Project of IISHJ

Soviet Jews

The Jewish Humanist, August 1991, Vol. XXVIII, Number 1

The mass exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union is the major event of Jewish history in the last decades of the twentieth century.  Over 600,000 Soviet Jews (out of a potential 2 to 3 million) have already left.  Thousands more are waiting to leave. 

Up until last year the overwhelming majority of Soviet emigrants (sic) came to the United States.  But, ever since America imposed a severe quota limitation on the entry of Russian Jews, the flow of emigrants has turned to Israel. 

One year ago the Israelis were ecstatic.  They expected that 2 million Jewish immigrants would arrive from the Soviet Union.  The Jewish population of Israel would take a quantum jump in size.  New Ashkenazic “blood”, with Western education and secular values, would be pumped into the increasing Oriental bloodstream of the nation. The Arab Palestinians would shrink to a smaller and less dangerous percentage of the national census.  Enough Jews would now be available to hold even the West Bank and Gaza.   

Today Israelis are now less ecstatic.  Both their expectations and the expectations of the immigrants have been sobered by reality and unforeseen events.  The Soviet Jewish stream to Israel is slowing down. 


The reasons are not difficult to find. 

There are virtually no jobs in Israel for Soviet immigrants. Unlike the first wave of Russian refugees who came to America and Israel and were often “working class”, the present wave is well educated and very professional.  The new immigrants are physicians, lawyers, accounts, engineers and scientists.  In theory they are, by virtue of their skills and their training, the best immigrants that any nation could possibly want.  But Israel cannot absorb them because her economy is small and weak.  She already has too many doctors and engineers.  Unemployment is high.  The Sephardic underclass is rumbling and full of discontent.  Soviet emigrants are willing to be street cleaners and garbage collectors temporarily, but not indefinitely.  Already many of the new immigrants are seeking to emigrate.  The Soviet Jewish work profile does not match the economic realities of Israel. 

The dire predictions (me, a year ago) of rampant Soviet antisemitism and imminent pogroms have not been fulfilled.  There are undoubtedly millions of hating ahd hateful antisemites in the Soviet Union who would love to kill Jews.  There are certainly political parties (like Pamyat) whose platforms are opening anti-Jewish and who call fot the expulsion of Jews from Russian life.  But their power is either stalemated or declining  Despite the chaos, the forces of liberalism and Westernization are presently in the ascendancy.  Jews feel themselves less in danger than they did one year ago.  Giving up secure jobs and apartments, no matter how limited, seems irrational if the only reward is to travel to unemployment. 

New Soviet laws have granted the right of emigration to all Soviet citizens.  Revolution of revolutions!  It is now possible for everybody to leave the “socialist paradise” provided, of course, that you can find a place to go.  The fear of many Jews that must get out now or never get out, is, therefore, understandably relieved.  Many Jews are waiting to see what will happen to the liberalization program before they make the decision to leave.  There is now no urgency.  Alternatives can be weighed more carefully. 

New Soviet laws have also created  a dilemma for many departing Jews.  Up until recently it was possible for Soviet Jews to move to Israel and retain possession of their apartments and assets back in the Soviet Union.  No longer!  Taking out citizenship in another nation or serving in the armed forces of any foreign country is now regarded as repudiation of Soviet citizenship and punishes the “traitor” with the forfeiture of property.  Many Jews did not mind moving to Israel provided they had the theoretical security of their property back home.  But with the present threat of losing their hard earned assets, many Jews are giving second thoughts to departure. 

Fewer Jews will move to Israel.  Unless the Israelis can revise their present economic distress and create hundreds of thousands of new professional jobs, more and more Soviet Jews will be reluctant to come.  Most emigrants have minimal interest in Zionism or a religious (sic) Judaism.  They are only in Israel because they could not get into the United States.  The likely total of newcomers will be closer to 500,000 than 2 million. 

Many immigrants will use Israel as a pass-through to other “more desirable” countries.  Despite the many barriers to immigrants set up by highly developed nations in Europe and North America, ways and means will be found by desperate and ambitious Soviet Jews to enter Germany, Italy, France and England, as well as Canada and the United States.  Russian Jews will be more widely dispersed than initially imagined.  Soviet Jewish emigration from Israel will also negatively affect the attitude of Israelis to the new immigrants, and their willingness to make sacrifices for the new arrivals. 

A fairly substantial number of Jews will remain in the Soviet Union, simply because there will be no other more attractive or pragmatic alternative.  They will need to construct communal institutions of their own.  The prediction that Soviet Jewry will vanish and that we do not have to do anything about their future in the Soviet Union is simply naive.  Much work needs to be done to strengthen Jewish life in Russia.  Jews who choose to remain deserve as much consideration as Jews who choose to leave.  Since most Soviet Jews are not religious, a well-organized cultural Judaism is the waive (sic) of the future.  And cultural Judaism is Humanistic Judaism. 

The dream of many Israeli right-wingers that 2 million Russian Jews will help them hold the West Bank and Gaza is now only a dream.  Realistic numbers of Soviet immigrants do not support any argument for political intransigence.  The new immigrantion is no panacea for the ultra-nationalists.  In the end, the Palestinians will not drown in a sea of [Text Wrapping Break]Soviet militants. 

The coming years will most likely bring a new more realistic approach to the problems and needs of Soviet Jews.  The Soviet Jewish problem will shift from how to get Jews out of the Soviet Union as quickly as possible to how to develop and maintain a viable Jewish identity in the Soviet Union.  In this shift, Humanistic Judaism has an important role to play. 

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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