Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 August 2000
Issue No. 494
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The Russians are coming

By Roger Owen *

Roger Owen I was recently given two startling pieces of information by a visiting Palestinian friend from Jerusalem. One was that there were several Russian Orthodox Christian churches being built in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba. The other was that Sri Lankan and other migrant women workers were being lured away from the West Bank Palestinians who had originally hired them by Israelis who offered them better-paid jobs in Tel Aviv.

In order to try to understand what all this was about I turned to an article in last summer's Middle East Journal by Professor Ian Lustick of the Government Department at the University of Pennsylvania entitled "Israel as a non-Arab state."

The article begins with an analysis of what is now a well-known phenomenon, that a sizable proportion of Israel's Russian immigrants are not Jewish by any definition of the term. According to the annual report of the Ministry of Absorption for 1996, the portion of those unable to be registered as Jews reached 42 per cent of the new arrivals from the former Soviet Union, and almost 50 per cent for those under the age of 50. Lustick estimates the total number of non-Jewish Russian immigrants a year or two ago at some 325,000.

Just as remarkable is Lustick's observation that a significant number of the newcomers had registered themselves either as Christians or persons of no religion at all. As a result of this situation, the Russians, or to put it another way, non-Arab Christians are the fastest growing Israeli religious community and now constitute 8-9 per cent of the non-Arab population of the state.

How can this be so? Lustick attributes a small part to the fact that a number of Russians leave for Israel with forged papers showing them as Jews. However, his main explanation derives from one of the unintended consequences of a 1970 amendment to the Law of Return. In the interests of preserving the unity of families in which inter-marriage had occurred Jewish parents were from then on allowed to bring with them children, grandchildren and their spouses regardless of whether they were Jewish or not.

This was of no particular importance until the first waves of Russians arrived in the 1990s. But even before then, religious opponents of the measure had been quick to discover a number of strange instances of the way the law was being administered. One which Lustick cites involved the admission to Israel of the Muslim relative of the son of Jewish immigrants from Iran who had himself converted to Islam.

Lustick also has very interesting things to say about the reasons why the various attempts to amend this amendment have, so far, been unsuccessful. One is simply bureaucratic. The size and budget of the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption depend on the numbers of new migrants it brings in as well as its own estimate of the number of Russians still wishing to come.

A second is political, and involves the growing power of Natan Sharansky's Yisrael Be'aliyah party in the Knesset and the country at large. As the party depends almost entirely on the absolute size of the Russian community for access to votes and resources it makes no sense for it to question the credentials of any part of its now one million strong constituency.

Two other reasons are more ideological. First, no meaningful debate on the question of the Jewishness of the Russian immigrants can be carried on without raising the whole notion of the Right of Return and so, by extension, one of the main rationales for the Zionist project in the twentieth century. Second, given the demographic struggle between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, the Jewish Israelis would be unhappy about any diminution in the numbers they claim for their side. This also makes sense if one considers that the non-Jewish Russians are just as likely to be anti-Palestinian as their Jewish compatriots.

Seen from this point of view, the construction of Russian Orthodox churches in the communities where there is a heavy concentration of Russian immigrants makes perfect sense. So too does the increasing unwillingness to question people's religion and ethnic origins. According to Lustick, the 1995 census was the first in Israeli history not to ask questions about what is obviously becoming an increasingly contentious, but also increasingly blurred, situation regarding individual religious and ethnic identity.

Lustick has less to say about the presence of non-Russian, non-Jewish, non-Arab guest workers, the numbers of which he puts at a conservative 160,000. They too constitute a potential problem for the future. Some of those who have been there for a while will want to bring their families to join them. Others will want access to Israeli social security. Others again, when threatened with deportation on the expiry of their visas, will just disappear into an illegal limbo.

What Lustick does speculate about is some of the implications of all this for Israel's own future. One possible consequence he mentions is growing support for the argument that the only obvious solution to the existence of major non-Jewish minorities is the so-called post-Zionist one in which the notion of Israeli citizenship is raised well above that of the historically Jewish character of the state. This, after all, is what Israeli/Palestinian politicians like Azmi Bishara now advocate. By the same token, the successful creation of a Palestinian alongside an Israeli state would make this position much harder to sustain.

There is another possible implication which Lustick does not mention and that stems from the growing xenophobia of parties like Shas. Just like the New Right parties in Europe, Shas uses anti-immigrant feeling to whip up popular support, particularly against the Russians. In 1999, for example, a Shas cabinet minister accused them of introducing alcoholism, prostitution and drugs as well as of stealing jobs from poor Jewish workers.

Clearly Israel is not going to be exempt from either the social strains or the multiple assaults on religious or ethnic exclusivity which are going to be one of the main features of twenty-first century globalisation. But, as always, the situation there will also have its own special features. For the moment at least, fears about a possible Palestinian state with armed Palestinian policemen provides a great deal of obvious extra social cohesion among non-Palestinian Israelis. If, however, there is a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, the major fault-line will be that between those Israelis who support the agreement and those who do not. It is only after these issues are resolved that the increasingly polyglot nature of Israeli society is likely to be seriously addressed.


* The writer is professor of history at the Centre for Middle East Studies, Harvard University.

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