Soviet Jewish Immigration: Gift or a Time Bomb?

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

Michel Warshawski

“THE ALIYA FES11VAL” that the Israeli authorities, with the active help of the mass media, are trying to promote among the Israeli public hasn’t caught on with the masses. On the other hand, it has evoked the concern of the Palestinian public, and rightly so.

Their concern is justified, because the mass aliya (immigration to Israel) from the Soviet Union is no longer in the realm of myth and pipe dreams, but an actual reality. Predictions of an immigration of 300,000 Jews from the Soviet Union over the next three years no longer seem a wild exaggeration. The history of the Palestinian people teaches that every wave of Jewish immigration is accompanied by the eviction and displacement of Palestinian inhabitants.

At a time when there is a war going on over the future of the Occupied Territories, the addition of a force of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union will be, at the very least, moral support for the crisis-ridden Zionist enterprise and reinforcement for the illusory dream of “Greater Israel?

There is a large degree of hypocrisy when speakers for the Israeli government, including spokespersons of the Zionist left parties, take positions in opposition to (Egyptian) President Mubarak or (Palestinian activist) Faisal Hussaini, saying that “the question of aliya is an internal matter for Israelis.

On the contrary aliya to Israel touches the Palestinians—and even the inhabitants of the neighboring Arab countries—directly, because immigration, eviction, expulsion, occupation and war are all thoroughly interwoven.

From Nightmare to Reality

How is it possible to explain how something that a year ago still seemed like a dream—or a nightmare—suddenly became a reality? In fact we’re dealing here with a combination of three factors, at least two of which have spurred to action the government of Israel and its friends throughout the world.

First, a new policy in the Soviet Union opened the door to free Jewish emigration and even agreed to make possible direct flights from the Soviet Union—or from various Eastern European countries—to Israel.

Second, there is an intensification of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Soviet Union, as a paradoxical result of the policy of liberalization. Even though it is impossible to smooth over this fact, one must add that Israel’s emissaries in the Soviet Union—as well as the Israeli propaganda media aimed at the Jews of the Soviet Union—are doing everything in their power to inflate the significance of the phenomenon of Soviet anti-Judaism and to create a mass psychosis among Soviet Jews.

Although these two conditions are sufficient to explain the large number of Jews prepared to leave the Soviet Union, they don’t explain the number immigrating to Israel. Here we need to add the third factor the success of the continuing Israeli effort to get the United States to close its doors to immigrants from the Soviet Union.

The combination of direct flights to Israel and the prevention of immigration to the United States explain the quantity of immigrants currently reaching Israel. In the past the rate of those leaving the Soviet Union, but not going to Israel, approached ninety-three percent of the total—a significant “drop-out” rate.

Today the government of Israel hasn’t left Soviet Jews with any alternative: either they stay in a country where signs of anti-Judaism are increasing, or they immigrate to Israel, and only Israel.

Broken Promises

Spontaneous or provoked, the Soviet migration to Israel today is the subject of an unprecedented propaganda barrage, supported by all the Zionist parties. The competition among the parties and the ministers reaches the skies, with each one attempting to be more ambitious than the others in their designs for absorbing the Soviet immigrants.

Does the means exist for fulfilling the promises, programs and decisions? Of course not. And already, with the wave only beginning to arrive, there is a serious housing problem, which is causing a noticeable rise in apartment prices.

The prime minister’s declaration, “A big aliya calls for a big Israel,” is a glaring example of the exploitation of the Soviet aliya for narrow party purposes. It has already given rise to furious reactions from other parties who accuse Shamir of endangering the aliya, and of “undermining the basis of consensus of one of the few subjects upon which there still is consensus among the Zionist parties,” according to Knesset member Yossi Sand of the Citizens Rights Movement.

However, the consensus that exists among the parties doesn’t exist in the broad public, and especially not among the Oriental Jews. Already two months ago, Yameen Sweesa, an activist from the poor neighborhoods in Jerusalem and a member of the central committee of the Labor Party, sent a telegram to Mikhail Gorbachev, demanding an end to the immigration to Israel, which inevitably harms the poorest segments of the population.

This telegram raised a public storm, and Sweesa was accused of betraying one of the principles of Zionism. But there is no doubt that he articulated the “gut feelings” of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who feel, and with justification, that the Soviet aliya would be to their disadvantage.

Where will they get the apartments for the immigrants, when thousands of young couples have no chance for an apartment? Where will they find employment, when there are already 120,000 out of work? The financing of the Soviet immigration will necessarily come out of the budgets for education, health care, we!-fare and relief.

This collision between the new immigrants and the veteran Oriental immigrants isn’t new. In 1971, the question of aliya and the enormous economic privileges that the immigrants from the Soviet Union got were the principal cause for the emergence of the Black Panthers. This organization of young Oriental Jews from the poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem—with their central slogan “Will Matti Aboutboul be like Feigen?” comparing a typical Jewish Moroccan with the hero of the Soviet aliya—expressed their sense of being neglected in comparison to the new immigrants, who were able to buy villas and Volvos.

To this material discrimination there was added considerable social discrimination, which was summarized in Golda Meir’s historic statement, “At last the real Jews are arriving!”

If the immigration of the early 1970s gave birth to the Black Panthers, the immigration of the 1990s is pregnant with a real civil war. For while the 1970s were years of flourishing economic growth, now the Israeli economy is in a serious slowdown, which will continue and worsen; all the arguments claim in that the mass immigration will give rise to new prosperity are baseless.

Israel’s resources are limited, and even if the Jewish communities of the world are recruited to the cause, there’s no doubt that the financing of the aliya will necessarily lead to broad cuts in the budgets of relief and services. The prospect of narrowing the gap between Westerner and Oriental, between “Beautiful Israel” and “The Second Israel,” is again put off to “the end of days” [when the messiah comes]. But this time the majority of the Oriental Jews are prepared to fight for what’s theirs.

A Dim Future

As to the Soviet immigrants themselves, the future isn’t rosy: where will hundreds of thousands of workplaces be found for a trained and highly educated workforce? How will the cultural needs of a population whose cultural level is much higher than the average cultural level in Israel be satisfied? The immigrants from the Soviet Union are liable to have a very “hard landing” in Israeli reality “after the party is over.”

The concern that Faisal Hussaini and other Palestinian leaders from the Occupied Territories have expressed in connection with the settling of Soviet Jews in the Occupied Territories is understandable and Shamir’s declaration, which connected aliya with “greater Israel,” only strengthened these concerns—to such an extent that the U.S. administration and the Soviet leadership were compelled to react with threats to reconsider their immigration policies if Russian Jews are directed to the Occupied Territories.

But the truth is that the danger isn’t immediate, and there aren’t currently serious plans to settle masses of immigrants across the Green Line. As Yehuda Jarel, one of the heads of Gush Emunim, said: “The great majority won’t settle in Judea and Samaria they are far from our ideology and our way of life. Most of them aren’t religious… this verbal diarrhea [about the settling of Jews in the Occupied Territories is harmful, and also unrealistic. We will be glad if they do settle in Judea and Samaria, but the most important thing is that they come, and it’s not important to where…”

And indeed, the great majority of the Jews coming currently to Israel from the Soviet Union aren’t Zionist in consciousness, but are instead a collection of people searching for a new way of life, outside of the Soviet Union, with high expectations regarding employment, standard of living, and satisfaction of their cultural needs.

We are not speaking of people who are prepared to live in the heart of the intifada, in a state of constant insecurity. And precisely because of this, we can be sure that the massive immigration from the Soviet Union is pregnant with one of the most serious cultural crises that the state of Israel has known to date—the consequences of which no one can foresee.

July-August 1990, ATC 27

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