Between 1990-1996, over 600,000 Jews left the CIS for Israel. Former Soviet Jews now constitute 10% of Israel's population. For the most part, this was not a Zionist-motivated aliya; for the most part, former "refuseniks" and Zionist activists arrived in Israel between 1968 and 1973, or individually - upon their release from Soviet prisons [1979-1986].
BackgroundBetween the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War [see: Aliya between 1967 and 1973], the numbers of Soviet olim reached 100,000. This changed dramatically after the Yom Kippur War: in 1974, Israel encountered for the first time the phenomenon of people "bypassing" Israel. About 21,000 Jews obtained exit visas from the USSR [to Israel], but only 17,000 came on aliya; the remainder waited behind at the Vienna transit point for entry visas to Western destinations.
This trend was to become more marked in subsequent years, with the number of people "dropping out" en route to Israel by the 1980s actually exceeding the number who came on aliya. In 1987, 90% of those who left the USSR decided not to come to Israel, and the topic was extremely controversial in Israel. Indeed, it receded from the public eye with the increasingly severe Soviet restrictions on aliya from the early '80s, and there was little change in aliya figures under early "perestroika" [reconstruction] in the mid-'80s until more "liberalisation" of the economy and regime at the end of the decade.
New WaveThus, in 1990, when it had long been presumed that the era of aliya from the Soviet Union was over and done, the picture was again transformed, in a totally unexpected manner.
In spring 1990, the monthly figures for Soviet aliya topped the 10,000 and by mid-year, over 50,000 olim had arrived in Israel. Over the next six months, another 135,000 olim came to the country, with planes landing one after the other and disgorging hundreds of olim. The tally for one weekend alone in December that year was 5,000. Out of the 200,000 peak aliya figures, Soviet olim accounted for 185,000.
In fact, the massive new influx from the Soviet Union resulted from a number of concurrent factors:
- Perestroika and glasnost under Gorbachev;
- The deteriorating economic picture in the USSR;
- Ethnic and political conflicts in the outlying republics of the USSR;
- Covert and overt threats of antisemitism. Soviet Jews left the USSR en masse. With the new limitations on immigration to the USA, the growing flux of Jews made Israel their destination.
Klita - Absorption or IntegrationMass aliyah of Jews from the USSR, later to become the Commonwealth of Independent States, was not essentially a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, with the exception of the very first years of its statehood, Israel had never received such a large wave of aliyah in one fell swoop. Alongside the dream of the exodus by the Jews of Silence there rapidly began to emerge problems associated with aliyah whose significance is due to the large dimensions of this influx of people: employment, housing, lack of Hebrew - and, above all, the transition from the society of origin to Israeli society, which is highly westernized.
In the USSR, Jews were disproportionately prominent in the sciences, medical profession, mathematics, physics and art, far beyond their percentage of the population. The wave of aliyah since 1990 is similarly characterized by a significant preponderance of adults with higher education. Their overall contribution and potential to contribute to the State of Israel and to Israeli society as scientists, doctors, academics, in technology, research and the arts is undisputedly important.
There remain, however, many people with specialized professional skills which are inappropriate to the demands of the Israeli market, a factor which has obliged many to undergo retraining in order to market their skills. This applies to a wide range of professions, including teachers, engineers in specific sectors [railways, distribution, afforestation, etc.], technicians, scientific personnel and all sectors of the medical profession.
Naturally enough, young people with higher education have found their niche more successfully than adults without qualifications. In addition, the path for olim from the western or European areas of the former Soviet Union has been far smoother than for those from the southern republics [Georgia, Bukhara and the Caucasus], when measured by their level of participation in the workforce, their income and continuation in their professional field.
ReviewRussian Zionism and aliyah were at the source of modern Zionism in the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century under the Czars. It reemerged after the Six Day War*, and the seventies of this century were testimony to the activism of Jewish refuseniks. If the Russian aliyah of the nineties is not precisely motivated by Zionism, it will doubtless leave its own unique imprint on Israeli society, as has every other group of olim.
ConclusionAs we review more than a century of aliyot and approach the jubilee of statehood in Israel, we note that aliyah has been and continues to be a phenomenon among the Jewish people, a factor which has no parallel in the history of modern migrations. It was and remains the ultimate goal and essence of the Zionist character of the State of Israel; it has brought full circle the many distinctive and diverse communities which were formed, flourished or foundered in the Diaspora as a creative people together in its own land.