Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Russian Jews Reshape Israel On Multiple Fronts

Turning Palestine into Khazaria

Many signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet. The men and women sitting in the cafes are speaking Russian. The shops sell vodka, black bread, pickled herring and Russian-brewed Baltika beer. You have to pinch yourself to remember where you are.

This scene, with all its echoes of the former Soviet Union, is not in St. Petersburg or Vladivostok, or anywhere else in that vast sweep of bleak northern lands. It is in Ashdod, Israel, a palm-lined, pastel-colored port city that sprawls along the mild shores of the Mediterranean.

More than 20 years have elapsed since the Soviet Union fell apart, prompting a tsunami of people, mostly with Jewish roots, to leave for Israel.

When the Cold War ended, Israel's population was just under 5 million. The Russian speakers who poured in after 1989 added roughly 1 million to that number, and changed the Middle East.

"I think it's an unbelievable phenomenon, by all criteria," says Lily Galili, an Israel journalist who has just co-written a book on the impact on the region of this mass migration from the Soviet Union. "It's like America, United States, absorbing all of France, Belgium and Netherlands."

Remaking Cities

So large was the influx that the southern coastal city of Ashdod more than doubled in size within a decade, becoming Israel's fifth-largest city, with a population of more than 200,000.

Gymnasts from Russian-speaking immigrant families warm up at a gymnastics competition organized for Israel's immigrant community, in the southern resort city of Eilat. Most of Israel's Olympic gymnasts are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Israel now has the world's third-largest Russian-speaking community (outside the former Soviet Union), after the United States and Germany.

Galili says that this flood of new immigrants was enthusiastically welcomed by what she calls Israel's "elite" for many reasons, including the impact they made on the demographic equation between Arabs and Jews.
But she says there was opposition in Israel, from a variety of fronts. This included the minority Israeli Arab population who feared becoming more marginalized. Questions were also raised over whether many of these former Soviet residents were actually Jewish.

Israel's Law of Return allowed the new arrivals to qualify for citizenship if they had one Jewish grandparent. Under rabbinical religious law, Jewishness passes through the maternal line. This defines more than 300,000 of Israel's Russian-speaking immigrants as non-Jews.

Galili says immigrants from the Soviet Union struggled with this: "They come here, and they have a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father — and suddenly this motherland, who's expecting them to come, says, 'Oh ! I forgot to tell you — you are not Jewish here.' "

There are no civil marriages in Israel. Russian-speaking Israelis defined as non-Jews who wish to marry must go abroad, or convert. Galili says conversion is not a popular option.

"They find it offensive. They feel Jewish. They were raised Jewish. They have Jewish names. They once suffered for being Jewish in the Soviet Union. Now they suffer for being Russians in Israel," she says.
To get a sense of what it was like to transition from the Soviet Union to Israel, you only have to wander through Ashdod — with its beach cafes, boulevards and apricot-colored apartment blocks — and chat with some of the many thousands of Russian-speaking residents.

A Major Transition Continue Reading

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