Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Russians have come!

Time allows perspective on historic events.  One of the most dramatic movements affecting current Israel is the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union.  Unlike the arrival of the Ethiopians, it occurred over time, quietly and relentlessly.  It clearly changed the face of Israeli society.

According to Wikipedia, more than one million Russian immigrants arrived over a period of some twenty years from 1980.  Given a base population of around four million people at that time, these immigrants represent a significant percentage.  As many settled in smaller towns throughout Israel, these newcomers sometimes increased the population by 40% in some places. 

Such a cultural infusion has had a marked effect on the country.  Russian became the dominant second language in the street, displacing the many other languages of Israeli, including Arabic.  Both male and female Russians enjoy dressing elegantly.  Even today, it is very easy to identify a Russian from a distance.  As a result, the experience of window shopping dramatically changed.  They also enjoy and are willing to spend money on restaurants.  Although even today eating out is still not inexpensive in Israel, the number of restaurants as well as the quality and variety of the food has multiplied beyond imagination.  The Russian immigration is clearly one of the factors behind this.

The new immigrants also brought their education with them.  Although some did not have university degrees, the great number of doctors, engineers, and teachers, to name a few, eventually found work in their trained professions.  Whether high tech or higher education, it is hard to imagine who worked there before this wave of immigration.  For purposes of illustration, in the engineering college where I teach, for the most part it is impossible to find anybody in the teacher’s room whose native tongue is Hebrew.  Also, most of the immigrants were laic, either by choice or lack of exposure to Judaism.  Today, eating non-kosher foods, such as shrimps and pork (white meat as it is called here), is much more common as are open stores on the Sabbath, Saturday.

Alas, the Russians are also blamed for introducing or worsening certain social ills.  Israelis, old and young, drink much more alcohol today than they did in 1980, with the corresponding increase in alcoholism.  Organized crime has thrived in the last few decades.  Broken families, with its attached social costs, are much more prevalent than during the forty years of modern Israel.  While the Russians did not invent these problems, there is some correlation with their arrival.

So, if walk down the street of Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Nazareth Elite, or anywhere in Israel, it will be hard to imagine the world before the Russians came.  Whether it is better or worse is a matter of opinion, but Israel is clearly a different country today because of the last Russian immigration.

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