Jews from the Former Soviet Union



Since January 1990, more than 380,000 Jews from the Soviet Union and its successor states have made aliya (the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel) (Middle East Policy 1992b, 95; Union of Councils for Soviet Jews [UCSJ] 29 Jan. 1993). This unprecedented migration to Israel is largely due to increasing economic and political instability in the former Soviet Union. Both factors have often bred anti-Semitism and a fear within Jewish communities of pogroms. The economic crisis has also led many Jews to seek opportunities in other countries.

A relatively small number of these immigrants have returned to Russia or other newly- independent republics or have moved to other countries. They tell of the difficulties they faced in Israel and sometimes claim to have been victims of discrimination by other Israelis. This paper will examine the treatment, by the Israeli government and public, of immigrants from the Soviet Union and its successor states, particularly those who are part of the wave of immigration that began in 1989.

1.1        Chronology of the Aliya

The Six-Day War in 1967 significantly increased not only the amount of territory but also the number of Arabs under Israeli jurisdiction. With the Arab birth rate far surpassing that of Israeli Jews, the government looked to immigration as a way to maintain the Jewish character of its state. As one recent analysis points out, immigration has subsequently been the "great equalizer" (Middle East Policy 1992b, 92). The former Soviet Union contains the world's second largest Jewish diaspora community and, more important to Israeli politicians and strategists, the largest group of Jews likely to emigrate (Arabies Sept. 1992b, 21; The New York Times 8 Nov. 1992; International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 61).

Beginning in the early 1970s, within the framework of détente with the United States, the Soviet government allowed increasing numbers of Jews to emigrate. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, just over 50 per cent of these emigrants settled not in Israel but the United States. As tensions between the superpowers increased in the early 1980s, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union declined sharply. A low point was reached in 1984, when less than 900 Soviet Jews were allowed to leave. Numbers did not increase significantly until 1987, when over 8,000 were permitted to emigrate (National Conference on Soviet Jewry 31 July 1991; Middle East Policy 1992b, 95).

In October 1989, the United States reversed a long-standing policy of "freedom of choice." Previously, Soviet Jews had been free to choose their ultimate destination from processing centres in Rome and Vienna, and those choosing to go to the United States were automatically granted refugee status there. In the fall of 1989, however, the United States government set the annual ceiling on the number of federally and privately-funded Soviet refugees at 50,000. At the same time, events in the Soviet Union threatened the stability of the country, and rumours of pogroms spread. Soviet Jews and their family members, both Jewish and Gentile, flocked to Israel in unprecedented numbers: 181,759 in 1990 and 135,551 in 1991 (Middle East Policy 1992b, 95-8).

In May 1991, the Soviet Union enacted a new law on exit and return establishing the right of all Soviet citizens to emigrate and to return to the Soviet Union (Middle East Policy 1992b, 98). While most of its provisions did not go into force until January 1993 (see section 2.1, Exiting the Former Soviet Union), the new law reportedly reduced the sense of urgency to leave, and the number of Soviet Jews arriving in Israel fell immediately (Chicago Tribune 20 Oct. 1991; Middle East Policy 1992b, 95, 98). Numbers dropped further in the first five months of 1992 but increased steadily from May to December of that year (UCSJ 29 Jan. 1993; The New York Times 22 Nov. 1992; Agence France Presse [AFP] 30 June 1992).

In 1992, about one million Jews in the Soviet Union and its successor states held valid invitations from Israel (AFP 30 June 1992; Eran 13 Nov. 1992, 2). According to Oded Eran of the Consulate General of Israel in New York, "[n]ot all of them are in a hurry to emigrate" (13 Nov. 1992, 2). By October 1992, 10,000 of Tajikistan's 12,400 Jews had applied to emigrate to Israel (The Jerusalem Report 22 Oct. 1992b, 11).

1.2                Reasons for the Recent Aliya

The chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel recently pointed out that one of the reasons for the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union has been a "historical fear that aggressive anti-Semitism will not lag far behind if wobbly post-communist structures tumble" (The New York Times 22 Nov. 1992). A number of sources have reported on the Jewish cultural revival that has taken place is the former Soviet Union (for details, see a previous IRBDC publication entitled CIS, Baltic States and Georgia: Situation of the Jews). At the same time, however, reports of grassroots anti-Semitism have persisted. Henry Weinberg, who chairs the Canada-USSR Academic Dialogue on Jewish Themes, points to the involvement of intellectuals in the "vilification of Jews," government inaction in controlling the spread of anti-Semitism and the relative ineffectiveness of nascent human rights movements (Midstream Oct. 1992, 24).

Political factors have been important in the recent aliya. Emigrants have come from republics experiencing protracted civil strife, such as Moldova, Georgia and Tajikistan. In the latter half of 1992, Israel organized emergency airlifts of Jews from each of those republics as armed conflicts there intensified. In October 1992, 40 per cent of the olim, or immigrants, from Soviet successor states came from Georgia and Tajikistan (The Jerusalem Report 22 Oct. 1992b, 11; Eran 13 Nov. 1992; The New York Times 22 Nov. 1992).

The economic situation, relatively bad in all former Soviet republics, is another factor motivating migration to Israel. According to Stewart Reiser, author of Soviet Jewish Immigration to Israel: Political and Economic Implications, ". . . the great majority [of Soviet Jews] seek a better economic opportunity for themselves and particularly for their children, and have been motivated by fear that the opportunity to leave might not arise again" (1992, 13). While Israel is currently confronted with its own economic difficulties, the desire for a "better life" in a dynamic, capitalist society persists among many coming to Israel (Arabies Sept. 1992a, 28). There is little indication that the Jews now leaving the former Soviet Union are motivated by a desire to return to their ancestral homeland or to embrace Judaism, as was the case in earlier emigrations (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 2; Los Angeles Times 12 May 1992).


2.1      Exiting the Former Soviet Union

Before 1988, Soviet Jews wanting to emigrate faced a lengthy procedure that often ended in the rejection of their applications. According to the U.S. Department of State Country Reports for the years 1979-1982, such applications also "frequently" resulted in loss of employment. The reports for 1980 add that those losing their jobs were "exposed to the danger of being prosecuted as 'parasites'," while the 1979 reports state that "some activists" were jailed or exiled for advocating the right to emigrate (1982, 1030; 1981, 895; 1980, 904; 1979, 686). Those applying to leave had to have an invitation from what one analyst terms a "putative relative" in Israel. Once their application was approved, they were required to sell all possessions, give up their apartments and settle all financial accounts. Only when all of this was completed and documented could they apply for a visa to Israel. Changes implemented in 1988 allowed them to keep their belongings and apartment until they had actually obtained an exit visa (Middle East Policy 1992b, 95).

On 20 May 1991, the Soviet Union passed the Law On Regulations Governing Entry of and Exit From the USSR by Soviet Citizens, which was explicitly adopted by Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. According to the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, because none of the "post-Soviet republics" adopted their own laws on emigration, they are implicitly using the May 1991 Soviet law as well (UCSJ 8 Jan. 1993; Rossiyskaya Gazeta 4 Jan. 1993). At the time of writing, no corroboratory information was available on this question.

Most provisions of the law on exit and return did not come into force until January 1993. One provision, however, that which rescinds a 1967 decree by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet revoking the citizenship of Jews who emigrated to Israel, was implemented on 1 July 1991. Olim have since been required to travel on Soviet or successor-state passports and thereby have had the option of returning (Middle East Policy 1992b, 98; Chicago Tribune 20 Oct. 1991; Federal News Service 11 June 1991).

Former Soviet Jews no longer require an invitation from a "relative" in Israel in order to emigrate. They must, however, obtain an "invitation" from the State of Israel, which is issued by Israeli embassies in the successor states. To receive an invitation, a person must be Jewish according the Israeli Law of Return, which states that they must have at least one Jewish grandparent. Once a person receives an invitation, his or her spouse and children also qualify to emigrate (Refusenik Jan. 1992; Consulate General of Israel 30 Jan. 1992; Eran 13 Nov. 1992, 9-10).

After receiving the invitation from Israel, applicants who do not already have a Soviet or successor state passport must obtain one. The Russian law on exit and return stipulates that men of draft age can temporarily be denied exit from the country until they either complete their military service or receive an exemption (Middle East Policy 1992b, 98-99; Federal News Service 11 June 1991). Finally, the Israeli authorities issue emigrants an orange travel document, which is proof of actual Israeli citizenship, not merely the right to acquire it. Those possessing the document can obtain an Israeli passport within one year (Consulate General of Israel 30 Jan. 1992; Consulate General of Israel 4 March 1992).

There are reports that non-Jews from the former Soviet Union have obtained forged documents that state they are Jewish (Monitor 2 Oct. 1992; Eran 13 Nov. 1992, 10). One report quotes a community leader of Jerusalem's Armenian quarter who says he knows of several cases in which men have paid for marriages of convenience with Jewish women in order to be able to emigrate more easily (Chicago Tribune 19 May 1991). Oded Eran has stated recently, however, that the Israeli authorities "have developed an expertise in terms of identifying falsifications . . ." (13 Nov. 1992, 10). According to a representative of the Consulate General of Israel in Toronto, those who emigrate to Israel on illegally obtained documents can theoretically have their citizenship "downgraded" by the Minister of the Interior. The representative adds that he is not aware of any case where this had occurred due to "deceit or simply non-qualification" (Consulate General of Israel 11 Mar. 1992). Those whose citizenship is "downgraded" face one of two possible consequences. Either the Minister of the Interior could, after a court hearing, deport them, or they could be allowed to stay in Israel but be deprived of the assistance granted other immigrants (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993).

2.2                Exit and Return in Israel

As Russia, Ukraine and Belarus account for approximately 75 per cent of the Jewish population in the Soviet successor states (Eran 13 Nov. 1992), this section will concentrate on olim from those republics.

While Russia's citizenship law -- which came into effect in February 1992 -- indicates that some olim can retain their Russian citizenship, it is currently unclear whether or not this differs with the application of the law. Article 20 of the law grants citizenship to olim who had their Soviet citizenship revoked before July 1991. It also indicates that those who left after 1 July 1991 and retained their Soviet citizenship, could have their Russian citizenship "restored by submitting an application." Article 13 of the law states that:

All citizens of the USSR who were domiciled in the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] on the day the said Act came into force are considered to be citizens of the RSFSR if they do not submit an application to renounce their RSFSR citizenship within a year from this day (Rossiyskaya Gazeta 6 Feb. 1992).

Articles 3 and 4 add that citizens of Russia "who hold another citizenship cannot be subjected to limitations of their rights because of this" and that Russian nationals "domiciled beyond the borders of the RSFSR [do] not lose [their] citizenship" (Ibid.).

According to the Ukrainian citizenship law, olim from that republic who have emigrated since mid-November 1991 -- by which time the republic's citizenship law was in force -- can retain their Ukrainian citizenship. Article 2 of the law states that those permanently resident in Ukraine when the law comes into force are considered to be citizens of Ukraine. Article 10 indicates that Ukraine does not recognize the citizenship of another country obtained by a Ukrainian citizen. The law does not, however, state that Ukrainian citizens lose their nationality by obtaining the citizenship of another country. With respect to olim who left for Israel before November 1991 with Soviet passports, Articles 12 and 18 indicate that they can either "acquire" Ukrainian citizenship or have it "restored" (Pravda Ukrainy 14 Nov. 1991). According to a consular official with the Embassy of Ukraine in Ottawa, Ukrainian citizens are, in practice, deprived of their citizenship as soon as they obtain the citizenship of another country (11 Feb. 1993).

On 18 October 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Belarus decided that the republic's citizenship law would come into effect by 1 December 1991. Article 20 of the law states that citizens of Belarus lose their citizenship if they acquire the citizenship of another country. Article 17 states that former residents of Belarus with Soviet passports can acquire Belarussian citizenship if they fulfil certain requirements such as knowing the Belarussian language and having a "legitimate source of income on the territory" of Belarus (Republic of Belarus 18 Oct. 1991). While the law indicates that few, if any, Belarussian olim have been able to acquire or retain Belarussian citizenship, corroboratory information on the practical application of the law is currently unavailable.

On the Israeli side, the only way for Israelis to relinquish their citizenship is to retain another citizenship for seven years and then apply to renounce their Israeli citizenship (Consulate General of Israel 30 Jan. 1992; Consulate General of Israel 4 March 1992). Once in Israel, olim receive, in lieu of a passport, an identification card that proves citizenship (Association for Civil Rights in Israel [ACRI] 3 Feb. 1993). As mentioned above, the orange travel document enables immigrants to obtain an Israeli passport within one year. Obtaining a passport is, however, complicated by certain obligations tied to the assistance package provided to most olim soon after their arrival in Israel. (For more information on this package, also referred to as an absorption basket, see section 3.1, Absorption.)

The absorption basket is funded jointly by the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Absorption. Originally, the package was a "standing loan" that would be reclassified as a grant after an immigrant had been in Israel for five years. In mid-1991, the Jewish Agency made its 25 per cent of the package a straight loan that olim would have to repay. The remainder of the package was still a "standing loan," and, in early 1993, the time period an immigrant had to be in Israel before the loan was considered a grant was reduced to three years (Israel Religious Action Centre [IRAC] 7 Feb. 1993; Soviet Jewish Zionist Forum [SJZF] 7 Feb. 1993; Israel Yearbook 1992, 81) However, according to the director of the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), the Jerusalem-based advocacy arm of the Jewish Reform Movement, the Ministry of Absorption, in practice, now "writes off" its portion of assistance to olim, treating it as a grant regardless of how long immigrants stay in the country (7 Feb. 1993). At the time of writing, no corroborative information was available on this particular issue.

The Jewish Agency is reportedly active in monitoring olim who want to leave the country. According to the director of the IRAC, it views the application for a passport by a former Soviet immigrant as an intention to leave and subsequently initiates the repayment process (7 Feb. 1993). The Jewish Agency begins by sending a letter to the passport applicant requesting that he or she make arrangements within seven days to repay outstanding assistance loans. Since most letters reportedly do not reach the applicant within that time period, the Jewish Agency contacts a lawyer to issue a restraining order. Olim must then do one of three things: if only one partner of a couple plans to travel, his or her spouse can sign a promissory note to be responsible for all loans; immigrants can also name two guarantors who would assume responsibility for the loans; or they can deposit the amount owing in a bank as collateral that is forfeited if they do not return. The Jewish Agency reportedly carries out this procedure both for olim who intend to emigrate and those who just plan to visit abroad (SJZF 7 Feb. 1993; IRAC 7 Feb. 1993). At least one report tells of a family who had hoped to go elsewhere after arriving in Israel. The Israeli authorities reportedly requested that the family pay back all that was spent on them since their departure from Moscow before they would issue passports (Arabies Sept. 1992b, 26).

As many former Soviet olim retain the citizenship of their country of origin, they can travel on valid non-Israeli passports. It remains unclear whether the above procedure is set in motion for olim who use such passports for travel within three years of receiving an assistance package.

3.               ARRIVAL IN ISRAEL

3.1              Absorption

The Israeli government was ill-prepared in terms of housing, job training and other facilities for the sheer numbers of immigrants who have come from the Soviet Union and its successor states since 1989. The problem has been compounded by the fact that many immigrants had little or no knowledge of Judaism and Hebrew and few ties to the State of Israel (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 62-63, 67; Reiser 1992, 28). As a result, Israel now provides services in the former Soviet Union to educate potential emigrants on the culture, government and way of life in Israel. In addition, a programme called Youth Without Parents sponsors teenagers to go to Israel and study in the best educational institutions. It is hoped that these young people will acculturate themselves and will not wish to return to their former home (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993).

According to Reiser, some olim accuse the government, the Jewish Agency and representatives of American Jewry of downplaying the economic and employment problems in Israel, while other olim think they have been misled "by omission." Few immigrants from the former Soviet Union feel that they were properly prepared for the hardships they now face in Israel (Reiser 1992, 27-28).

New immigrants from the former Soviet Union are provided with financial assistance, known as an absorption basket. Reports on the details of this assistance package have varied. In a January 1991 article, Roberta Cohen, a senior advisor with the Refugee Policy Group in Washington, reports that a family of three qualified for US$11,000 (of which a portion is a rent subsidy), free health care for six months and free language and job training (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 68). According to the Israel Yearbook, at the beginning of 1991, a family of four received a basket worth about US$15,000, which included rent subsidies and free health insurance for six months (1992, 80). More recently, an official Israeli source stated that the entire absorption basket is worth approximately CDN$20,000 (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993).

The basket also includes immigrants' air travel from the former Soviet Union, mortgage assistance, subsidized cultural activities and a one-year income tax exemption (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 68; Israel Yearbook 1992, 80; IRAC 7 Feb. 1993). Olim can purchase an apartment or house with a considerably smaller down payment than other Israelis, who, according to the director of the IRAC, receive mortgages for, at most, 70 per cent of the cost of their purchase. Former Soviet immigrants also pay a lower interest rate on their mortgage (IRAC 7 Feb. 1993).

Recently the responsibility for absorption has been delegated to municipalities and community centres. Special programmes have been developed to assist in the integration of olim into the activities of the community. Several kibbutzim are sponsoring immigrants to live and work with them for a one-year trial period, during which time they learn Hebrew. A number of olim prefer this option as they are provided with greater assistance while adjusting to the culture and deciding on their future (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993).

3.2                Difficulties of Adjustment

Soviet immigrants are generally educated, urban, middle-class and secular. Many are professionals accustomed to a certain status and, what was in Soviet terms, a fairly high standard of living. Their median age is 32; 15 to 16 per cent are of pensionable age (Reiser 1992, 15).

Upon reaching Israel, many olim discovered that housing was in short supply and very expensive (Reiser 1992, 22; International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 69). According to the Embassy of Israel in Ottawa, this situation has improved somewhat in the past two years, and now 81 per cent of those who arrived in 1989 and 1990 have purchased apartments. In addition, a massive building programme was undertaken, and there is now a surplus of empty apartments awaiting new arrivals (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993). The Shamir government reportedly built new housing facilities for olim in remote areas where there were few jobs and, thus, little incentive to settle (Los Angeles Times 12 May 1992; Reiser, 30).

Many professionals find that there are few openings in their specialized fields, and they are forced to take low-paying menial jobs (Los Angeles Times 12 May 1992; Reiser 1992, 27-28; International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 73). There are retraining facilities available, and, once one has learned Hebrew, it is possible to qualify for professional status in Israel. About 60 per cent of those who take the retraining offered obtain such status. Many former Soviet Jews now in Israel are medical doctors who must pass licensing examinations in order to practice in Israel (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993). One survey showed that newer olim tend to resist retraining, preferring to remain in their own fields, although those who have been in the country for a longer period would choose retraining if they discovered that job opportunities in Israel were very different from those in the Soviet Union (Reiser 1992, 31).

Unemployment is very high among olim; officially it is about 30 to 40 per cent, although Reiser says that unofficially it may be as high as 60 per cent. The rate of unemployment is highest among older immigrants and those who have recently arrived. According to a representative of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, immigrants have started up between 3,000 and 4,000 new businesses in the last two years, each of which employs an average of three workers. The Israeli Finance Ministry indicates that 90 per cent of the men and 85 per cent of the women have found work after two years in Israel. Immigrants reportedly feel this figure is misleading since, they claim, only one-third work in their own fields (Reiser 1992, 27; Los Angeles Times 12 May 1992; The New York Times 22 Nov. 1992). In mid-1992, just over 2,000 olim wrote Israel's official medical exam and, while about half received a passing grade, only 207 were employed by mid-June (The Washington Post 18 June 1992).

Younger immigrants from the former Soviet Union have difficulty in adapting to the informal Israeli school system, and teenagers, in particular, feel isolated and "different." While there are some immigrant-aid programmes in schools, the Israeli Education Ministry has delayed or cut back many others because of lack of funding (The Jerusalem Report 22 Oct. 1992a, 23).

According to both Reiser and Cohen, during 1992, the Shamir government had higher priorities than alleviating the problems experienced by the olim. They add that the country's limited resources, government infighting, bureaucratic overlap and a tendency to improvise rather than plan, served to exacerbate most of the problems related above (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 64-67; Reiser 1992, 30).

3.3          Religion: Identification as "Jewish"

Figures for the numbers of non-Jews in the most recent aliya vary widely. At the beginning of 1992, both the Israeli Interior Ministry and the Religious Affairs Ministry put the number at five per cent, while the Minister of Absorption said that 30 per cent were non-Jewish. It was unclear whether these numbers referred to people who are non-Jews by the rabbinical definition or by the less restrictive Law of Return definition (The Jerusalem Report 16 Jan. 1992, 9; The New York Times 24 Dec. 1991).

A number of reports state that recent immigrants know little of the Judaic tradition and have scant knowledge of Hebrew. Unlike the 'pioneering' Zionists in Israel, writes Reiser, many of today's olim identify as Jews only in the Soviet sense of the word. Their identification cards designated them as Jewish, and, on a more subjective level, many felt that educational and professional status was also part of their Jewish identity. According to the director of the Seminary of Judaic Studies in Jerusalem, the new immigrants find it more difficult to accept the hardships of a new life in the country because they lack strong emotional ties to Israel and Jewish history (Reiser 1992, 28; The New York Times 24 Dec. 1991; Israel Yearbook 1992, 87).

Still, many immigrants want to learn about and take part in Judaism, whether for purely religious motives or for other reasons. Some 30,000 immigrant males were voluntarily circumcised by the end of 1991, and many newcomers had taken on Hebrew names. Opportunities for the immigrants to become more familiar with Judaism are apparently not lacking. The Ministry of Religious Affairs hands out religious articles, such as Bibles and menorahs, and claims to be "supervising a record number of conversions to Judaism" (The New York Times 24 December 1991). According to the Embassy of Israel, there are 16 workshops in Israel at present for those wishing to convert to Judaism or confirm their Jewishness (20 Jan. 1993).

Olim who are not Jewish by the rabbinical definition can face difficulties related to their personal status. According to an official Israeli source, the Interior Ministry extends all marriage-related benefits only to couples who have been married either in a religious ceremony or in a civil ceremony outside Israel. There are no provisions for civil marriage in Israel, and the rabbinate will marry only couples whom it considers to be Jewish. The Embassy of Russia in Tel Aviv performs marriages, but such consular ceremonies are not recognized by Israel (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993; IRAC 7 Feb. 1993). Those who are Jewish according to the Law of Return are 4entitled to health payments and other government benefits not available to non-Jews. In December 1991, The New York Times reported a specific example, although it added that, "[f]or the most part . . . the government has chosen to turn a blind eye and not make an issue of technically who is and who is not a Jew" (24 Dec. 1991).

Ultra-orthodox groups have engaged in efforts to 'win the souls' of olim, while secular Jews strive to limit the influence of the ultra-orthodox in Israeli society (Ibid; Reiser 1992, 37). The government and private individuals and organizations offer a number of "spiritual absorption" programmes, which secular groups such as the Israel Association for Secular-Humanistic Judaism have criticized as "religious coercion" (Israel Yearbook 1992, 87). An April 1992 article in the Globe and Mail indicates that olim have also become targets for conversion by Jews who adhere to the belief that Christ is the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. This latter group has met with opposition from Jewish "anti-missionary" movements like Yad L'Achim. Seeing the potential for religious tensions and conflict, the leader of Jerusalem's Russian Orthodox community announced, in mid-1992, that his church was "closing its doors" to new Russian immigrants. According to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Orthodox church "'did not want to be blamed' for encouraging Jews to adopt Christian beliefs" (The Globe and Mail 11 Apr. 1992).


4.1      Societal Treatment of and Attitudes Toward the Olim

Both Reiser and Cohen make note of the grassroots movement undertaken by Israeli citizens to assist Soviet immigrants (International Journal of Refugee Law January 1991, 69; Reiser 1992, 27). Reiser adds that "[a]t the societal level, there has been little inter-communal tension" and points to the generosity of ordinary Israelis in providing food, clothing, and furniture, in "adopting" Soviet families, and in helping olim to find their way through the country's bureaucratic mazes (1992, 27). An official Israeli source states that 80 per cent of Israeli families have thus far volunteered to assist new immigrants (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993). Bureaucratic impediments have, however, sometimes stood in the way of assistance from volunteer groups. Cohen writes that "[t]oo often, government ministries have viewed them as competitors intruding on government turf" (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 70). For instance, in mid-1990, the Ministry of Absorption was not permitting representatives of the Soviet Jewish Zionist Forum (SJZF), an advocacy and assistance group founded and currently headed by former refusnik Natan Sharansky, to greet arriving olim at the airport, despite the fact that at that time the Ministry had no Russian-speaking personnel and the Forum could have helped in this respect (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 70).

Tensions exist between Israelis and olim in younger age groups. According to Cohen, the former "resent the fact that, while the new immigrants get free rent for a year, they who have given three years of military service must struggle to pay for apartments" (International Journal of Refugee Studies Jan. 1991, 72). In elementary and high schools, Soviet Jews, referred to as "Russians" regardless of where in the former Soviet Union they come from, report verbal, and even instances of physical, abuse by their Israeli classmates (The Jerusalem Report 22 Oct. 1992a, 22-23). The director of the IRAC indicates that he is aware of infrequent cases of hostility toward olim schoolchildren by their classmates (7 Feb. 1993). A staff attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), another NGO, says he has read about one or two cases where hostility has lead to physical attacks on olim children (3 Feb. 1993). Efforts are being made to encourage more tolerance within the schools through teacher training and other programmes (The Jerusalem Report 22 Oct. 1992a, 23). According to the IRAC, school administrators have usually been quick to intervene when specific instances of harassment or violence have come to light (7 Feb. 1993).

While many Israelis hope that the wave of Soviet Jewish immigration will build the economy, the influx has, in the short term, put a strain on resources. Cohen notes that "[t]o the extent that the new immigrants take jobs away from Israelis, it is possible that increasing numbers of skilled Israelis will become disaffected and depart" (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 73).

Social tensions have existed in Israel between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews since the establishment of the Israeli state. The former are East European Jews while the definition of the latter is somewhat complex. Strictly speaking, Sephardic Jews are those descendent from Jews expelled in the late 15th century from Spain and Portugal. Often, however, the term includes Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, who are also designated as Oriental Jews (The New Encyclopedia Britannica 1989, 641). This paper uses the broader definition.

Sephardim, who are a majority among Israelis living below the poverty line, are reportedly concerned that their social benefits will be cut back to pay for the olim's assistance programmes. They resent the housing given to Soviet Jews, most of whom are Ashkenazim, and the places reserved for them in universities and medical schools (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 73; Middle East Policy 1992a, 116). Some Sephardim even suspect that the aliya has been orchestrated by the Ashkenazim in order to re-Europeanize Israel and that it will halt or neutralize recent gains they have made. In addition, there are reports that Soviet Jews do not hesitate to flaunt their education, culture and previous social status when "forced to" share a neighbourhood with economically disadvantaged Sephardim (Reiser 1992, 41-42).

Other Israelis, with even less social status than the Sephardim, reportedly also have reason to resent the increased presence of European Jews. Writing in early 1992, Alfred Lilienthal, a longtime author on Middle East affairs, states that Jews from India have "found themselves the object of discrimination" in Israel, adding that, at one time, the Israeli rabbinate forbid intermarriage between Indian Jews and those from other Jewish communities (Middle East Policy 1992a, 116). In August 1992, Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel in May 1991, staged a march to Jerusalem to demonstrate for better housing. Shortly before that, the Minister of Education ordered school administrators in the north of the country to enrol 450 Ethiopian schoolchildren who had, up until then, been denied registration due to "budgetary reasons" (Documentation Réfugiés 9-18 Aug. 1992). Like the Sephardim and other African and Asian Jews, Israeli Arabs fear the loss of jobs and educational opportunities as the current aliya continues (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 75).

In examining the absorption of olim in 1991, the Israel Yearbook reported that some Israelis had been "bad hosts" by charging unreasonably high rent or disparaging immigrant schoolchildren for their appearance and accents. It added, however, that        

[m]ainstream society . . . fulfilled the Zionist doctrine of viewing the newcomers not as immigrants but as repatriates. Those who resented 'the Russians'--for not having suffered as they believed they had, or for constituting an economic threat--held their silence (1992, 88).

The voting patterns of Soviet immigrants may also have influenced attitudes towards them. A January 1992 article in The Jerusalem Report analysed the influence of the religious right in Israel and concluded that "while the rabbinical monopoly on matters of birth, marriage and death [might be] slipping," the political power of the Orthodox "seem[ed] stronger than ever" (16 Jan. 1992, 7). However, religious influence in politics was dealt a significant blow in the June 1992 elections. The lead up to elections saw the major political parties campaigning hard for the olim vote, which, as a block, could determine ten or more Knesset seats. The olim vote went decisively in favour of the Labour Party and enabled the latter to form a coalition government that excluded the religious parties (The Jerusalem Report 16 July 1992, 38).

In the wake of the elections, Natan Sharansky wrote of the considerable resentment by conservative and orthodox elements in Israeli society toward olim because they tipped the electoral balance in favour of Labour. Sharansky compared some derogatory comments emanating from Likud supporters to those made about Jews in Russia by so-called Russian "patriots" (The Jerusalem Report 16 July 1992, 38). However, at the time, Sharansky did not describe any concrete instances of harassment or discrimination arising out of the above situation.

According to the representatives of the IRAC and the ACRI, there is no widespread discrimination of former Soviet Jews in Israel. In addition, Andre Rosenthal, an Israeli lawyer who specializes on discrimination issues, says that he is not aware of such discrimination. He emphasizes that, far from being discriminated against, the olim are provided with numerous absorption basket benefits not available to other Israelis. He states that some olim may have been denied jobs because their language skills were not adequate (Rosenthal 7 Feb. 1993; IRAC 7 Feb. 1993; ACRI 3 Feb. 1993).

4.2               Avenues of Redress

Israel has neither a constitution nor a bill of rights. Its fundamental law is the May 1948 Declaration of Independence, which lays the basis for the State of Israel and guarantees equal social and political rights to all "inhabitants" of Israel. In November 1992, a constitution and bill of rights were reportedly both under consideration (The Jerusalem Report 5 Nov. 1992, 14; Blaustein and Flanz 1988, 55).

According to a former Israeli justice minister, Israel is a relatively litigious society. This has led to an overcrowded court system in which preliminary hearings in civil cases, including those involving discrimination, can take up to one year to complete. All Israelis have the right to take civil cases to the Supreme Court (The Jerusalem Report 19 Nov. 1992, 12-13; Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993). According to the SJZF, someone who has a complaint regarding discrimination would take the matter to the police, who would investigate and, if warranted, initiate judicial proceedings (7 Feb. 1993).

There are a number of groups in Israel that support the cause of particular segments of the Israeli population and/or provide legal assistance to individual Israelis, including those claiming discrimination. These include the SJZF, the IRAC, and the ACRI. The IRAC operates a network of advocacy agencies for Israelis, especially Soviet immigrants. The ACRI was established in 1972 by law professors at Hebrew University and takes on cases that it feels are precedent-setting for the rule of law, including those involving issues of discrimination. According to an ACRI staff attorney, there are a number of organizations in Israel that assist in areas such as children's and consumer rights and many deal specifically with the rights of Soviet olim (ACRI 3 Feb. 1993; IRAC 7 Feb. 1993; SJZF 7 Feb. 1993).

One issue on which two of the above groups are actively working is that of travel restrictions for olim who have received an absorption basket (see sections 2.2, Exit and Return in Israel and 3.1, Absorption). The director of the IRAC says that his group sees these restrictions as unnecessary and is lobbying the Jewish Agency to change its policy. He adds that other groups are also pressuring the government to eliminate the requirement that olim who obtain a passport within three years of their arrival begin repaying their government assistance package (IRAC 7 Feb. 1993). ACRI is currently contesting cases involving travel restrictions linked to repayable absorption assistance (ACRI 7 Feb. 1993).

Other issues are being addressed as well. In the few instances when it felt that school administrators had not moved quickly enough on cases of harassment or physical violence by Israeli schoolchildren against their fellow olim students, the IRAC has intervened to suggest other avenues of resolution, such as transferring the immigrant child to another class. The organization is also setting up an ad hoc working group to lobby for changes to the country's marriage and divorce laws so that civil marriages can take place and be officially recognized in Israel (IRAC 7 Feb. 1993).

5.                MILITARY SERVICE

Military service is a significant aspect of life in Israel. Anyone who is considered Jewish as defined by the Law of Return must complete a period of compulsory military service after reaching the age of 18. Such service is three years for men and two years for women. After completion, Israelis are also required to serve 30 to 60 days annually of reserve duty until the age of 54 (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993).

Israeli Arabs and Druze women are exempt from all forms of military service. Jewish males studying in religious schools, known as yeshiva, are also exempt, although this has been the subject of much debate in Israel. Married women are exempt from reserve duty (Amnesty International 18 Oct. 1988, 1-2). Bedouins may volunteer for military service but it is not mandatory for them (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993).

Although women can obtain exemptions if they can satisfy authorities that their conscience prevents them from serving in the military, men cannot seek exemption on the grounds of conscience. Men who wish to seek exemption for reasons of conscience can apply on the grounds of "unsuitability," but such cases are dealt with differently than those of female conscientious objectors. Both men and women may apply for exemption for "special reasons," and those who object to serving in Lebanon or the Occupied Territories may be offered service within Israel's pre-1967 borders. Finally, some of those who refuse to serve can be offered alternative service within the military or in the civilian sector. Decisions on exemptions and alternative service are made either by an exemption board or at the discretion of individual commanding officers (Amnesty International 18 Oct. 1988, 1-2; Ibid. Jan. 1991, 13).

Those who have had their application for military exemption refused and who subsequently continue to refuse to serve can be disciplined or face a court-martial. In early 1991, Amnesty International reported that "[d]ozens of objectors . . . have been imprisoned for periods of between 7 and 56 days . . . although sentences of up to one year's imprisonment or more may be imposed" (Amnesty International Jan. 1991, 13). Persons who assist a conscientious objector to avoid military service can be fined or imprisoned for up to two years (Ibid.).

Immigrants who have completed military service in the former Soviet Union must still complete their Israeli service. Their term of service, however, can be as short as six months. Cases of people claiming to be non-Jews are reviewed individually by the Minister of Defence to decide whether an exemption is in order (Embassy of Israel 20 Jan. 1993).

Immigrants have traditionally been required to take at least basic training and perform reserve duty until the age of 50. New immigrants have usually been given at least a year in civilian life before being required to do their military service. Those enroled in universities may be permitted to obtain degrees before doing their service (IDF Journal Winter 1989, 57; Associated Press 14 Aug. 1991).

Military service is generally regarded in Israel as a "rite of passage to adulthood" and an "entry card to Israeli society," and there is a certain social stigma attached to refusal to serve (Amnesty International 18 Oct. 1988, 2; Associated Press 14 Aug. 1991). Despite this and although the army is one of Israel's most respected institutions, one survey has indicated that only 26 per cent of young Soviet immigrants show a "high degree of willingness" to serve, compared to 96 per cent for other young Israelis (Reuters 14 Jan. 1992). Many dislike the military due to their experiences in the Soviet Union and still lack the motivation that derives from a strong attachment to the State of Israel and its preservation (Reuters 14 Jan. 1992; Associated Press 14 Aug. 1991).

Under Soviet law, citizens who served in the armed forces of a foreign country lost their Soviet citizenship. For this reason, some Soviet immigrants may have been reluctant to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces (The Jerusalem Post 5 July 1991; Israel Yearbook 1992, 220-21). The Russian citizenship law does not explicitly forbid Russians from serving in the armed forces of another country (Rossiyskaya Gazeta 6 Feb. 1992). At the time of writing, however, there was no information available to the DIRB indicating how such a matter would be dealt with in practice or whether or not other Russian laws cover this issue. While the citizenship laws of Ukraine and Belarus stipulate that those who serve in the armed forces or police forces of another country lose their citizenship, most olim from those countries have, according to the law and/or practice, already lost their citizenship upon receiving Israeli citizenship (see section 2.2, Exit and Return in Israel) (Pravda Ukrainy 14 Nov. 1991; Republic of Belarus 18 Oct. 1991).

In order to ease young olim into eventual military service, the Israeli army has set up a three-month summer camp in which young immigrants learn basic military manoeuvres and self-defence, study Zionism and Israeli history, and pick up Hebrew slang, camp songs and folk dances. The time they spend at the camp is counted towards any later period of compulsory military service. Other measures have also been taken by the military. Russian-speaking soldiers have been assigned to induction centres, and the army has provided Soviet immigrants with special education kits (Associated Press 14 Aug. 1991; IDF Journal Winter 1989, 58).


Unlike aliyas of the past, the recent wave of immigration from the Soviet Union and its successor states is neither religious nor Zionist. These immigrants are consequently finding it more difficult to adjust to life in Israel than some of their predecessors. Under- or unemployment, housing shortages, military service and cultural alienation have all been cited as difficulties faced by recent immigrants (International Journal of Refugee Law Jan. 1991, 67; Reiser 1992, 28).

According to the Jewish Agency, in November 1992, less than five per cent of recent immigrants had returned to Russia or other Soviet successor states, or moved on to third countries (The New York Times 22 Nov. 1992). In late October 1991, this figure was less than one per cent, according to a Chicago Tribune article. The article adds, however, that the figures do not "reflect the impracticality of returning to the Soviet Union," and it also mentions the problems of repaying the absorption basket (20 Oct. 1991).

In November 1992, an Israeli official stated that his government was planning to receive about 100,000 olim per year until the turn of the century (Eran 13 Nov. 1992, 2). At the same time, the Rabin government announced a $280 million package of investment and job training in order to cut unemployment (The New York Times 8 Jan. 1993). The government's policies on issues such as absorption assistance, employment, housing and civil marriage will likely be a major factor in determining how well social tensions arising out of such a large influx of immigrants can be mitigated in the future.

7.          REFERENCES

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Amnesty International. January 1991. Conscientious Objection to Military Service. (AI Index: POL 31/01/91). London: Amnesty International.

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