This is Sarah Failla and you're listening to the Eurasian Enigma.
Consider this: today there are four to five times as many Russian-speaking Jews living outside the former Soviet Union as there are remaining in the FSU. Nine in 10 Jews living in Germany speak Russian, and 15 percent of Israel's population was born in the USSR.
With us is Zvi Gitelman, co-chair of the Davis Center's 2011 Conference on the Russian-Speaking Jewish Diaspora, and editor of the volume based on that conference, The New Jewish Diaspora: Russian-Speaking Immigrants in Israel, the United States, and Germany.
Zvi, thank you very much for joining us today.
So, we've heard some staggering statistics about the extent of Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union. When did Jews begin leaving the USSR, and why did they want to leave?
A significant emigration begins only in March of 1971, when the Soviet government decided to allow some very limited, carefully controlled emigration. The emigration got out of hand from the Soviets’ point of view, and it grew enormously afterwards. But that's the beginning point. Why they wanted to leave is a mixture of various motivations. Even one individual generally could not really answer that question with one reason for leaving—although we can generalize and say that the people who left in the first four or five years left largely because they were Jewishly conscious, whether for religious or cultural reasons, and they felt suppressed, blocked in the Soviet Union, where no Jewish culture or religion was really allowed to flourish. That's the reason that most of them went to the State of Israel, which they construed as a Jewish homeland, and a place where they could express their Jewish culture or practice their Jewish religion freely.
That changed after the 1973 October war in the Middle East, when Israel was in some serious economic difficulties, when its security position was undermined, and a new wave of immigrants then coming largely from the three Slavic republics—Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine—emigrated in large numbers. But they emigrated largely to the United States and other Western countries. And then by the 1980s, because of the disappearance of detente and the deterioration of Western-Soviet relations, the Soviets cut off emigration. But at the end of the 1980s, with perestroika, a third wave emerged. These immigrants fled, really they were more pushed from the Soviet Union than they were pulled to any particular place; they feared the collapse of the Soviets, the resulting anarchy which would bring no good to ethnic minorities such as the Jews. So you had a massive wave of emigration beginning in 1989, and ending roughly in the early 2000s.
What role did antisemitism play in motivating Russian Jewish immigration, particularly for the generations who were brought up under Soviet rule?
Antisemitism is the easy way to explain emigration, and many of the emigrates explain it that way themselves. There's no doubt that many of the emigrates felt that they were being discriminated against, that their children's life chances were severely limited, and particularly the generation that had embraced the Soviet ideology and the Soviet government—that is, the people who grew up in the 1920s, '30s, and served during the war—they were profoundly disillusioned by postwar Soviet policy, by the so-called black years between 1948 and Stalin's death of 1953. When all Jewish cultural institutions were shut down, the leaders of public Jewish life were arrested, many of them were shot, and many Jews were dismissed from, or not hired into, positions of cultural or governmental responsibility. So there are two or three generations of Soviet Jews: Russian-speaking, highly acculturated, highly integrated into Russian culture, who felt that they were not integrated into Russian society. That they were being treated as second-class citizens. That you are not one of us. That is to say that you may speak Russian, create Russian cultural artifacts, but you are not really the same as the rest of us. You're second-class citizens—possibly disloyal, certainly untrustworthy, and you will not be granted the same life chances as other people.
So that's the way I would interpret Soviet antisemitism, after governmental antisemitism had been reduced or at least controlled with the death of Stalin. It nevertheless continued in the form of denying Jews access to elite positions, whether in the military, the police, the government, or the Party. But it was not a virulent kind of racial or theological antisemitism. It was simply social exclusion.
You've observed that emigration has been shaped by changes in the policy in the sending and receiving countries. For the United States, what was appealing about the Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union?
Emigration of anyone from the Soviet Union was appealing to a broad spectrum of Americans and different kinds of American governments. The Left was happy about it because it was an expression of human rights and an implementation of human rights policy which had been put on the international agenda by President Jimmy Carter and kept on that agenda by his successors, whether Democratic or Republican. The Right was happy because it was a demonstration that the Soviet system was far from perfect—that there were many discontented Soviet citizens, and there was something fundamentally flawed in what President Reagan called the "evil empire." So the specter of people leaving the Soviet Union and being anti-Soviet was very pleasing to a broad swath of the American population and different American governments.
And what about in Germany?
Germany is a more complicated situation because significant emigration—Jewish emigration—to Germany did not start until the late 1990s. The German calculus is pretty obvious. That is, that the half a million German Jews who lived there before 1933 had disappeared, half of them by emigration before 1939, and the other half by annihilation by the Nazis. The Jewish population of Germany had been reduced to about 20,000. Very few of them had been born in Germany or came from Germany. They were mainly postwar displaced persons, mostly Hungarian and Polish, who had remained in Germany after they had been released from the DP camps.
Now there was an opportunity with Soviet Jewish emigration to replenish, as it were, the Jewish population of Germany. And so you had about 225,000 Jews from the Soviet Union who went to Germany in a very strong wave of emigration. But that too came to an end at the end of 2005, when the German government changed its immigration policy, made it much more restrictive, so that after 2006 you have a steep decline in Jewish emigration to Germany.
And how was the immigration received in Israel?
Of course this was the fulfillment of the Zionists’ dreams. Hundreds of thousands—in fact, about 800,000 Jewish and 350,000 non-Jewish immigrants coming from the Soviet Union. This was a great boost to the Israeli manpower, whether thinking in military terms or economic terms. This was also a very highly educated population. Nearly half of the immigrants had some form of higher education. And most of that higher education was in technological and scientific fields. And that fueled the amazing rise of Israel as a high-tech power in the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, there were people in Israel who resented what they saw as the privileges accorded to these new immigrants. Privileges which they or their parents or grandparents had not enjoyed when they had immigrated in the late 1950s–early 1960s from North Africa, from the Middle East, from Iran. And there was a tension, no question about it. There was a tension between these irreligious, Ashkenazic, Jewishly ignorant Soviet immigrants and at least some segments of the Israeli population. I think that tension has disappeared over time, and the emigration from the Soviet Union, the Russian-speaking emigration to Israel, is viewed by all, I think, as an unmitigated success.
As you've just hinted at, the communities in the countries that received Russian-speaking Jews have pretty different ways of defining Jewishness. Could you tell us about these differences a bit more and how they've shaped the immigrant experience of the Russian-speaking Jews?
Interesting question. This is a serious question in Israel, where there's a logical contradiction between the Israeli Law of Return passed in 1950, which says that anyone who had a Jewish ancestor going back two generations and hence would've been persecuted as a Jew by the Nazis is eligible to acquire immediate citizenship upon arrival in Israel. It's the flip side of the Nuremberg Laws passed in 1935 in Germany, because the Nazis had the problem, as it were, of defining who is a Jew, and therefore who is subject to persecution and ultimately to death. So Israel said that anyone who had sufficient Jewish ancestry to be designated as a Jew by the Nazis would come, could come to Israel, which would be a safe haven for them. However, following the Ottoman precedent—and you should remember that the Ottoman Empire controlled the Middle East and controlled what became Israel and Jordan and Syria and so on—the Ottomans gave the right of personal status. The determination of that right was given to religious communities. So Christians could decide who's a Christian, Muslims who's a Muslim, and the Jewish rabbinate would decide who's a Jew.
That remains the case today. So that's for purposes for marriage and divorce, Jewish identity, that decision remains in the hands of the Orthodox rabbinate of Israel, the only recognized rabbinate. And their definition follows Jewish law, halakhah, which defines a Jew as someone born of a Jewish mother. So it's a matrilineal definition, or someone who has converted to Judaism. “Converted to Judaism” has subsequently been interpreted to mean “converted by the Orthodox (not the non-Orthodox) rabbinate.” That means that Soviet Jews who conceive of themselves as Jews, but who have, let's say, only a Jewish father, or a Jewish paternal grandfather, are not considered Jewish by the state. They can enter, they can be citizens, but they cannot be married or divorced in the state, because there is no civil marriage and divorce and it follows Jewish law.
In the United States such a consideration does not even arise. There's no central Jewish authority. There's no consensual definition of who Jews are. And as far as I know, no one questions the Jewishness, however defined, of immigrants.
But by the same token, in America people think of being Jewish as being part of a religion.
Right, and this is a totally alien concept to Soviet immigrants. Because in the Soviet Union, they were defined as Jews by nationality, natsional’nost’. Now “nationality” is misleading—I should really say “ethnicity.” They were an ethnic category, just like Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Tajiks, Georgians, etc.
Now they come to a country where Jews chose to define themselves as a religious group. Even nonreligious Jews would generally think of themselves as people of some connection with the Jewish religion and no other religion. So there's a conflict, a contradiction, let's say, between the self-conception of Russian-born Jews and American Jews. And very slowly, I think, younger generations of Russian-speaking Jews are adapting to the American model. That is, religious practices and customs, however devoid of any theological content, become adopted by them. The synagogue is a place of Jewish gathering. Jews come to meet each other there. Yes, there are Jewish community centers, but it is a really originally profoundly secular population which is encountering a Jewish population which is at least nominally defined by its religion. So there's something of a tension there.
The notion of diaspora has been part of Jewish thought since ancient times. How do you make sense of the concepts of “diaspora” and “homeland” in this globalized world in which we now live?
The concepts of diaspora and homeland used to be mutually exclusive. That was a black and white distinction. That's no longer true because it's very hard to pinpoint what is a person's homeland today—especially in Europe or parts of Asia, where people were born in one country, move to a second country, work in a third country, return to the original country. This is also true of the Russian-speaking emigration. They may be dual citizens, say of Russia and of Israel. They may live in Israel, or their families are in Israel, but do business primarily in the former Soviet Union. And there's a lot of back and forth all over the world, overseas, Chinese, people of various nationalities around the world, Mexican Americans, for example. And Russian-speaking Jews, who live from time to time in one country, and then in another country. So what is the homeland and what is diaspora become a little bit more fuzzy and more difficult to define. They're not mutually exclusive anymore.
Zvi, thank you very much for talking with us today.