Why are the Russians Leaving Israel?

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According to recent data, every second person emigrating from Israel is an immigrant from the Former Soviet Union. This article by IDI's Michael Philippov asserts that the failed integration of the Russian aliyah is not a natural, predictable process but a painful failure for Israel as a host society.

According to data from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, 48% of those who emmigrate from Israel are immigrants from the FSU (former Soviet Union). These emigrants are educated and young people who are unable to fulfill their potential here in Israel. This statistic should worry any responsible, thinking person who sees (or wishes to see) Israel as a developed nation. But in practice, the response has been different: "this doesn't surprise me," says Ruby Rivlin, who was present when the issue was debated by Israel's parliamentary Absorption Committee; "after all, they're not Zionists." "This doesn't surprise us," say some members of Israeli academia. "It's natural that every wave of immigrants realizes its goals only after several generations."

It is hard to argue with this view, which sees the departure of the Russians as a natural, even expected, phenomenon. True, most of these immigrants work more than native Israelis, pay their taxes, uphold the laws of the state, and serve in the army; yet there is no disputing the fact that tiny Israel is burdened with the problems of absorbing, within a short time frame, a million immigrants with professions that do not always suit the needs of its modest economy. They segregate themselves within a local Russian culture that appears threatening to many Israelis. Roughly one-third are not Jewish according to religious criteria. So there is certain logic to the question of why the Russians, of all groups, should acclimatize more rapidly than previous groups of immigrants. Did not the Moroccans also need time to fit in?

Extreme cases dominate the public discourse: Israel's integration of physicians, high-tech workers, and pole vaulters offers proof of our great accomplishment, and politicians clearly prefer these success stories; but members of the media, accustomed to dealing with exceptions at the other end of the scale, tend to focus on alcoholics, neo-Nazis, and call girls. Predictably enough, no one is seeking an answer to the question of what is really happening with the average immigrant, and why Russians are leaving the country in such large numbers.

The answer is complicated, and unpleasant for patriotic Israelis to hear. It is quite possible that this country is simply too crowded and not advanced enough for the most ambitious of its immigrants. In stark contrast to some of the previous immigrant groups, it seems that the Russians do not have the time to wait until the first and second generations have sacrificed themselves for the third generation, who, by that time, will be "real Israelis"—that is, have friends in the right places and know how to get along in the densely packed Israeli space, even without qualifications or academic degrees. The Russians came here to succeed and get ahead with the clear understanding that they (and their children) already have something to contribute to their new country in the present generation. Their aims and expectations were high. Their disappointments are unbearable. Moreover, the bulk of Russian immigrants in Canada, the US, and Australia have actually managed, over time, to improve their socioeconomic standing and even to advance themselves.

Recently, new studies have been published in Israel on the subject of aliyah. Sociologists describe a sharp drop in the socioeconomic status of Russian immigrants to Israel in the 1990s, and their situation has not improved in the second generation. Thousands of immigrants with academic backgrounds, who were respected as highly skilled professionals in their country of origin, are now working in factories in Israel's peripheral areas. For a long time now, the terms "supermarket check-out girl," "security guard," and "1990s immigrant" have been virtually synonymous. Unfortunately, high-tech workers and pole vaulters do nothing to improve this statistic, which is seen here as natural.

There are immigrants who have not learned Hebrew, a fact that hampers them severely in their ability to succeed. This is not only due to the scandalous level of the ulpanim (intensive Hebrew study programs). It seems that the Soviet work ethic caused them indirect harm: Working hard from the day they arrived left them neither time nor strength for the language or the children for whose sake they came. The result is that, based on the example of their parents, some of these children have concluded that there is no connection between education and advancement, and hence, no need to go to university. Those who do pursue a higher education sometimes discover that all the workplaces that suit their skills have already been filled by long-term residents with the right "ties." The country is too dense, and the competition too brutal, for the immigrants to achieve the standard of living they desire. The Jewish Agency does not tell any immigrant that the path for the good life in Israel is too long, and that latecomers are guaranteed a place only at the back. Many of them are willing to wait; others are not.

To conclude, let me present a statistic that exposes the grim reality in which Israel, as an absorber of immigrants, finds itself. According to a survey conducted by the Guttman Center on behalf of the Institute for Jewish Studies in the CIS, Jews who have remained in Russia and Ukraine have no desire to move here: No less than 59% fear immigrating to Israel due to the expected drop in their socioeconomic status.

The time has come to stop investing resources and effort in "aliyah-boosting" in global backwaters by Jewish Agency propagandists. These resources would be better spent in improving the absorption of those who are already here, in developing Israel's border towns, in building transportation infrastructure between the center and periphery, in ensuring suitable working conditions, and in fighting corruption and cronyism in Israel. Hopefully, this would make Israel's economy more flexible and attractive, bringing new immigrants who could realize their potential—for their good and the good of the state—and enabling us to hold onto the fine people who are already here. 

Michael Philippov is a doctoral student in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a research assistant at the Israel Democracy Institute.