If the intifada has been an Israeli nightmare, upsetting a reality with which most Israelis had grown comfortable, the immigration wave of Soviet Jews to Israel which began in December may turn into a “miracle” that will lift the morale of many Israelis for years to come. The Soviet immigration wave of the 1990s may have an impact like that of the 1930s, when 250,000 non-ideological, well-educated German Jews settled in Palestine and made the victory of Zionism in 1948 possible.

As of the mid-1980s, Jewish immigration to Israel was dwindling. Between 1980 and 1987, according to Arnon Sofer of Haifa University, approximately 90,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, while the same number left the country. Israeli leaders were debating the “demographic problem” — a euphemism for the perceived danger of a possible Arab majority in Palestine/Israel. 1986 data showed that 56 percent of the babies born over the previous decade in Israel and the Occupied Territories were Palestinian; this trend suggested that some 43 percent of the total population in Palestine/Israel would be Arab in the year 2000.

The reluctance of Soviet Jews to come to Israel, and their enthusiasm for the US instead, was therefore seen as a major ideological failure. One could not imagine a greater public embarrassment to, or refutation of, Zionism. Soviet Jews applied for visas to their “homeland” (according to official Soviet documents), but they preferred a more attractive diaspora. The total number of immigrants in 1989 was 13,000, less than the number of Israelis leaving to settle in the United States, South Africa and Canada. Only a few right-wing crackpots kept talking about a wave of Zionist consciousness that would sweep world Jewry and bring 1 million Jews to settle in the West Bank.

The sudden change in Zionism’s fortunes came about as a result of liberalized emigration policies in the Soviet Union and stricter immigration policies in the US. While the Soviets opened their borders to Jews who wanted to leave, the United States closed its own to the Jewish exodus in response to pressure from Israel and American Jewish organizations and Congressional reluctance to liberalize US immigration quotas. As of October 1, 1989, Soviet Jews could no longer use Israeli visas to migrate to the United States, and Washington placed an annual ceiling of 40,000 Soviet Jews who could enter the US as refugees.

If we assume that 1 million out of an estimated 1.8 million Jews will leave the Soviet Union within the next ten years, and that half of those will not go to Israel, that still leaves Israel with 500,000 immigrants. Even a smaller number, say 250,000, will have a significant impact on Israeli society and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Consequences for Israel

Mass immigration will allay Zionist fears of the “demographic problem.” The percentage of Jews in Israel and the Occupied Territories has been declining, though not very dramatically, since 1967. A net gain of 400,000 in the number of Israeli Jews by 1995 (including natural increase and non-Soviet immigration) would reverse this trend significantly. Moreover, this immigration wave will hasten the day (around the year 2000) in which a majority of world Jews will live in Israel. This milestone in the history of Zionism will occur in part because the total size of world Jewry (by whatever definition of “who is a Jew”) is declining, perhaps to 10 million by 2000.

Mass immigration will have an impact on two other “demographic problems” as well: the proportion of non-Ashkenazi Jews and the proportion of religious Jews. While Sephardi Jews make up less than 20 percent of Jews in the world, in Israel they have become a majority. Fifteen percent of Israeli Jews were born in Arab countries, and another 40 percent are their children, born in Israel. This Sephardi majority is clustered on the bottom rungs of the income and education ladders. They provide 70 percent of the support for the Likud Party and 90 percent of the support for other religious and right-wing parties.

Culturally, the new immigrants are decidedly Western. The majority (though not all) are Ashkenazim, whose children play the violin and chess. Jews are the best educated ethnic group in the Soviet Union, over-represented in Communist Party membership, the arts, sciences and the media, just like their US counterparts. As new Israelis, they are secular, non-Zionist and pragmatic. Their influx means the return to an Ashkenazi majority in Israel and a decline in the fortunes of the religious parties, even if the newcomers move, as they will, closer to Israeli hegemonic ideology. The big question remains whether these new voters are going to increase the overall “hawkish” camp. The Soviet immigrants are unlikely to settle in far-right, religious Gush Emunim settlements in the West Bank, though a significant number are likely to end up in Greater Jerusalem, which includes areas annexed in 1967. (About 1,000 are in the settlements now, and 15,000 in Greater Jerusalem.) If they go to the Occupied Territories, it will be in search of employment and housing opportunities, not out of ideological commitment.

For many Israelis of European culture, the arrival of Soviet Jews conjures up dreams of returning to pre-1977, even pre-1967 Israel, and what they see as traditional Israeli identity, based on an Ashkenazi majority, classical music and European belles-lettres. If this general scenario looks too rosy, it is because many Israelis have not considered two possible negative consequences. First, a Sephardi backlash is quite likely, expressing the anger of the downtrodden at the easy entry of the new immigrants into the good life of the elite through government programs. Second, this influx comes at a time of recession, calling into serious question the Israeli government’s ability to provide immigrants with housing and jobs. This new mass exodus from the Soviet Union continues the demographic revolution that began in the late nineteenth century, with Jews leaving Eastern Europe on a massive scale for the New World, which now includes Israel. In 1988, 77 percent of diaspora Jews were citizens of the United States and the Soviet Union. In 15 years, 50 percent of world Jews may be in Israel. Zionism may claim this as a victory, but it will be an accidental victory: The immigrants are coming to Israel only because they have no better choice.

How to cite this article:

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi "A “Miracle” Made in Moscow and Washington," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).
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