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Some Russian Jews Rethink Emigration to Israel

Ida Garibaldi
Winter 2005

Moscow’s 100-year-old Bronnaya Street Synagogue is being restored and expanded, with a new community center under construction next door. In September, hundreds of people attended events marking the re-inauguration of the shul.  

The revamped synagogue is just one sign of the renewed strength of Russia’s Jewish community, which after decades of decline is now seeing a boost in numbers as tens of thousands of Russians who had left for Israel are now returning. Russia’s economy is strong and many regard the political environment as more stable than it was 10 or 15 years ago. While Russia has become more hospitable, many of the Jews who left the former Soviet Union for Israel are finding the Jewish State unwelcoming. Not only is Israel’s economy sagging and security situation a disaster, but also many Jews from the former Soviet Union report that they are facing anti-Russian discrimination.  

What is striking about the decisions of the approximately 50,000 Jews who have returned to Russia from Israel is that Russia is a mess. Planes have been falling from the sky, bombs target civilians, and worst of all have been the attacks on the school in Beslan and the theater in Moscow. Russia’s brutality in Chechnya is reaping similar brutality in these terrorist attacks. Additionally, freedom of the press in Russia is a serious question, and the democracy is weak and getting weaker as President Vladimir Putin recently moved to strengthen his own power at the expense of regional and parliamentary power.  

History of Pogroms  

With a history of terrible pogroms, Russia has never been known for its good treatment of Jews, and anti-Semitism remains a problem. The Bronnaya Street Synagogue itself was the target of three attempted bombings in little more than a decade.  

Jews have had a very difficult history in Russia. In 1795, after the last of the three partitions of Poland, several hundred thousand Jews joined the Russian Empire, adding to the pre-existing population and raising government concerns regarding the “Jewish problem.” Regarded as a threat to the pan-Slavic conception of the Russian empire, under the reign of Alexander I the Jews were expelled from their villages or forced to assimilate.  

Continuing the assimilation effort, Nicholas I, who ascended the throne in 1825, tried to force conversion, including forced baptisms. During Nicholas’s reign, Jews were required to provide double, and in some cases triple, the number of conscripts required from other Russian communities. Under Nicholas, who died in 1865, Jews were also taxed for wearing Jewish garments, including skullcaps. The kahal, the government-recognized autonomous Jewish organization, was abolished.  

Nicholas also lifted various restrictions on zones of settlement and professions that Jews were allowed to enter. Still, discrimination against Jews was not alleviated. Despite the new policies, most Jews were still crowded into the Pale of Settlement with few opportunities to earn a living.  

Eased Conditions  

The reign of Alexander II eased the living conditions of the Russian Jews. Small numbers were allowed to live outside the Pale, and the Jewish communities of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa thrived. However, the dramatic revival of Jewish life frightened the rest of the Russian population and when social unrest followed the 1881 murder of Alexander II, the government tried to quell it by unleashing anti-Semitism. In that year, more that 200 pogroms took place, opening the way to the Temporary Laws of May 1882, which began a period of new, severe persecution that lasted until 1917. Jews were slowly forced back into the Pale, which was reduced by 10 percent. They were forbidden from buying and renting properties outside the assigned residences and were denied civil service jobs.  

The condition continued to worsen under the reign of Alexander III and his successor, Nicholas II. In 1891 the Moscow Jewish community was expelled. A few years later, the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was written by the Okhranka (the Russian secret police), and the defeat with Japan in the Russian-Japanese war caused another wave of pogroms in more than 300 cities. Almost a thousand Jews died in these attacks and several thousand were injured.  

Only the fall of the Czarist regime emancipated the Russian Jews. Jewish life bloomed. At the end of World War I, with Poland and Lithuania back on the map, about 2.5 million Jews remained in Russia. The years of the Civil War were particularly hard for Jews: by the time the violence stopped, 2000 pogroms took place and tens of thousands Jews died.  

The Soviet Union formally rejected anti-Semitism, and Jews were able to rise in academia, the bureaucracy and elsewhere. Still, they faced discrimination and occasional violence. Communism destroyed traditional Jewish occupations based on trade and thousands of Jews were forced into the new state industries. Although many Jews were prominent in the Bolshevik cause, they were still victims of Josef Stalin’s paranoia. In 1952, Stalin executed a number of leading Jewish intellectuals in what was later called the “Night of the Murdered Poets.” Under Stalin and other Soviet dictators, Jews continued to face discrimination and were excluded from some professions and universities.  

Far Behind the West  

Life had improved in terms of greater equality in society, but the position of Jews in the Soviet Union was far behind that of their counterparts in Western Europe or North America. Jews faced the same difficulties, including poverty, starvation, and forced military conquests, that all Russian people suffered under the Soviet Union.  

Starting in the late 1950s, Jews began applying for exit visas to Israel, unleashing a harsh reaction from the communist regime. The refuseniks movement was born shortly afterwards, and represented the protest of Jews who applied for a visa, but were refused the right to emigrate to Israel and then were persecuted by the state. Through the 1970s and 1980s the movement gained support worldwide. The story of the refuseniks is depicted movingly in Chaim Potok’s Gates of November, the true story of the Slepak family’s 18 year struggle to leave the USSR.  

With the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s, the former Soviet Union plunged into chaos. There was little certainty about Russia’s political and economic future, and at the same time, the borders, which had long been closely controlled, were thrown open. Jews quickly took advantage of this and fled their gloomy prospects in Russia for a future abroad, in many cases choosing Israel.  

Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations of Russia, explained the situation to the Christian Science Monitor: “There were no prospects here in the 1980s and ‘90s, only fear, crime, and chaos. Israel looked great by comparison. But they went there, found they don’t speak the language, can’t get a job and they’re considered to be Russians rather than Jews. At the same time, life in Russia has improved.”  

Community Will Double  
Commenting on the tens of thousands of Jews who have returned to Russia, Kogan said, “Maybe in 10 years the Jewish community in Russia will double. ... We have to get used to the idea that people can now move between Israel and Russia almost as easily as between two metro stations. It doesn’t matter where you live. Wherever we are, we must go on being Jews.”  

About one million Jews left the Soviet Union for Israel. The exodus gathered steam in the 1990s, with peak years in 1990 and 1991. Jews from the former Soviet Union make up one-fifth of the Israeli population. According to official Israeli figures, about 72,000 of the Soviet Jews who came to Israel have left, including the approximately 50,000 who have left for Russia. In the last two years, more Jews have moved from Russia to Germany than from Russia to Israel, according to German and Israeli figures.  

Although many Israeli leaders are urging Russian Jews to emigrate, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar told Russia’s Interfax news agency that he will not echo that call. “We only want the lives of Jewish people to be filled with content and with their ancestors’ traditions.”  

Writing in the 2003 American Jewish Yearbook, Zvi Gitelman reports, “There was a sharp downturn in 2002 in the emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. This was due to the improvement of the Russian economy, the escalating violence in and around Israel, and tightened restrictions on immigration imposed by the United States in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Only 2,486 Jews from the FSU arrived in the U.S. in 2002, far less than the 4,978 who arrived the previous year. Whereas nearly 51,000 had immigrated to Israel in 2000 and 34,000 in 2001, only about 18,500 did so in 2002.”  

Mike Rosenberg, head of immigration and absorption for the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental group responsible for bringing Jews to Israel, told the Washington Post that historically “most Jews who came to Israel were fleeing something. They were refugees running for their lives.” Today, by contrast, most are coming by choice, “and everybody has somewhere to go back to.” He continued, “There’s nothing pushing them now. What could pull them to Israel? Peace, general economic improvement, jobs, and the feeling that Israel is your place.”  

Failing Economy and Intifada  

Israel has tried to welcome the Russian Jews, said Avraham Berkowitz, a rabbi in Moscow who is executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia and other former Soviet republics. “But it is impossible to please a million immigrants when there is a failing economy in Israel and an ongoing intifada,” he told the Washington Post.  

An opinion poll conducted by the Tel Aviv Mutagim Institute in 2003 found 26 percent of Russian immigrants in Israel were thinking about leaving. That number is up from 6 percent who contemplated leaving before the Palestinian intifada.  

The Jewish Agency downplays the impact of these departures. “There is a hard economic situation in Israel, and the intifada has lasted for three years now,” Semyon Dovzhik told the Christian Science Monitor. “Some families may have decided to stay in Russia for this time. It’s not a big problem.”  

After the flood of Jews leaving Russia, Jewish community activists have been encouraged by the returning trickle. At a 2002 Kremlin meeting, Russia’s chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, told President Vladimir Putin, “Jewish life is once again on the rise in Russia. ... Jews are discovering that they can stay here and live at the same level as anywhere else in the world.”  

In an interview published by Canada’s CBC News, Lazar said, “When they left they were cursing this country saying, ‘My feet will never set foot on this soil again,’ such hatred and unhappiness. But we must admit things have changed.”  

Many Reasons for Leaving  

Jews have many reasons for leaving Israel, from homesickness to economic reasons, to feelings of insecurity as outsiders.  

Oleg Khait, 43, left the Soviet Union in 1990, seeking a better life, but he has returned to Russia. “The whole family wanted to come back to Russia,” the language instructor told the Montreal Gazette. “Israel is fine, but we always felt like outsiders there.”  

“It was interesting for me to live in a Jewish state, but I feel more comfortable in Russia, ”Igor Dzhadan told the St. Petersburg Times. Dzhadan, a doctor, moved to Israel in 1990. He suffered under the strain of being in a foreign country and the uncertain security environment. He plans to visit Israel, but not to return permanently because he belongs to Russian “civilization.”  

Some Israelis of Russian origin report discrimination and abuse because of their backgrounds. In Be’er Sheva, a 13-year old girl of Russian origin is said to have killed herself because of the abuse. The Russian teenagers of Be’er Sheva are not taking the abuse lying down. They have formed a group called “Russian Panthers” to highlight, document, and fight the abuse. The teens say they only want to integrate, but racism stands in the way. “Stinking Russian” is an epithet frequently hurled at them. “There is not one of us who has not suffered thee taunts, which have become routine,” 17-year-old Meirav Frolov told Ha’aretz. The discrimination is not just on the schoolyard as the Russian Panthers say the local disco bars Israelis of Russian origin.  

Polls show that many Israelis associate the typical Russian with prostitution or the mafia. This image persists despite the fact that the Russian immigrants, many of whom are doctors and engineers, are better educated and more economically productive than native-born Israelis. In fact, this success is one of the sore points for the Sephardim, many of whom have been in Israel for decades and are less successful.  

Non-Jewish Spouses  

Russians also face problems because of accusations that they are not Jewish. A large number of immigrant Russian families include non-Jewish spouses. Children of non-Jewish mothers, according to Orthodox Jewish law, which is enforced by Israeli statutes, are not considered Jewish. Thus, they cannot marry Jews, be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and suffer other disabilities. They are made to feel alien in their new surroundings.  

Charlotte Honigman-Smith, a member of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal and an activist for Russian Jews, reports that, “In Israel grassroots organizations and political parties call for changes to the Law of Return, overtly aimed at the olim from the FSU (Former Soviet Union). More than half of the Russian immigrants are not Jewish, they claim; they sneak in with fictitious papers or get in through tenuous claims on Jewish relatives. They’re all in organized crime or prostitution, common knowledge says. They’re not real Jews.”  

Particularly disturbing to Israel has been the large number of Russian Jews who have decided to emigrate to Germany in recent years. This wave of migration has brought almost 200,000 Jews and their relatives to Germany from the former Soviet Union, causing a renaissance of Jewish life. In December, 2004, apparently under pressure from the Israeli government, Germany announced that it will stop offering unlimited immigration and generous social benefits to Russian Jews. Starting in January 2006, only FSU Jews who are under the age of 45 and familiar with the German language will be eligible to immigrate.  

In 2004, twice as many FSU Jews — 20,000 people — chose to move to Germany over Israel. According to The Jerusalem Post, “Germany’s policy until now, has infuriated the Israeli government ... Sallai Neridor, Jewish Agency Chairman, rebuked Germany for ‘enticing’ these Jews to come ‘under refugee status, despite the fact that the State of Israel has already existed for 56 years‘ — meaning Jews have a homeland and therefore should not be considered refugees.”  

Israel as “Homeland”  

While Israel seeks to speak in the name of Jews throughout the world, the constituency which it seeks to represent evidently has its own views and has never identified Israel as “homeland.” The number of Russian Jews emigrating to Germany, and the number now returning to Russia from Israel, makes this clear.  

In fact, hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants are not considered Jewish by Israel’s chief rabbinate. Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has long argued to make the conversion process easier, Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shiomo Amar recently moved to tighten the standards for conversion. Without being considered Jewish, these Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union cannot be married in Israel or buried in Jewish cemeteries.  

“They called us ‘sausage immigrants’ in Israel, as if we were just looking for a handout,” Joseph Krongauz told the Montreal Gazette, explaining that he returned to Russia when he was offered a job. The 73-year old construction consultant returned to Russia in 2001 after living in Israel since 1995. “Now I’m back, working at a great job and never been happier.”  

In 1990, Anton Nosik was a 24-year old physician earning just $8 a month. Shortly after the Soviet Union began to collapse, Nosik left and headed for Israel. But now he is back in Russia. In Israel, he developed a high tech career, and now he runs Russia’s largest Internet service provider and a thriving Internet news agency. “I don’t think everyone who can succeed elsewhere must abandon their success and go to Israel to be unemployed,” Nosik told the Washington Post. Although he was once beaten in central Moscow by skinheads, Nosik tells Newsweek, “It is still safer on the Street in Moscow than in Israel.”  

Economic Troubles  

Boruch Gorin, head of the public relations department at the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities, told the St. Petersburg Times that Russian Jews come back because although many are highly educated, they have to take low-skilled jobs in Israel. “Doctors, physicians and mathematicians were cleaning the streets.”  

The economic troubles in Israel can be starkly contrasted with the economic boom that Russia has enjoyed, as well as rising national confidence under Putin. Although now under threat from the Kremlin, a large proportion of Russia’s nouveau riche are Jewish.  

Amongst the most successful have been Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who built their fortunes through the controversial post-Soviet privatization of state assets. A former mathematician, Berezovsky co-founded the “LogoVaz” auto dealership, the TV network ORT, and in 1996 became a member of the Board of Directors of the Siberian Oil Company-Sibneft. He was elected to the Duma in 1999. In December 2000, he founded in New York the International Foundation for Civil Liberties, which aims to support Russian civil society. Because of fear of state persecution, the billionaire left Russia in 2000 for Britain, where he was granted political asylum.  

In 2004 Forbes Magazine ranked Khodorkovsky the 26th richest man in the world, with a net worth of over $15 billion. He is one of the founders and chairman of Open Russia, an influential, non-governmental organization that pursues the strengthening of civil society in Russia. Like Berezovsky his future is now uncertain. He was arrested on fraud and theft charges in October 2003. Khodorkovsky denies the charges, claiming that the Kremlin is persecuting him for his mounting criticism of the Putin administration.  

Fears of Violence  

Although Russia has its own problems with terrorism, as well as shaky rule of law, many Jews from the former Soviet Union cited fears of violence in the current intifada as a reason for leaving Israel.  

At a funeral for Russian victims of the intifada, Yevgeny Khabakov, a mourner, yelled at Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s deputy minister of immigrant absorption, “We didn’t bring our children and grandchildren here for them to be killed by Arabs. What are you going to do about it? Why can’t you protect us?”  

Eitan Dudnick, 21, an Israeli soldier serving in the Gaza Strip, came to Israel from the Ukraine in 1989 because of economic and political problems back home. But now Israel has plenty of its own problems, causing his parents and two sisters, ages 6 and 11, to move to Toronto. “I have two younger sisters, and they really couldn’t enjoy their childhood. They couldn’t go out; they couldn’t go on school trips because our parents were frightened, and it was really affecting our family life,” Dudnick told the Washington Post.  

Casting doubt on the notion that Russia has suddenly become friendly to Jews, Leonard Glickman, head of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York, told Newsweek, Russia “still does not have basic democratic protections for religious and ethnic minorities.”  

Problems for Jewish Life  

There are still many signs that Jewish life in Russia has its share of problems. Artyom Wahraftig, the host of ’the Orchestra Pit,’ a well known television show on Russia’s culture channel, told the Jerusalem Post, “As a Jew in Russia today, you have three options. The first option is a masochistic one — internalizing the historical hatred of Jews and turning it into self-hate. The second option involves a pragmatic approach — denying who you are in order to get ahead. If neither of these options suits you, you can become what I call a ‘professional Jew’ working in cooperation with Habad, The Jewish Agency, or some other foreign organization that has come here to foster Jewish life.”  

Although anti-Semitism is a problem, Boruch Gorin, spokesman for the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities, said, it “isn’t the main form of xenophobia in the country. ... I don’t see anti-Semitism. I don’t see a position that a Jew can’t occupy, especially after Fradkov’s latest appointment.” Gorin was referring to the appointment of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, whose father is Jewish.  

Isi Leibler, an activist who began helping Jews leave the Soviet Union in 1978, offered interesting observations on the Russian Jewish community when he was the guest of honor in March, 2004, at the 15th anniversary of the Solomon Mikhoels Center, a Jewish community center named after the renowned Jewish actor murdered by Josef Stalin in 1948. Writing in the Jerusalem Post on April 7, 2004, Leibler commented on the ceremony marking the anniversary:  

“The festival reflected the renewal of Jewish pride among Russian Jews. Whereas during the communist era Jews tended to deny their Jewish ancestry to avoid discrimination, today most Jews, including those who had been denied access to their Jewish heritage during the Soviet regime, display pride in their Jewish identity and support Israel openly. It is also paradoxical that while anti-Semitism in the region remains a potent force, Russian Jews are more optimistic about the future of their children in Russia than many of their kinsmen in Western Europe.”  

Harder in Israel  

In an article titled “Return of the Jews,” Frank Brown writes in Newsweek [August 9, 2004], “It’s not easy being Jewish in Russia, original home of the pogrom. But sometimes it’s even harder to be Jewish in Israel.”  

The overwhelming majority of Jews from the former Soviet Union are remaining in Israel, but the fact that there is some reverse migration reflects concern that Israel may not be the best home for Jews. The return of tens of thousands of Jews to Russia is reinvigorating the Russian Jewish community, which is benefiting not only from increased numbers, but also from educated, western-trained Jews, who have a greater knowledge of their religious heritage.  

The reverse migration signals hope for the Jewish community in Russia as well as serious problems with Israel’s goal of providing a Jewish homeland. Security and economic problems, and the particularly troubling discrimination that Russian Jews face offer an uncertain picture of the haven Israel strives to be. But Israel’s loss is Russia’s gain as one of the historically most important Jewish communities is strengthened. Russia’s Jewish community had dwindled to 230,000, with many observers fearing that its extinction was likely as emigration not only to Israel, but also to Europe and North America continued. Now that Russian Jewish community has new hope.  

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