Broadening the picture - beyond America: Russia

by Steve Israel

Spotlight on Russia: a case study in diaspora-Israel complexities

The story of Russian - ex-Soviet - Jewry is a fascinating saga. In the late nineteenth century, the Jewish community of Tsarist Russia was the largest in the world. The great emigrations from Tsarist Russia formed the basis of most of the western Jewish communities and others as well. In addition, a not inconsiderable number of the Russian Jewish emigrants turned their faces to Eretz Yisrael and provided the foundations of the Zionist community, and subsequent State that developed there.

But in the early 1920's, the new Soviet State started to clamp down on the Jews. As is well known, despite the new official freedoms that the Revolution promised the Jews, the Soviet era was a time of deep suppression of all meaningful forms of Jewish life, religious, cultural and political. Zionism was completely outlawed. For the most part, Russian Jewry together with all Soviet Jewry was completely cut off from the Jewish world. Silent, and in a vacuum, they went their own sad way. Israel was recognised by the Soviet Union immediately after statehood but the relations were severed in the aftermath of the 1967 war and were reestablished only in 1992, with the demise of communism.

In the last decades of the Communist regime, attempts were made by Israel and Jews in the West to make clandestine contacts with Soviet Jews. Visits were arranged, books and Jewish artifacts were smuggled in and connections were established with some groups of local Jews, especially in the main cities. In those years, some brave Soviet Jews openly defied Soviet policy and demonstrated their Jewish identity by a clear embracing of the State of Israel as their homeland, often being imprisoned for their beliefs and actions. Israel became a strong emotional homeland for these activists who did not represent the entire community of Soviet Jews, by any means but who represented a significant new direction in Jewish life. A huge international campaign for the "release" of Soviet Jewry was mounted throughout the Jewish world.

In the seventies, the years of detente between the Soviet Union and America, large numbers of Jews were allowed for the first time for some fifty years, to leave the Soviet Union. The vast majority, over 130,000, came on Aliyah to Israel. When the doors of detente closed in the late seventies, once again the Soviet Jews were locked in, unable to leave. The doors opened again only in the mid-1980's after some strong lobbying in the West, especially by the Reagan administration. Not surprisingly, tens of thousands of Jews clamoured to leave. The question was to where.

The question was made more difficult by the fact that Jews or anyone else could only leave the Soviet Union if they had an official invitation and an entry visa to another country. Israel filled this role for the Soviet Jews and virtually any Jew who wanted to leave could be assured of an automatic visa to Israel. On the strength of that visa, the Jew could leave Russia and in the absence of direct flights to Israel; the would-be immigrants were taken to European destinations such as Vienna, where Jewish Agency representatives were on hand to complete the transfer to Israel. The only problem was that it soon became clear that many of the Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union had very different ideas about where they wanted to go. This dramatic turn-around occured as numbers of emigrant Jews soared in the early seventies, and particularly after the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was portrayed very negatively by the Soviet press. Many, even most of them, were looking for a way to the West: that meant America.

There were those who were willing to help them from the mid-1970s onwards. The major welfare agency of American Jewry for helping Jewish immigrants, the United Hebrew Immigrant Aid Service (HIAS), believed that Jews who had escaped from Russia, with its record of anti-semitism and persecution of Jews and Jewish life, should be helped to start over wherever they wanted. Those who wanted to go to Israel should be allowed to do so, but in no way should the Jews coming out of Russia be limited to that one option. HIAS was dedicated to help Jews settle in America if that is what they wanted. Moreover, they lobbied the American Congress and government to give Soviet Jews special preference as refugees.

America has a long historical tradition of receiving refugees from oppressed countries. American refugee status has been reserved traditionally for those with a "well founded fear of persecution" based on race, religion, nationality or political opinion. The leaders of the Jewish organisation argued that being a Jew in the lands of the Soviet Union automatically opened one up to persecution and that therefore each Russian Jew who had managed to leave Soviet Russia and wished to come to America should be welcomed. It was a question of elementary human rights, they argued.

With the active help of the American Jewish organisations, who opened an office in Rome to provide assistance, the emigres left Vienna for Rome and the "dropout" level soared. By late 1978 it was clear that there was a major crisis from the Zionist/Israel point of view. In May 1978, for example, out of 1,169 Jews who left the Soviet Union on Israeli visas, a mere 109 came to Israel.

The World Zionist Organisation and the Israeli government were furious at the approach of the American organisation. Since the emigrants had only been allowed to leave the Soviet Union because of Israel's willingness to take them in and provide them with entry visas, they argued, it was wrong for any Jewish organisation to give them help. Moreover, they believed that many of the Russian Jews would assimilate and abandon any connection with their Jewish heritage once they went to America. Statistics seemed to bear this out. By mid-1988, only about 7 to 10 per cent of Russian Jews who had gone to North America since the seventies, had stayed in touch with organised Jewish communities after the financial aid that that they had received from those communities during their first years in the country had finished.

In Israel, it was argued, their connection to the Jewish People would be strengthened. Simply living in a Jewish society, exposed on a day to day level to aspects of Jewish existence, speaking Hebrew and living by the Jewish calendar - that, in and of itself, was an immense step for Jews who through no fault of their own had become very assimilated and alienated from their own culture.

Israel opposes the phenomenon

The Israeli government decided to fight the drop-out issue in the early eighties, and they did this in two ways. Firstly they tried to persuade the American Jewish leadership and the American government to reverse their position on refugee status for ex-Soviet Jews. They argued that these people were not Jewish refugees, since a refugee is a person who has no home to go to, whereas Israel was the natural homeland of Jews all over the world, very much including all of these Jews. Jews from the USSR or Russia, having left that country on the strength of an invitation and a visa from Israel, should come to Israel and then, from Israel, they could make a request to immigrate to the United States or elsewhere. There were native Israelis who wanted to emigrate to the U.S. - these Russian Jews should have exactly the same opportunity as them - so went the argument.

The other step that was taken by the Israeli government was more far reaching. In June 1988, the government voted to stop the way stations in Europe in places like Vienna or Rome and to organise more direct flights which might land in Europe but which would almost immediately reroute the new arrivals to Israel.

The American Jewish leadership continued to talk of the immigrants' right to choose and privately, if not publicly, opposed the Israeli government's initiatives. There was anger on both sides. A collision in the Jewish world was imminent.

In the end, the conflict was, if not resolved, then at least calmed by the decision of the American government to limit the intake of Russian Jews into America in the early eighties. The American refugee budget was simply not sufficient to absorb the entire flood of ex-Russian, would-be immigrants. Moreover, there were other trouble spots in the world that were causing large numbers of people in potentially more urgent situations, to look to the United States for asylum. Once the Reagan administration decided to restrict immigration, the implication was clear. Most Jews who wished to leave Russia would of necessity now look to Israel. The high drop-out rates of the past would not be repeated. The tension that had broken out in the Jewish world over the issue, a tension that resulted from a clear difference in the way that different Jews saw the Jewish world and understood their responsibilities towards that world, died down.

The story today - success or failure?

The fall of Communism completely transformed the situation. As is well known, since the late 1980s some 700,000 Jews have emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel. As is equally well known, the absorption into Israel has been accompanied by many problems. It has been recognised by many Jews in Russia that Aliyah is not necessarily the solution to all their woes. With this has come the start of a new era, based on the attempt to rebuild Jewish life in the lands of the former Soviet Union. This has once again seen the re-emergence of the old Diaspora-Israel tension.

As soon as the "iron curtain" fell, representatives of all kinds of organisations and institutions entered the former Soviet Union and attempted to create a base for their particular agenda. Welfare organisations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, religious groups and organisations from Lubavitch to Reform, and of course the representatives of the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency and other bodies representing the Zionist ideal - all sought to push their own particular agenda.

The representatives of Israel and Zionism went in with great energy to develop an educational and cultural network of schools, camps, clubs and were warmly received. An enormous amount was invested; hundreds of short and long term emissaries (shlichim) were sent to try and breathe life into the remnants of the once great community. But the question had to be posed: what were the long term goals of the Zionists and representatives of Israel? Classic Zionist theory is clear. The goal could only be to try and develop a Jewish AND ZIONIST identity among the Russian Jews - and especially the younger ones - so that they would ultimately want to fulfil Zionist aims and come to live in Israel, their homeland, and continue the development of their culture and identity. The goal could not be to build up a strong Jewish identity through educational and cultural work - with the creation of an accompanying, permanent, cultural and educational infrastructure.

In these activities of the Zionist representatives we see a certain tension inherent in the Zionist attitude towards the "Galut". Since ideological Zionism does not believe in the long term survival of Jewish life outside of the Land of Israel, Zionist representatives who go out from Israel to work in diaspora communities involving themselves in educational and cultural work aim to succeed in their work only up to a certain point.

From that point of view, the lands of the former Soviet Union have proved a mixed blessing. The numbers of immigrants to Israel has dropped off sharply, not least, perhaps, because of the reports of the difficulties encountered by immigrants in Israel. In Russia and her neighbour states themselves, the cultural and educational work performed by all the organisations has proved very successful. An entire infrastructure of great richness has been built up in a very short time period, bearing in mind that the initial position was that of a cultural wilderness. Day schools, afternoon schools, camps, clubs, popular universities, teacher-training institutions, welfare organisations and synagogues, all co-exist in a vibrant community structure. There is every indication that short of a catastrophe in the community brought on by the unsettled state of the governments, these institutions are here to stay.

Not everyone in Israel associated with the Zionist movement is happy with that situation. But one thing is clear; if a catastrophe should threaten, Israel would be there with open arms.





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30 May 2005 / 21 Iyar 5765 0