Russia Invades the Middle East: They Came in Their Hundreds of Thousands from the Crumbling Soviet Union, and They Have Brought Change to Their New Homeland, Writes Gideon Lichfield

Article excerpt

Imagine the United States absorbing France. That is the usual comparison made with Israel's intake of immigrants, one-fifth the size of its population, from the collapsing Soviet Union, who arrived penniless and had to be found homes, jobs and schools, and integrated into a language, culture and society radically different from their own. Even for a country of immigrants it was a daunting task.

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And it has been achieved remarkably well. "The Russians", as they are called in Israeli shorthand, are still poorer than the average and there are signs of glass ceilings that bar them from top jobs. But over time the sad tales of doctors sweeping streets and nuclear physicists driving taxis have been matched by success stories. They have reinvigorated art, music, theatre and sport, as well as the audiences for them. Exiles from Soviet research institutes work in fields of applied science that were virtually absent from Israel before. Their competitive pressure even spawned a fashion for after--school tutoring. "The stereotype of the Jewish kid who studies and then goes to play chess and do maths puzzles had practically disappeared until the current wave of immigration," says Yuri Shtern, a Moscow-born member of Israel's parliament who arrived in 1981.

But Israel, used to thinking of itself as far more of a melting-pot than America ever was, has struggled to grasp that so huge an immigration cannot be swallowed whole. Where once old men from the same Polish village could be seen doggedly conversing in broken Hebrew rather than use their mother tongue, there are now youngsters who have spent more than half their lives in Israel, been through the mixers of school and army and speak Hebrew flawlessly--yet in each others' company their language, clothes and taste in music make them virtually indistinguishable from twenty somethings in St Petersburg or Novosibirsk. They have Russian-language newspapers, radio and television services (the TV channel Israel Plus is so popular it is broadcast to Russian-speaking communities in the US), as well as a Russian film festival. Coming from a country with so epic a past, many Russians also feel a vague cultural superiority over the upstart, history-less Israelis.

Moreover, because Israel guarantees citizenship to people of partly Jewish origin, and thanks to over-zealous recruitment, about a quarter of the post-Soviet immigrants are technically non-Jews. …