Israel Report

June 2001         



And Still They Come

By Amnon Rubinstein

Has the Intifada affected immigration to Israel from the countries of the former Soviet Union? That is a difficult question to answer, as a decline in the number of olim (new immigrants) from those countries was expected irrespective of the eruption of the Intifada. The dwindling Jewish population there and the significant economic growth in Russia and other countries does not enable an analysis of the causes bringing about the fall-off.Between January 1, 2001 - at the height of the Intifada - and June 11, 13,644 new immigrants arrived, down from 20,479 olim in the same period last year.

Officials of the Jewish Agency, who are doing devoted and skilled work, expect some 30,000 new immigrants to arrive from the former Soviet Union in 2001, but whether that expectation will be fulfilled is unclear. Between June 1 and June 11 - a week after the terrorist attack at the Dolphinarium complex in Tel Aviv - 624 olim arrived from the former Soviet Union: less than in the same period last year but far more than one would have expected under the circumstances.

On the one hand, it is clear that the decision to immigrate to Israel is made long before the actual act of moving, so it is difficult to know if and when events in Israel affect the flow of immigration; on the other hand, it is very easy to decide not to realize the right to immigrate and to cancel the flight to Israel. All the immigrants who arrived after the Tel Aviv massacre decided not to take up that option.

There are two additional encouraging signs in this sphere. Within the framework of the Birthright program, which makes it possible for young Jews to visit Israel for free, 500 youngsters from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel, and in contrast to delegations from other countries, not one of them opted out of the program.

And there has been no decrease in the number of tourists from the countries of the former Soviet Union who request to change their status to olim - not in the entire period since the beginning of the year and not in the days that have passed since the Dolphinarium attack.

The Liaison Bureau, which deals with Jews in Eastern Europe and operates out of the Prime Minister's Office, reports that in the first five months of this year 1,800 tourists asked to change their status, as compared with 2,000 in the first six months of last year.

Random conversations with new immigrants from the former Soviet Union also turn up a similar picture. Their message is unequivocal: We will not give in, we will live here.

These data are extremely important, as one of the goals of Palestinian terrorism is to weaken Israel by bringing about a cessation of immigration to the country. Time will tell whether that goal has in fact been achieved. However, the initial signs suggest that the Palestinians' scheme will be thwarted by the olim themselves. They are possessed of mental fortitude and an ideological message that are much needed by Israeli society.

Be that as it may, it is noteworthy that since 1989 nearly 1 million new immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union have arrived in Israel - more than a third of all the immigrants who have come to Israel since it was founded in 1948. The flow has weakened, but it continues.

It is precisely the arguments voiced against the olim that strengthen Zionism. One argument is that many of the immigrants are not Jewish according to the halakha. However, the Law of Return deliberately grants the right of immigration to Israel to them as well - as in the eyes of much of the public those who are offspring of Jewish families and want to live in Israel and serve in the Israel Defense Forces are just as good as "pure" Jews.

The second argument is that there are some olim who falsify documents concerning their Jewish origins. But if that contention is true, it offers the most powerful testimony to the victory of Zionism. If Russians who are not Jews forge such documents and even, so it is said, learn Yiddish in the underground, that must be counted the most tremendous victory of the Zionist idea. Who would have believed in November 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was issued and the Bolshevik Revolution launched, that within less than a hundred years the Jewish state would be so attractive even to Russians who are not of Jewish extraction?

Indeed, to paraphrase Psalms 8:3, "From the mouths of olim we have found strength.

©2001 - Ha'aretz


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