The Right but not the Desire to Return

Russia and Israel have a rather interesting relationship.  Political relations between the countries have been cool for decades, but the increase of Russian immigration and travel to the Jewish nation has inevitably complicated the two nation’s cultural and social ties.  It’s estimated that well over a million Russians have immigrated to Israel since the collapse of Communism.  The reasons have been economic and cultural.  Many Russian Jews fled the collapsing economy of the 1990s.  Some were pulled to Israel out of Zionist dreams. Fewer left Russia out of fear of antisemitism.  Many more were pulled by Israeli policies that expanded the Right of Return, a move from the Israeli perspective was a means to offset the its demographic imbalance with the Palestinians as well as replace Arab cheap labor with Russian immigrant cheap labor.

However, the Russian diaspora in Israel has increasingly found it difficult to integrate into Israeli society.  They are often caught between two worlds.  In Russia, they were Jews.  In Israel, they are Russian. The results of this can be quite bewildering, if not shocking, as the growth of neo-Nazi groups in Israel attest.

Neo-Nazi groups in Israel may be the most surprising outcome of Russian-Israeli relations, but it’s not the only one.  A few weeks ago, the Russian and Israeli governments abolished visa requirements for travel between the two nations.   This was  surprising move considering the belief among many that all Russians bring to Israel is violence, drunkenness and racism. The visa turnabout appears to be spurred by economics.  The Israeli Tourism Ministry was the main lobbyist for abolishing visa.  It estimates that over 100,000 more Russian tourists will visit as a result.  The Israeli Public Security Ministry opposed it, arguing that “eliminating visas would make it too easy for Russian criminals to enter Israel.”

Perhaps most surprising, at least to Americans like myself, is that Russia abolished visa requirements for Israelis.  Israeli tourists can not travel without restriction to Russia.  The Russians have always maintained their their visa policy has been in response to the restrictions countries put on their citizens.  This is why, the Russians argue, visa restrictions for Americans have tightened.  Perhaps the US should follow the Israeli example and seek some visa detente.

Another surprising development in Russian-Israeli immigration is how many more Russians are going back to Russia.  This is not limited to Israel.  As Yelena Biberman notes in her “Heading Back Home” Russians are repatriating in increasing numbers.  As she notes,

A leading expert on Russian repatriation from the European University at St. Petersburg, Alexander Kurylev, said that in the 1990s the major factor driving contemporary Russian repatriation was political openness of the country and its emerging market, but “now Russia’s spectacular economic growth is probably one of the most influential factors.” He adds that this factor could become more influential were Russia to become more deeply integrated into the global economy.

Elson points out that those most likely to thrive in the Russian market for mid to senior level jobs are those who have been successful in the West, and can easily reintegrate into the Russian society. The job categories that experience the biggest shortage of labor supply in Russia include legal, retail, business to business, accounting, marketing, and investment banking front office positions.

Apparently the pull back to Russia is so strong that a recent Israeli campaign to woo Russian-Israelis back to Israel was an utter failure.  As Lily Galili explains in Haaretz, even though the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign was a success in convincing Israelis in Europe and the United States to return,

the Russians, however, are not coming back. The young, successful people who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s and chose to return to the former Soviet Union – the campaign’s main target – largely ignored the whole thing. Most did not even click on the ministry’s ads to see what was being offered. Only 80 or so of the tens of thousands of former immigrants living in the major cities of Russia and Ukraine heeded the call to return home.

In fact, as Galili argues, the lack of interest in Russian-Israelis to return to Israeli is emblematic of how the Zionist “emotional appeal” for Israel doesn’t work for Russian speakers.  “For some,” she writes, “Israel never became home, or Russia never stopped being home. Almost none consider it a contradiction to live in both worlds.” Ironically, while Israel was seen as a “developed country” by Russians in the 1990s, now it appears, in the words of Professor Zeev Khanin of Bar-Ilan University, as “a provincial country between Africa and Asia.”

Now that is an opinion I would have never expected.