Bringing Home the Bacon

Russians Change the Face of Israel

 Jaffa—"Thank God for the Russians," Karen murmured reverently as she stood over my kitchen stove inhaling the aroma of frying bacon.

We were having a clandestine lunch. I had scored the bacon from a Russian butcher right in the middle of town. It wasn't even hidden under the counter. I was cool about buying it and only looked over my shoulder five or six times.

As soon as i had it safely home, I called my friend Karen and spoke in code: "BLT," I said. Five minutes later, she was in the car embarking on a two-hour drive that involved negotiating at least one checkpoint and several potentially dangerous roadblocks. It was worth it, she said.

Over the past 13 years, Israel has seen an influx of Russians, more than 1 million of them, who understand that you can be Jewish without being even slightly kosher. They had the courage to do what we had never dared: demand their pork and eat it too.

The Russians have brought a lot to Israel. The country has been incredibly enriched, especially in the realm of music. Symphony orchestras and chamber music groups abound even in the poorest towns. If a Russian immigrant came off the plane without a violin case tucked under his arm, we used to joke, he must be a pianist.

The daily choice of opera, ballet, or theater is mind-boggling. There is a new art-gallery opening to attend every other day. Suddenly we have chess grand masters, street musicians, jugglers, mimes, and tarot card readers. The prostitutes are decidedly more elegant, and the whims of Russian "Mafia molls" have given us boutiques carrying Armani, Gucci, Prada, Versace, and even Louis Vuitton.

Tel Aviv has an aura of Paris in the years after the fall of the czar.

Some people claim it is all part of globalization, but when you smell the bacon, you know it's the Russians. And they had more than culture in their baggage. Russian doctors brought new techniques to Israeli hospitals, Russian coaches are spurring Israeli teams to victory, and the arrival of scores of Russian engineers gave impetus to Israel's high-tech boom.

Roughly one in five Jews in Israel now speaks Russian. Zvi Heifetz, 45, the suave vice chairman of Ma'ariv Holdings, Israel's second largest media group, is one of them. Zvi immigrated from Riga, Latvia, during an earlier exodus of Soviet Jews in the 1970s.

"This Russian immigration is quite unique," said Zvi. "A sudden deluge of people bringing talent to hospitals, industry, high-tech companies, the army, to music and dance, to every field of life."

Zvi thinks Israel is getting a really good deal from the current influx.

"The Russian immigration is giving Israel an injection of intelligent, highly educated people," Zvi said. "And the entire investment, the billions of dollars all that education cost, was paid by someone else."

Of course, there are problems. Many Russians are unable to find jobs at their education level, and it is not unusual to find an engineer who has not yet mastered Hebrew working as a janitor. And many Israelis are annoyed by job-hungry Russians who are willing to work for less.

"At the government level, they are appreciated and welcomed," Zvi said. "But on the street level, some are resented because they took jobs from someone else. They have stigmas. People joke about a Russian Mafia because Russian businessmen made money quick. They say there are many prostitutes. And religious people complain that some are not 100 percent Jewish."

"This is a difficult country and a difficult religion," he said with considerable understatement.

The question of Halacha (Jewish law) has created controversy. Under Halacha, only persons with Jewish mothers or those who have undergone strict religious conversions are considered Jews. However, the Jewish Agency, in charge of immigration, works according to the Law of Return. That law extends immigration rights to people who have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent and includes the immigrant's non-Jewish spouse and children.

The government Bureau of Statistics says 77 percent of all Russian immigrants are Jewish. But that's not good enough for Israel's ayatollahs, who moan and groan about the estimated 250,000 non-Jews who have been brought into the country.

The ultra-religious, incensed by the proliferation of stores selling pork or open on Shabbat, have staged demonstrations against Russian-speaking immigrants.

Even some secular Israelis worry that the arrival of so many non-Jews threatens the Jewish character of the state. They link non-Jewish immigration with organized crime, drunkenness, domestic violence, and prostitution. And they can worry some more.

There are another 860,000 people still in the former Soviet Union eligible to come to Israel under the Law of Return, according to Yehuda Weinraub, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency.

Yehuda has all the numbers at his fingertips—1,106,490 Russians have immigrated to Israel since the establishment of the state in 1948. The vast majority came after the disintegration of the USSR, with a peak of 185,000 people in 1990. However, the numbers dropped to 33,522 people in 2001.

"The pool of Jews is reduced since so many have immigrated," Yehuda explained. "Also, conditions in Russia appear to be improved for Jews, and they have more religious freedom. And we have the intifada and economic difficulties here."

Reports that over 50 percent of the Russians arriving were non-Jews brought pressure on the Jewish Agency to tighten the rules.

"We decided to set up programs for Jewish identity and education," Yehuda said. "Thousands of people have enrolled in courses teaching Hebrew and Jewish tradition. There is a renaissance of people interested in finding their Jewish identity."

The Jewish Agency would like to see the conversion process eased. Now, a convert is required to commit to a much stricter level of religious observance than that adhered to by most Israeli Jews.

American Jewry has also been diluted by intermarriage, agency officials say, and the Americans would be very grumpy if descendants of their mixed marriages were deemed non-Jews.

While many Israelis applaud the Russian contribution to the secularization of the state, peace activists are dumbfounded by the right-wing politics of the new immigrants. Many of the new arrivals go blue in the face at the idea of trading West Bank land for peace with the Palestinians.

Journalist Uri Avnery wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper last year about a television report he had seen that portrayed Russians as "unbridled nationalists, born Arab-haters. They are sure that the whole of Eretz-Israel 'belongs to the Jews,' that we, the old-timers, have become tired and weak, and that they, the immigrants from Russia, must save Israel from perdition and the gas chambers of a second Auschwitz.

"Like all new immigrants, they bring with them the worldview that they have absorbed in their former homeland and apply it automatically in their new surroundings," Avnery wrote. "Greater Israel instead of Great Russia, Arabs instead of Uzbeks and Tartars . . .

"At meetings of the far right, these Russians meet American settlers, who come with myths of the Wild West. In their eyes, the Arabs equal the Red Indians and the settlers are the white pioneers.

"Russians are not 100 percent so right-wing as people think," Zvi countered. "People who lived under Communism don't like anything that looks like the left. And they were raised not to give up something that belongs to them. Like those islands the Japanese want back."

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