General information on the social context of immigration [ISR21645.E]

The following interview was conducted with the author of an anecdotal book on ex-Soviet immigrants to Israel(1), and an academic article on the same issue that was published in Israel Affairs(2). The interview was held in Jerusalem on 9 May 1995.

Naomi Shepherd has been living in Israel since 1957, has taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has worked extensively as a journalist for foreign newspapers. For the last 12 years she has been conducting historical research. The information provided in this interview focuses on history as Ms Shepherd believes it is imperative to comprehend the history of the Middle East in order to understand the present.

Historical Background

The Ottoman Empire organized its subject peoples according to confessional communities. Christians and Jews were in a minority status since it was a Muslim empire. In order to minimize frictions with the minorities, they were allowed considerable degree of autonomy in matters of personal status (i.e., marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial, etc.). In other words, they were able to govern their religious affairs which, in a totally religious era, was very important. One has to bear in mind that at the time, civil marriage was an unknown concept. Religious groups were allowed to have their own religious councils and collect their own taxes for religious purposes. This system, called Millet (or Millah) was a sensible management of the religious minorities.

When the British took over the Ottoman Empire they preserved the Millet system. The system was very convenient for the British simply because they did not wish to be involved in these very complicated religious and theological matters. Orthodox Jews were considered by the British to be restful as long as they were not disturbed in their religious activities, especially in matters of religious and personal status.

When Israel became a state in 1948, the Millet system was also preserved, but for another purpose than to manage religious groups. Orthodox Jews were a political force to be recognized by the new leaders of the State. Political parties supported by Orthodox Jews originated in Eastern Europe, and were simply reestablished in Israel. Their objective was to bargain with the much larger political parties and form coalition governments, and they were successful. This situation provided them with the opportunity to bargain for the maintenance of religious laws. They were able to obtain autonomy in personal affairs. Matters of personal affairs were to be managed mainly by the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Ministry of the Interior has always been the province of the religious parties, staffed by members of the religious parties who implement rabbinical criteria in issuing documents attesting to the "nationality" of citizens. This particular definition, which appears on all identity cards, corresponds to the holders affiliation with a particular religious denomination, (i.e., 'Jewish', 'Muslim', etc.) the legacy of the Millet system and has nothing to do with the secular concept of 'nationality' as understood in the West. The Jewish Orthodox definition of a Jew is someone who is born of a Jewish mother, or who converted to Judaism according to Orthodox criteria and is not a member of any other religion. Thus an ex-Soviet immigrant born of a Jewish father, or one who has other tangential connections with a Jewish family but has not converted, will be registered as "Russian", "Ukrainian", "Estonian", etc., under the 'nationality' clause. Such an immigrant will, however, enjoy full Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. It will immediately be clear that there is a clash between the Jewish Orthodox, or rabbinical, monopoly over all matters of personal status, and the Law of Return whose provisions are modern and secular.

The most orthodox party is Agudat Israel which is powerful in Jerusalem, the centre of political power in Israel. Today, the Shas party, composed of orthodox Jews from North Africa, is also a powerful influence. Although there is dissent between North African and Eastern European orthodox Jews, they agree on the necessity to incorporate religious laws from the Talmud into the legal system of the state. That is what has happened. So, the whole province of personal law includes registration of matters of personal status of the population, including new immigrants. It is interesting to notice that when examining the ruling of a secular body such as the Supreme Court of Israel, there is almost always a judge who will, on matters other than personal status, quote precedents from biblical law and Talmudic rulings although only personal law comes under the direct jurisdiction of the Rabbinical Courts. The religious parties try to enlarge their monopoly on matters of personal status and other religious matters (such as Sabbath observance) through their participation in the Knesset. There is a continual tussle in Israel today between orthodox and secular Jews as to how much of rabbinical law and tradition should be incorporated into laws of the state. While most matter of personal status are decided, in the case of objections, only in rabbinical courts, appelants do have, in some cases, the right of appeal to the secular system (usually the Supreme Court of Justice). In cases of divorce, for instance, the alimony fixed by the rabbinical courts can be altered in the civil courts.

Arrival at the Airport

When ex-Soviet immigrants arrived at the airport they receive an entry stamp in their passport. The entry stamp is proof that they are Israeli citizens. For the following three months they have the right to opt out and become permanent residents. All the immigrants are screened in a separate location in the airport where families or individuals are interviewed by representatives of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption is a special ministry which caters for immigrants only. The representatives of the Ministry ask questions such as where they want to live, if they have relatives or friends in the country, what is their profession, etc. At the airport, new olim receive money in cash to help them during the first days in Israel. The question of access to services or whether services at the airport are provided according to religious or national affiliations is absolutely irrelevant. All new immigrants with oleh visas are considered Israeli citizens and as such will receive all the absorption benefits related to this status.

At that stage there already is an opportunity for the new olim to orient themselves in the country. However, most of the new immigrants do know where they are going when they arrive in Israel because of the information they receive in the former Soviet union from their relatives already in Israel. There are very few who arrive without having received information before making Aliya. While in the writing stage of my book, I personally saw several immigrants who went through the process at the airport and knew exactly what they wanted to do and what they did not want to do. When they arrive, they have a significant amount of information. They roughly know what their rights are. At the airport they receive information on health insurance if they have sick dependents. Depending on where they are going, they can receive transportation.

Representatives of kibbutzim are present at the airport to provide information on the opportunities offered by their communities. Kibbutzim representatives are mainly interested in young people. Although it rarely happens, I also know of cases of new immigrants assiduously courted by settlers who promised them a very nice apartment which they in fact received. The problem was that they did not know about the fact that they were in the Occupied Territories.

The more recent arrival of immigrants are young. I found out that a significant number of them had only a slight connection to Judaism. This can be explained by the fact that it was difficult to talk about a Jewish society during the Soviet Union. Jewish communities were not existent, Jewish identity was maintain within families, often mixed families. This situation differs from past immigration to Israel where it was an immigration of Jewish communities.

The current integration policy of free access to any place in the country departs from earlier policies. The policy of the government until very recently was to offer all immigrants the option of an initial stay in an immigrant centre run by the Absorption Ministry until they acclimatised themselves; during this period they were offered advice on housing and work and could study Hebrew. (In the 1950s and 1960s new immigrants were taken directly from the airport or port to outlying areas of the country and had no initial choice on where they could go). Today the system has changed to one of 'direct absorption' in which the immigrant is free to go wherever he or she likes on arrival. Immigrant centres still exist for those who have no alternative, but very few choose to go there. Today, new immigrants receive information about the better employment opportunities in the development towns in the less inhabited areas of the country such as the Galilee or the Negev. But, new immigrants prefer to settle in larger agglomerations such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The problem is that the Ministry of Housing has concentrated all public housing for immigrants in the less populated areas of the Negev and the Galilee. This contradiction has not helped. It created a huge market for rental housing for the immigrants. Since there are no apartment buildings for them in Tel Aviv, and the only accommodation is rental, rents are very high whereas government housing is very affordable.

Problems of Integration

The main problem that new immigrants had to face was employment. This wave of immigrants had an unparalleled educational level. Unlike the mass immigration of the past who mainly came from Arab countries and who were mainly artisans and small traders (who often became manual labourers), the ex-Soviet immigrants were highly trained professionals especially in the fields of engineering, architecture and medicine. Since Israel already had one of the highest ratios of doctors-patients in the world, the influx of a large number of physicians from the former Soviet Union meant that specialists in particular had to accept lower job levels. In the former Soviet Union, the women's work force was as highly developed as the men's. There were many qualified women engineers for example. In Israel, unlike the former Soviet Union where almost all women worked outside the home, only about a third of women are employed in the work force. In sum, the main problem with employment was with the different occupational structure and professional qualifications in the two countries.

A related but different problem was the fact that the ex-Soviet Jewry saw itself as an intellectual elite in the former Soviet Union. When they came to Israel they could no longer maintain this image because they were not equipped to compete with Hebrew-speaking intellectuals. For both men and women professionals, it created a problem of self-image and professional status.

Another problem is the Jewishness of these new immigrants. The State of Israel was created on the basis of a small nucleus of immigrants from Eastern Europe. These immigrants were composed of three specific groups. First, socialist pioneers, the product of Russia revolutionary society who were predominantly secular. Second, a very Orthodox Jewish minority already existing in Palestine at the time; their numbers were increased by the arrival of more Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe. These Orthodox Jews were respected by other Jews because they kept the Jewish identity alive through their traditions and, as such, they occupied an important social position. Although these two groups were Jewish, they had different societal objectives of what was to be Israel. The socialist pioneers wanted to built a secular state, while the orthodox wanted to implement Jewish law. When it came to the establishment of the State of Israel, a compromise was reached. These opposing political forces are one of the main reasons why Israel does not have a constitution the impossibility of reconciling these tendencies. There are a number of contradictions between rabbinical Judaism and the egalitarian principles set out in the Declaration of Independence which states that there should be no discrimination on grounds of religion, race, and gender. These modern egalitarian principles are in contradiction to the rabbinical code that was established centuries ago. It would be very odd if the rabbinical code of laws which is still in effect with regard to the personal laws of Israelis should suit the requirements of a democratic society. Since 1948, these two tendencies have been present in the Israeli political arena. The current ex-Soviet immigration has been welcomed openly by many Israeli leaders and intellectuals as strengthening the "Western" and secular Israel.

The arrival of ex-Soviet immigrants called for special solutions as far as social integration was concerned. More importantly, it also call for a reassessment of the Zionist State. This reassessment implied a particular kind of acceptance of foreigners who were not necessarily Zionist, probably not Jews in the rabbinic sense, and not Jews in any sense other than the fact that they were persecuted for their Jewish parentage. This is a complex socio-political problem that nobody really anticipated.

On the whole, ex-Soviet immigrants are successfully integrated in the economic sense. Most of them have found employment and the indicators are going down. Israel extends an extraordinary degree of support not only through financial assistance, but through a whole spectrum of possibilities such as housing, education, etc. Perhaps most important of all are state-sponsored language programs. In addition to that there are a great number of voluntary and semi-governmental organizations that provide support and services. There is a maximum effort by the State of Israel to assist new immigrants when they arrive in the country. As far as I know 14 per cent of the ex-Soviet immigrants were considered disadvantaged people such as the elderly. This has put quite a strain on Israel welfare services. Today there is a universal health system in Israel which ensures every citizen access to services.

Another problem is the very different analysis of what being Jewish meant in the former Soviet Union and in the State of Israel. In Israel, Jewish identity is mainly determined by the rabbinical hierarchy for historical and political reasons. All matters of personal law such as registration of nationality, permission to marry, divorce procedures, inheritance, and burial, have constituted problems to ex-Soviet immigrants who were not considered Jewish, but who came under the Law of Return as members of a Jewish family.

The Law of Return and Current Immigration

There is also what I would call an "historical-psychological" problem. The Law of Return which governs immigration to the State of Israel is the result of specific historical and political factors, chief of which is the Holocaust. The writing of the Law of Return borrowed, whether consciously or not, from the Nuremberg laws of 1935 which considered as Jewish not only a person born of a Jewish mother, but people who had at least one parent or grand-parent of Jewish origin. People considered as "half Jews" were caught by these discriminatory laws. People with remote links to Jewish origin were exterminated during the Holocaust. In some way there is a weird parallel with the current problem of the Jewish identity of new ex-Soviet immigrants in the sense that those who were penalized because of their connections to Jews during the Nazi era are now advantaged by it through immigration to Israel. The connection between the Nuremberg laws and the Law of Return is that anyone who was penalized by a connection however remote to Jews and Jewry would now benefit from that connection.

This is a very important aspect in understanding the Law of Return. It allows for the protection of all those who have been submitted to mistreatment in the past either because they were Jews or because of their affiliation with Jews. In that sense, the society the Zionists wanted to built was a Jewish one, it could not have been otherwise because the people they were trying to help were Jews. Therefore, Israel was to be a state for the Jews. This was also the agenda which enabled Zionism to be represented and accepted by the United Nations at a particular time in history when the Nazi period was still fresh in everyone's mind.

This law is a very liberal document. When the Law of Return states that every Jew can become a citizen of the State of Israel, it also indirectly asks the question of who is a Jew. It does not mean somebody who necessarily practices Judaism as a religion, it does not even mean somebody who is necessarily a member of a Jewish community, it also does not mean somebody who is a member of a Jewish organization. It simply means a person who is thought of as a Jew is the country-of-origin, or who has some relationship to a Jewish family either by marriage, or by parentage of the second and third generations (parents or grand-parents).

This provision was not problematic until the arrival of ex-Soviet Jews because no one seemed to have understood, despite the amount of research on Soviet Jewry, the extent to which Jewish identity had almost disappeared. For 70 years the Jewish community had lived under Soviet rule which had a traumatic effect on Jewish life and identity. During 40 years Israeli leaders constantly demanded more liberal immigration laws in order to allow Soviet Jewry to immigrate to Israel. The Israeli leadership was also keen to maximize the potential of this immigration that was thought to be of several million people. In fact, it was considered to be the chief "reservoir" of immigration of the future. This idea became somewhat of a political cliché in Israel, but its consequences were not fully understood.

One of the reason that made it difficult to foresee the problem of the Jewish identity of the current Aliya was the immigration of the "refuseniks". Before this recent wave of immigration 150,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union came to Israel from the early 1970s onward. Most of these immigrants were totally committed to their Jewish identity (there were many from the Eastern republics who still lived in communities) and had some idea of Zionism. They were led by those Soviet Jewish refuseniks who had battled for the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union. These Jews strongly identified with Israel. Therefore, the problem of Jewish identity was not an issue from the point of view of their integration in the Israeli society. Initially, nobody fully understood that there would be a problem in the immigration of so many people. There was no more Jewish community in the traditional sense because people had inter-married. Also, because of the departure of so many of the Zionists who were committed to Jewish education, there was no sense of belonging to a specific group or culture, except in the sense that one was the victim of discrimination. In other words, you were a Jew because you were a victim of discrimination. The motivation of those who came in the last five years is a subject of debate among sociologists. Nobody has yet come up with a systematic analysis. From my personal experience, I think that the prime motivation of the current immigrants for making Aliya is to get out of the former Soviet Union into a society which they see as more prosperous, with fewer problems such as the environment, and because of better economic prospects. The Zionist motivation among these new immigrants is not nearly as high as it was for the "refuseniks".

The administrative and legal problems associated with not being Jewish according to the rabbinical definition a person born of a Jewish mother assume an enormous importance. Many of the immigrants felt that they were not accepted in their new society. There were problems such as their Jewish identity which they never anticipated on leaving the former Soviet Union or in Israel, and for which nobody prepared them. The issue of burial for instance. Until very recently, if one was not buried by the Jewish Burial Society, or in a Christian or Muslim burial, a person could not be buried. There was no provisions for secular burial until very recently. There was a significant number of ex-Soviet immigrants who were elderly and who died in Israel. When the religious burial society inquired and consulted their document, they refused burial on the basis that these people were not Jewish. The families had to search for an alternative burial site which turned out to be a kibbutz. There was a huge public outcry about this problem over the handful of cases. Portions of land are currently being selected for secular burial in which people who do not conform to the religious burial criteria of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam could be buried. These secular cemeteries would also be available for Jews who do not wish to be buried according to religious ceremonies.

There is also the status of mixed couples. It is important to point out right away that as citizens of Israel, mixed couples will not have problems with their civil rights, especially with the new Basic Laws on Human Dignity. Problems might arise from their personal status. The majority of mixed couples are young with young children. For mixed couples where the mother is Jewish, the children will be considered Jewish, and as such the family's integration into Israeli society will proceed without problems. For mixed couples where the mother is non-Jewish, the children will not be considered Jewish and problems will arise when they reach maturity, especially if they wish to marry a Jew. The whole issue of mixed couples will be a massive problem because there are numerous mixed couples who made Aliya from the former Soviet Union. If one assumes that approximately 30 per cent of the immigrants are not Jewish, and that most of them belong to mixed couples, then you have a huge problem of personal status in front of you. However, in my estimation, by the time the children of today's mixed couples are adult, there will probably be civil marriages in Israel. It will probably be because of the sheer force of numbers. One of the possibilities lies in Jewish law. There is a provision which accepts a couple who have not been married in a religious ceremony but are known to be living in partnership.

It has been suggested that the current ex-Soviet immigration is going to be the chief mover of the separation of religion and state in Israel, and that it will lead to the introduction of secular marriages which does not exist at the present time. There is quite a lobby today in Israel which is trying to use the problems of new ex-Soviet immigrants to push for a total separation of state and religion. But some of the new immigrants' leadership are strongly opposed to be used in that battle. To what extent this view is representative of the ex-Soviet immigrants' constituency is an open question.

It is an inevitable process that the clash between the values of the majority of Israelis and the more narrow view of the rabbinical minority, would result in changes in the laws of personal status in Israel.


(1) See: Shepherd, Naomi. 1993. The Russians in Israel, available at the Resource Centre in Ottawa.

(2) See: Israel Affairs. Winter 1994. Vol. 1, Number 2. Naomi Shepherd. "Ex-Soviet Jews in Israel: Asset, Burden, or Challenge?" This article is available at the Resource Centre in Ottawa.

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