Russian Jewish migration to Israel, like other international streams of the late 1980s and early 1990s, is a mass phenomenon that can be explained primarily by traditional factors. Migration occurs when people are pulled to a new country where conditions appear better, or are pushed to escape from difficult circumstances. The distinctive aspect of Russian Jewish immigration into Israel lies in the ideological enterprise: the degree to which Zionism motivated and directed the immigrants specifically to that country. The present immigration stream has roots predating Israel’s establishment in 1948. Between 1919 and 1948, 52,350 Jews from the Soviet Union entered Palestine, 10.8 percent of the 483,000 Jewish immigrants during that period. [1] Concerning the contemporary migration, Natan Sharansky, a leading Russian Jewish dissident who fought for years to leave the Soviet Union, has said that if given the chance, some 100,000 Russian Jews would opt to emigrate to the United States rather than to Israel. [2]

The socioeconomic and political implications of Russian Jewish immigration are not restricted to Israeli Jewish society. They affect as well the Palestinians in Israel and in the Occupied Territories. As Russian Jewish immigrants become integrated into Israeli life and politics, their attitudes and orientations may also affect Israeli government policies toward a political settlement with the Palestinians, with implications for Arab-Israeli relations and for the region as a whole.

A State of Immigrants

The nature of Israel as a state of immigrants is best reflected by the percentage of those who were born outside the country. In 1948, out of a Jewish population of 716,700, more than 64 percent were born outside the country. In 1992, out of a Jewish population of 4,218,200, more than 41 percent were born outside the country. [3] Between 1948 and October 1992, 2,279,179 Jewish immigrants arrived in Israel. Russian Jews accounted for nearly 27 percent of this total (64 percent of the Russian Jews have arrived since January 1990). Approximately 14.4 percent of all Jews living in Israel in 1992 come from various parts of the former Soviet Union. [4]

Russian Jewish immigrants today are not, by and large, concerned with Zionist or ideological motives. In comparison with the immigrants of the 1970s who were “pulled” by Israel, the immigrants of the 1990s were “pushed” by the situation in the Soviet Union and the difficulty of immigrating to North America. [5] The present stream of Russian Jews fits well the definition of a migrant community: a group with high educational achievement and a relatively good standard of living, but with limited prospects for economic security or advancement.

Israeli experts and officials usually cite anti-Semitism as an important factor in Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union and from the Commonwealth of Independent States. [6] Without necessarily disagreeing, one must observe that most Russians have experienced difficult socioeconomic and political conditions. The fact remains that Russian Jews have an option to leave and have a country that is eager to receive them.

In the 1970s, 33 percent of the Russian immigrants had 13 years of schooling or more. In the 1990s, the proportion may actually be higher. Most immigrants are from urban areas, and educated in the liberal professions. There are indications that their position in the Soviet Union was above average for the country’s urban population in both income and housing conditions. [7] Among Russian immigrants there were almost four times the number of scientists, academics and other related professionals as in the Jewish labor force in Israel — 69.4 percent in comparison to only 26.9 percent. [8]

There is no great difference between the age structure of Russian immigrants and Israeli citizens, although the Israeli population is relatively younger. The economically active (ages 15 to 64) are a slightly higher percentage among the immigrants than among Israelis. For every 100 persons of working age, there are 67 dependents among Israelis and only 56 among immigrants. (This age-dependency ratio in 1989 was 52 for the US; it was 105 for the West Bank and 112 for the Gaza Strip.) [9] As to gender, the immigrants have fewer males per female compared to the Israeli population. [10] This translates into more highly qualified women among the immigrants seeking entry into the labor force and possibly an increase in the the number of households run by women.

Social Impact

The arrival of over 400,000 Russian Jews in the last three years has added to the difficulties of the Israeli economy. The 10.6 percent unemployment rate in 1991 is expected to increase to 11.5 percent in 1993. [11] Among the 1991 immigrants, unemployment is at 38.5 percent. [12] Such high unemployment has led many Jews still in Russia and the independent republics to wait before deciding to emigrate to Israel. [13]

Some Israelis view the numbers of immigrants and their educational and occupational backgrounds as heralding a transformation in the country’s export economy to favor capital investment in developed industries. [14] For now, though, immigrant absorption is a monumental task. For each 100,000 arrivals there is a need for at least 20,000 new jobs, 30,000 housing units and essential services. Each new job necessitates an investment of close to $60,000. The Israeli Ministry of Absorption has developed a “direct method” whereby immigrants have free choice on where to settle; they are not directed to an absorption center (as were 20,000 Ethiopian Jews who arrived in 1991). New Russian immigrants are given $4,000 for the first year to cover rent, Hebrew courses and basic necessities. Through 1991, over 200,000 immigrants were thus absorbed, at a cost of some $800 million. [15]

Due to the government’s unwillingness to levy direct taxes to cover absorption costs, in 1991 Israel sought $10 billion in loan guarantees from the US, over and above Israel’s regular $3 billion in aid. Agreement was reached after the election of Yitzhak Rabin, and by March 1993, Israel was to have received the first billion dollars of this deal, earmarked for long-term investment. Israel also received $500 million in loan guarantees from France; earlier US support in the form of a $400 million housing loan in October 1990; and $500 million in inexpensive loans from American Jews. Some have concluded that the support Israel is receiving to absorb immigrants is actually greater than the cost of absorption. [16] Socially, the arrival of Russian Jews was met with some ambivalence by lower-income Jewish citizens and by the 1 million Palestinians in Israel, who feared that the huge expenditures for immigrant absorption would deny existing poor neighborhoods funds for better housing and employment. Some contrasted the state’s outright generosity toward the newcomers to the stringent manner with which their basic needs have been dealt. “Tent cities” sprang up in Israel in May 1990 to emphasize demands for shelter and other necessities. [17]

The Central Region, which includes Tel Aviv, has received the highest percentage of immigrants, in spite of government efforts to encourage settlement in Galilee in the north and Beersheva in the south. Because of their occupational structure, the concentration of the Israeli population in metropolitan areas, and existing ethnic networks, most immigrants gravitated toward old urban settlements along the coast. There are indications, however, that many immigrants will settle in non-metropolitan areas if industries are developed to attract people with their technical skills. [18]

Political Impact

Right-wing politicians were initially excited at the prospect of a large wave of Russian Jewish immigrants. First, they believed that immigrants leaving a communist society would lean rightward politically. Second, such immigrants were expected to be more dubious than veteran Israelis of the prospects of a peace settlement with the “non-democratic” Arab world. [19] The right was disappointed, however, as the newcomers proved more interested in socioeconomic improvement than in advancing the political prospects of the right. When Likud leaders linked settlement in the Occupied Territories with immigrant absorption, they diverted money away from jobs and housing within Israel, adversely affecting the material conditions of the immigrants. The 200,000 eligible “Russian” voters in the June 1992 parliamentary elections favored the center-left camp to the Likud by a margin of 47 to 18 percent. [20]

To understand the overall impact of Russian Jewish immigration on the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, one has to start with the fact that 64 percent of all Palestinian families in Israel are below the poverty line — at least three times the rate for the Jewish population. [21] Arab unemployment is twice the national average. Among Arab academics, unemployment tops 40 percent. The 58 Arab municipal councils are unable to meet basic educational, social, economic and infrastructure needs. Even Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has referred to the “shameful” disparities that separate Arabs from Jews in Israel.

The Arab minority fears that the gulf separating it from the Jewish majority will widen further. Arab high school and university graduates have to compete with highly qualified immigrants. They and other Arabs who work in industry and services face replacement by immigrants. A government plan to create 30,000 new jobs in 1993 is not motivated by the unemployment situation among Arabs. Some argue that Arabs will benefit in the long run, since 23 percent of their labor force is employed in construction, but demand for construction labor has been limited by new methods of construction and by the recent willingness of lower-class Jewish laborers to seek employment in construction. [22]

From a demographic point of view, the immigration of Russian Jews in large numbers is destined to decrease the weight of the Arab minority. The rate of natural increase among Arabs has been declining, from a high of 3.5 percent in 1965 to 2.8 percent in 1990. In certain areas of the country where Arabs are in a majority, the arrival of Jewish immigrants in substantial numbers is likely to tilt the balance. This has already happened in Galilee which, until 1992, enjoyed an Arab majority: The balance now stands at 50.5 percent Jews and 49.5 percent Arabs. [23]

As Jewish communities close to Arab communities expand to absorb the new immigrants, housing and other social woes become more pressing on Arabs. Restrictions on land use contribute to a higher population density in Arab localities. With the limited resources of the Arab municipal councils, such higher densities could lead to further lowering of living standards and to negative ecological repercussions.

With the expected decrease in the Palestinian demographic weight, and with the pressures generated by the present wave of immigration, many fear that there will be an accompanying drop in the already low level of Arab political influence and representation in state and public institutions. This is likely to render the integration of the Arab minority into the life of the state more difficult and could lead to intercommunal strife and confrontation.

Implications for the Occupation

The implications of Russian Jewish immigration for the occupied territories were best articulated in 1990 by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who claimed that the large wave of immigration necessitated a “big Israel” in order “to house all the people.” [24] The Shamir government invested $1.3 billion between June 1990 and January 1992, building over 18,000 homes in the occupied territories, according to Knesset members Haim Oron and David Zucker. A quarter of all public housing constructed over an 18-month period was in the occupied territories. The government’s 1992 budget allowed for building two-thirds of all public housing in the occupied territories. [25] The Shamir government plan was to build 106,000 housing units in the West Bank to accommodate 400,000 settlers in the coming three to four years. [26]

The change of government in Israel in June 1992 brought with it a change in priorities, or so was the impression given by Prime Minister Rabin. But 9,000 housing units to accommodate 45,000 settlers (not counting Jerusalem) are still under construction and expected to be completed shortly. The settlers who will move into these units need not be Soviet Jews, but they will ease housing prospects for immigrants inside Israel.

The arrival of Russian immigrants and the question of settlement in the occupied territories must be added to the long list of Israeli occupation practices intended to dispossess the Palestinians of their land and resources. By 1991, Israel had expropriated some 65 percent of the West Bank and nearly 50 percent of the Gaza Strip. Close to 10 percent of Russian Jewish immigrants are being directed to the East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods that now encircle the Arab part of the city. Beginning in 1990, 8,500 ready-made housing units were allocated to the “greater Jerusalem” neighborhoods of Neve Ya‘acov, Gilo and Pisgat Ze’ev in order to help absorb new immigrants. The construction activity in the Pisgat Ze’ev area, just a few kilometers east of the northern Arab suburb of Bayt Hanina, gives credence to the fear that this area will become Israel’s largest housing estate. [27]

The arrival of Russian Jews has clearly buttressed the Israeli policy of submerging the Arab part of Jerusalem. In the early 1990s, the demographic balance in East Jerusalem stood at 150,000 Palestinians and 120,000 Israelis. According to Moshe Amirav, Jerusalem City Council member, the Jerusalem housing statistics spell discrimination: “Since 1967, 70,000 apartments have been built for Jews, but only 5,000 for Arabs. Ten modern Jewish neighborhoods have been established, but not a single one for Arabs. Six neighborhoods have been rehabilitated by Project Renewal; not one was in the Arab sector. Dozens of master plans have been approved for the Jewish sector in the last 23 years, not even one has been approved for the Arabs in the east and north of the city.” This is in spite of the fact that the Arab population of Jerusalem has increased by at least 70,000 inhabitants since June 1967. [28]

Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, like their compatriots in Israel, must also compete with immigrants for jobs. Since 1967, an estimated 300,000 Palestinians have emigrated from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Most of the emigrants are highly educated and leave because of the limited job prospects in the Occupied Territories. The unemployment rate among Palestinians is presently estimated at between 25 to 40 percent, depending on the economic sector.

Israeli demographic experts circle the year 2015 as the “parity date,” when there will be an equal number of Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Occupied Territories. By the year 2010, they expect there will be 6.5 million Jews in the country, out of 12 million Jews worldwide. [29] Unless there is a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, demographic determinism will not make the rival national population disappear. Realistic and pragmatic political solutions are needed to shape the future not by confrontation and strife but through closer relations based on respect and mutual recognition.


[1] Immigration to Israel 1991, Special Series 920 (Jerusalem: Central Bureau of Statistics, 1992), p. 33. For an extensive bibliography on this topic, see Leenah al-Qattan, “Soviet Jews and Israel: Immigration and Settlement, A Selected Bibliography, 1985-October 1992,” Journal of Palestine Studies 22/2 (Winter 1993).
[2] Yediot Aharonot, January 12, 1990.
[3] Statistical Abstract of Israel 1991, p. 83; and Monthly Bulletin of Statistics (November 1992), p. 3.
[4] Immigration to Israel 1991, p. 33 and Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, p. 10. Sixty-five percent of the immigrants from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s originated from Russia, 25 percent from the Caucasus and 10 percent from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
[5] Michael Sonis, “The Geography of Immigration from the Soviet Union in the Seventies and Eighties,” in The Geography of Immigrant Absorption: The Lessons of the Past and Future Prospects (Jerusalem: Conference Articles and Abstracts, Hebrew University, July 1990), p. 67.
[6] Elisha Efrat, “The Geography of Direct Absorption of Immigrants from the Soviet Union,” in Geography of Immigrant Absorption, p. 80.
[7] Gur Ofer et al, Family Budget Survey of Soviet Immigrants in the Soviet Union, Research Paper 32 (Jerusalem: Soviet and East European Research Center, Hebrew University, March 1979).
[8] Immigration to Israel 1991, p. 60. For 1990 figures, see Statistical Abstract of Israel 1991, p. 344.
[9] US ratio from Population Handbook (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 1991), p. 7. Palestinian ratios computed from figures in Statistical Abstract of Israel 1991.
[10] Ratio calculated from Immigration to Israel 1991, p. 35, and Statistical Abstract of Israel 1991, p. 85.
[11] Daily Press, January 1, 1993. Percentage for 1991 as published in Statistical Abstract of Israel 1992, pp. 370-371.
[12] Statistical Abstract of Israel 1992, p. 187.
[13] See Jerusalem Post, February 10, 1992, for the differing views of Yitzhak Peretz, minister of absorption, and Simcha Dinitz, head of the Jewish Agency, on reasons for the decline in Russian Jewish immigration,
[14] See the interview with Uzi Benziman in Haaretz, January 12, 1990.
[15] Israel State Comptroller, Annual Report 42, 1991, Part A (Jerusalem, 1992), p. 601.
[16] Walid Amari and Taysir Balasi, Backgrounds and Effects of Soviet Jewish Immigration (Jerusalem: Dar al-Awda, 1990), p. 39.
[17] Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, Soviet Jewish Immigration and Israeli Settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, December 1990, p. 25.
[18] Sonis, p. 69.
[19] Sharansky, op cit.
[20] Leon Hadar, “The 1992 Electoral Earthquake and the Fall of the ‘Second Israeli Republic,’ ” Middle East Journal 46/4 (Autumn 1992), p. 614.
[21] Rasem Khameisi, “The Effects of Jewish Immigration on the Arabs in Israel,” in Geography of Immigrant Absorption, p. 40. This article was of particular help to me when writing this section.
[22] Khameisi, p. 42.
[23] Ibid., p. 40.
[24] JMCC, p. 19.
[25] Jerusalem Post, January 8, 1992.
[26] See the JMCC report for various data and figures on construction completed before 1990.
[27] JMCC, p. 27.
[28] Ibid., p. 14.
[29] Interview with Professor Sergio Della Pergola, head of Jewish demography and statistics at Hebrew University, Jerusalem Post, February 5, 1992.

How to cite this article:

Bernard Sabella "Russian Jewish Immigration and the Future of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," Middle East Report 182 (May/June 1993).

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