The New Soviet Aliyah: for Most Olim, Economic Needs Take Precedence over Politics

Recent Soviet Jewish immigrants aren’t very eager to talk politics.

Right now, they are interested mainly in the policies of the Israeli government that will help or hinder them in their quest for a successful life in Israel.

Former prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky is a case in point. Since immigrating to Israel four years ago, he has chosen not to lend his prestige to any single political party. Instead, he cultivates relations with all parties in order to achieve the goals of his advocacy group, the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum.

Like Sharansky before them, Soviet Jews settling in Israel today only talk about such things as the future of the administered territories and the “Who is a Jew” controversy to the extent that these issues directly affect their lives.

In one sense, the immigrants learning Hebrew at the Mevasseret Zion absorption center must literally face the situation on the West Bank every day. The windows of their classroom look right into hills that lie beyond Israel’s 1967 border.

Felix Kramer and his wife, Natasha, who have been in Israel for six months, have considered living in the administered territories, situated just beyond their doorstep.

Despite his short time in Israel, Felix already has formed an opinion on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“I think they are Israeli territory,” he said. “There already is a Palestinian state — Jordan. How many Arab countries do they need to have?”

‘MORE WORRIED ABOUT THE ARABS’

Frankly, Kramer said, he can’t understand why Americans, particularly American Jews, are so interested in which side of the so-called Green Line he chooses to live on.

“It seems they are more worried about the Arabs than about us,” said Kramer, a serious-looking, balding man whose young son clings to his trousers.

“It’s a little dangerous to live in Hebron,” Natasha admitted. “But there is a possibility of going to Kiryat Arba,” the large Jewish settlement located adjacent to Hebron.

Only a small percentage of Soviet Jews have chosen to settle in the West Bank until now. But how many will seek housing there in the long term is still an open question.

The mayor of the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Ron Nachmann, loudly defying U.S. wishes, is aggressively trying to attract Soviets to his settlement. He has been bringing Soviet immigrants to his settlement, but far from the large numbers he would like.

“Our class took a trip to Ariel,” said Galia Lando, who teaches Soviet olim in Rishon le-Zion. “They were polite, but when we came back home, nobody seemed interested in settling there. They said it looked like a lonely place.”

“Anyone who wants can go there,” said Leonid, a student in the ulpan class. “But nobody wants to go there.”

Leonid explained that the immigrants’ desire for a secure future cannot be satisfied in the face of Palestinian hostility.

If Soviet Jews move to the West Bank in significant numbers, it will not be because of a government initiative or their own ideological beliefs. More likely, it will be the same force that drives many Israelis to move there: sheer economic necessity.

But even the Soviets with no intention of moving to the West Bank highly resent the prospect of being restricted from living in any part of the country. As in every other aspect of life, they want the freedoms and privileges of any other Israeli.

It is for the same reason that an Interior Ministry requirement that immigrants must prove their Jewishness before being registered as Jews has become a sore point with the Soviet newcomers.

DEMONSTRATIONS THREATENED

In mid-February, Sharansky’s Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum threatened demonstrations if clerks at the Interior Ministry continued to demand documented proof of the immigrants’ Jewishness.

Mariana Zhoutyah, an English teacher from Kishinev, has been here a month. The questioning of her Jewishness is a blot on her mainly optimistic feelings about life in Israel.

“I left my birth certificate in my office in the Soviet Union,” she said. “I am afraid now to go to try to get an identity card for myself, my mother and my children.”

Her fear stems from the experiences of a neighbor.

“He is a blind man, 61 or 62 years old. When he went to the Ministry of the Interior,” she said, “he didn’t have his own birth certificate, but he had his daughter’s saying that he was a Jew.”

Despite this, the clerk at the ministry would not register him as a Jew.

Mariana shook her head, pointing out the “absurdity” of suffering discrimination in the Soviet Union and then having her Judaism questioned in Israel.

While many of the Soviet newcomers are not yet ardent Zionists, the fear that many of them are simply using Israel as a way station for the United States seems unwarranted.

BORN-AGAIN JEWISH NATIONALISTS

Though their Zionist and religious education has been minimal, most profess to have chosen Israel voluntarily. Some have become born-again Jewish nationalists after suffering anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

If they were not originally convinced that Israel should be their destination, they are convincing themselves now that they are in the right place.

Whether they are telling the truth or have adopted this positive outlook because they are already in Israel, these immigrants seem sincerely committed to making it where they are.

The seriousness of their attitude and the strength of their drive to succeed sometimes amuses those working with them.

“My Hebrew class was very upset one day when we canceled class one afternoon and had a party. They complained to me, saying ‘What? No more studies?’ “said Galia Lando, the ulpan teacher.

“We will have a 10-day vacation during Passover,” she said. “My students are already anxiously asking whether we will make those days up.”

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