain culturally and linguistically Russian.
The 1990s were a very difficult time for people living in the former Soviet Union republics. People experienced swift economic reforms during Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s years in office. Perestroika, a policy designed to reform the economic and political system, resulted in an economic free-for-all. Supermarkets held limited food and people waited for hours in long lines to receive necessities. The long lines were comparable to some of the worst times of the USSR. While FSU citizens began to receive more freedoms and rights, the disastrous economic state was enough to drive people away. The crime rate in Russia also increased during the 1990s and alcohol and drug use levels soared.
Soviet Jews were discriminated against and they faced extreme anti-Semitism in their everyday lives. In the USSR, Soviet Jews had to list their nationality on their passport as “Jewish” or “Yevrey,” so that they would be identified and treated differently. They could not eat kosher food, attend temple, or explore any aspect of being Jewish. Soviet Jews were often rejected from jobs or apartments because they were seen as “less than.” They were also rejected from universities. Jewish homes could not contain anything visibly Jewish and Soviet Jews were banned from observing Jewish holidays. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet Jews left in large numbers. Over 900,000 left to Israel while over 300,000 left to the United States. Around 219,000 Soviet Jews settled in Germany. FSU immigrants settled all across Israel and are more concentrated in some cities, such as Haifa and Ashdod.
Israel welcomed Soviet Jews with open arms. The FSU immigrants of the 1990s aliyah significantly contributed to Israel’s social capital. Over 60 percent of the new immigrants had academic degrees and white-collar jobs in the FSU. Physicians, engineers, and academics were welcomed to Israel. 80,000 former Soviet engineers arrived in Israel compared to the existing 25,000 Israeli engineers. However, the Soviet industry that they were used to was not present in Israel. While the FSU immigrants were highly educated and skilled, they had a difficult time finding a job in their previous occupation. The government of Israel provided free Hebrew lessons and professional classes to help FSU immigrants adjust and assimilate into the new country. However, only one-third of the new immigrants found jobs in their previous field. Most immigrants ended up working in the service sector. There was an excess of white-collar professionals in Israel. Also, the lack of Hebrew and English proficiency made it difficult for employers to choose immigrant professionals over young Israelis.
The excess of professional workers from the FSU created an unsuccessful occupational integration. FSU immigrants gave up after years of trying to find a job that matched their skill set. They felt as if there was a “brain waste” when their knowledge was not put to good use. This rejection was hurtful to them. FSU immigrants felt that they could not use their skills to benefit the state of Israel. Women were especially affected by immigrant deprofessionalisation. There was more of a gender divide in professional work in Israel. Soviet Jewish women engineers and physicians felt left out of their professional field in Israel because of their gender. Only 12 percent of women found work in their previous profession compared to 20 percent of men. Also, older immigrants were much more likely to not find work in their previous field. 70 percent of immigrants between 50 and 65 were unemployed and lived on welfare in Israel. While most Soviet Jews did not find jobs in their field, they were successful in finding work. By the late 1990s, the unemployment rate among FSU immigrants had decreased to Israel’s average. The children of FSU immigrants are much more integrated occupationally in Israeli society.
The lack of occupational integration has led FSU immigrants to become less integrated with Israeli society. Since older immigrants tended to hold jobs in the service sector with other Russian-speakers, they felt less motivated to improve their Hebrew and communicate with Israelis. FSU immigrants surrounded themselves with other FSU immigrants. They felt as if their skills and potential were rejected in Israel. This led to increased isolation of the FSU immigrant community in Israel. There was also a sense that new immigrants were taking jobs away from the local population which created a distance between the FSU immigrants and the local Israeli population.
FSU immigrants are reshaping Jewish identity in Israel. While some Soviet Jews have started to celebrate Jewish holidays in Israel, 50-60 percent of Russian-speaking Israelis still say that they are “secular.” The majority of Israeli society describes themselves as “secular” as well. Due to extreme anti-Semitism in the USSR, Soviet Jews were banned from celebrating Jewish holidays, attending a synagogue, and participating in any kind of Jewish life. This led to a dramatic decrease in religious Jewish identity for Soviet Jews. In the Soviet Union, they were seen only as Jews and not as Russians. Today, Soviet Jews view being “Jewish” as more of an ethnic and national self-definition, rather than a religion. The low religious identity of Soviet Jews could lead to a broader meaning of who a Jew is in Israel. FSU immigrants could also impact the influence that Ultra-Orthodox Jews have on everyday life in Israel. The lower religious identity of such a large immigrant population could lower the influence of religion in Israeli politics.
Some FSU immigrants in Israel are not Jewish. Around 11 percent of the FSU immigrants were non-Jews. Under the Law of Return, anyone who has a Jewish grandparent, parent, or is married to a Jew can immigrate to the land of Israel. This allowed many spouses of Jews to immigrate to Israel as well. However, the Israeli Rabbinate decides who is Jewish or not. A Jew must have a Jewish mother, according to the Israeli Rabbinate, so many FSU immigrants are not officially considered Jewish by the state of Israel. In the Soviet Union, 47 percent of married Jewish women and 58 percent of married Jewish men had a spouse who was not Jewish.
Some FSU immigrants were Jewish but did not have evidence to prove their Jewish heritage. Others identify as non-Jews but do have a parent or grandparent who was Jewish. The non-Jewish FSU immigrant population often struggles to marry in Israel. You can only have an official Jewish wedding with Orthodox rabbis. Only Jews who are considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate can have this Jewish wedding. Because of this, many FSU immigrants get married abroad and come back to Israel as a married couple.
Politically, FSU immigrants lean significantly to the right. They prefer strong leaders that promote stability, law, and order. They are reluctant to accept liberal ideas and democratic reforms. A combination of living in a totalitarian, socialist regime and the rapid economic reforms of the 1990s left FSU immigrants with a desire for stability and security. The right-leaning parties advocate for higher security which the FSU immigrants support. There have also been some Soviet Jews who have gone into politics. One of the most well-known Russian Israeli politicians is Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman immigrated to Israel in the 1970s aliyah and joined the Knesset in 1999. He is an influential figure in Israeli politics. Lieberman is the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu political party, a secular nationalist political party. The Russian-speaking community has supported Lieberman, but some have started to vote for other right-leaning parties, such as Likud. This displays a political integration for the Russian-speaking community.
Lieberman is a strong supporter of more available transportation options during Shabbat. The FSU immigrant community strongly believes that everyone should be free to practice their religious traditions, but it should not affect other people’s way of life. Soviet Jews, such as Lieberman, often go against the Haredim population. He represents where a majority of FSU immigrants stand -- strong on security and flexible on religious issues.
Culture and Language
Soviet Jews strongly value the preservation of Russian culture and language. While FSU immigrants have integrated into Israeli society, they still speak Russian at home and maintain many cultural traditions. In a 2001 survey of 800 Russian Israelis, Soviet Jews were asked to describe their identity. 69 percent said that they were “Russian-Israeli,” while 17 percent said they were a “Russian living in Israel.” 11 percent said that they were “Israeli.” While FSU immigrants and their children are active in the Israeli workplace, schools and the army, most continue to speak Russian at home and consider their Russian identities a strong part of who they are. Immigrants are more likely to describe themselves as “Russian-Israeli,” while the children of immigrants are more likely to say they are “Israeli.” 90% of the respondents said that they spoke only Russian or mostly Russian at home and in most social settings. Passing on the Russian language to each new generation is highly valued within FSU immigrant families.
FSU immigrants are embracing and sharing their culture with Israeli society. In Israel, over 300 Russian book, video, and music stores have been created. Over 30 new magazines and newspapers are published in Russian. There is an active Russian-language media market in Israel, including Russian radio programs, television channels, and electronic media. They also celebrate Russian traditional holidays, such as Novi God (Russian New Year) in Israel with large celebrations. Russian grocery stores are present in every city with a concentration of FSU immigrants. FSU immigrants actively visit and support these establishments. 82 percent of FSU immigrants shop at Russian stores and 70 percent claim to read the Russian press in Israel “regularly” or “sometimes.” Soviet Jews even prefer to go to Russian-speaking doctors, hairdressers, and other Russian-speaking professionals for their services. Soviet Jews have brought their Russian roots to Israel. They are proud to have Russian culture flourish in Israel. They are keeping their Russian cultural identity alive.
Soviet Jews also stay in touch with the FSU. 90 percent of FSU immigrant homes watch Russian TV from the FSU. Russian performers often travel to Israel to host concerts for the FSU immigrant population. These concerts are heavily attended and highly anticipated. 64 percent of FSU immigrants said that they visit Russian cultural events “often” or “sometimes.” Some Soviet Jews also visit the FSU and stay in touch with family there.
Russian sub-culture in Israel has greatly increased. The increase of Russian institutions has resulted in isolation for FSU immigrants. They can shop, work, watch television, and schedule an appointment without needing to know Hebrew. Being surrounded by other Russian-speakers does not incentivize FSU immigrants to improve their Hebrew. The older generation of FSU immigrants feels especially isolated from Israeli society. Many older immigrants know limited Hebrew and have limited opportunities for socialization with the rest of Israeli society.
Future of FSU Immigrants In Israel
FSU immigrants have already made Israel more multicultural, multilingual and less religious. In terms of the future for the community, they may maintain their subculture and form a new Russian-speaking ethnic group in Israel or they may assimilate like the Ashkenazi Jews who came before them. FSU immigrants are more likely to form a subculture and continue to maintain their cultural traditions and language. Russian-speakers cherish their heritage and resist assimilation when it comes to language and cultural traditions. Also, in this age of technology and mass media, FSU immigrants can maintain connections with the FSU and other countries with FSU immigrants. They keep in touch with friends, family, and news from their former countries. Younger generations of the Russian-speaking community are typically bilingual but prefer to speak Russian at home. Maintaining the Russian language is a priority for Russian-speaking families. Most migrants see their new country’s culture as superior to their previous one. Unusually, Russian-speakers see their cultural traditions as superior to the local Israeli traditions. FSU immigrants see Israeli culture as a more primitive culture as compared to their European culture. New immigrant groups do not typically feel this way about their host culture compared to their culture from home.
FSU immigrants are proud of their culture and work hard to pass it on to younger generations. Younger generations in the community identify more and more as Israeli, but they still maintain their Russian heritage. The FSU immigrant community in Israel differs from any other Russian diaspora group because of the large size of the immigrant group and the small population of Israel. Israel’s population was 4.8 million in 1990 and Israel now has more than one million Russian-speakers. Soviet Jews now make up more than 20 percent of the Jewish population in Israel. A large number of Soviet Jews also fled to America. However, the population of America is so large that the FSU immigrant population does not have the amount of influence that it does in Israel.
FSU immigrants are reshaping Israeli society. They have maintained their cultural identity, gained political power, and significantly influenced Israeli society through their many contributions. While older FSU immigrants had a difficult time finding their occupation in Israel, younger generations are successfully breaking into Israeli occupations with their knowledge of Hebrew, English, and Russian. Soviet Jews have significant political power in Israel. The speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, is originally from Ukraine. Avigdor Lieberman, the Former Defense Minister of Israel and head of Yisrael Beiteinu, is from Moldova. In Roman Bronfman's book, "The Million that Changed the Middle East,” Bronfman writes that Soviet Jews did not integrate into Israeli society. Instead, they became leaders in Israel. Today, Russian-speakers in Israel are doctors, engineers, computer scientists, educators, athletes, and performers. Soviet Jews are successful in Israeli society and they choose to proudly maintain and pass-on their culture, heritage, and language.
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Ksenia Lyubov Novikova is a junior studying Political Science and Communications at AU. She is originally from Brooklyn, NY. Ksenia works at the Center for Israel Studies and plays an active role in the Russian Speaking Jews club. Ksenia loves writing, traveling, all things Brooklyn, and learning about Jewish communities all over the world.