The contribution of Russian immigrants to Israel is considered to be a key factor in the country’s success in multiple levels and areas. These days, as Israel commemorates 30 years since the beginning of the massive aliyah (inmigration) wave from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, we are able to assess that its influence will continue to resound for generations to come.
However, despite decades of experience with the absorption of new immigrants, we have yet to realize that it is precisely by rising above the differences between us that we will be able to strengthen Israel’s social fabric.
The Largest Immigration Wave
Three decades ago, Israel became home to about 30% of Soviet Jewry, close to a million people, changing the face of the country for good. My family and I were not part of this wave. We arrived in the small precursor wave of the 1970s, before the massive influx, which didn’t change the difficulties of absorption and integration into the country. When we arrived, all that I had with me was a small tent and a few basic utensils I thought we might need. I had next to no idea what would I find in this desert land.
I arrived neither destitute nor abandoned since I had my diplomas in hand and a profession as a scientist and researcher. I had my family and was economically established. Despite my advantages, moving from one country to another is always accompanied by feelings of insecurity, since you never know what you could encounter. Until you step into the experience of the land of Israel you really have no idea about its true character.
After a short period of time, I was accepted into the Israel Air Force. Since the crews were under daily pressure to be alert for any operation at any given moment, our commitment to work together, no matter what the challenges, always prevailed over our differences. There was no place for degrading anyone. Therefore, on a personal level, I had no experience of the bitter treatment that many immigrants have complained about since.
However, I fully understand the source of the disparaging treatment many immigrants describe. Trouble integrating into Israeli life is not unique to the Russian immigration wave. It has always been this way. It was the common experience of every immigration wave that arrived, whether from Morocco or Yemen, to undergo some sort of discrimination. Depictions of immigrant treatment even found their way into skits, which until today have become part and parcel of the Israeli humor lexicon.
I remember that the janitor in the building where we lived was a doctor from Moscow, and the street was cleaned by an engineer from St. Petersburg. These were the people who made aliyah in this Russian wave: doctors, engineers, technicians and nurses. These were the people who made this immigration wave so successful. They catapulted the nation forward in sports, culture, medicine, academia and many other fields. They brought an ambitious spirit that pushed for achievement. Notwithstanding their contributions, they were not spared from surges of cynicism and contempt.
Learning to Live Together
The Israeli mentality is one of contempt toward everything and everyone. The scorn is not directed specifically against the Russians or any other group. It is deeply ingrained in our Jewish DNA. In fact, we are even contemptuous of the upper force. It is a permanent phenomenon and not a passing phase, and it accumulates and passes from one generation to the next.
The ego that separates us is an open social wound. It reveals itself with every wave of immigration. The good news is that it also reveals the only place that needs mending: our relations.
Sooner or later we will have to learn positive relations above and beyond our differences. Such an achievement will secure our lives in a prosperous and balanced nation where all the newcomers, regardless of their origin and background, will be respected and appreciated for their contribution to society.
Featured in The Times of Israel