Why did Soviet Jews start turning away from Israel in the mid-1970s and then ditched their “historic” homeland almost completely in the 1980s?
This is part two of my story about the forced Soviet Jewish migration to Israel. Read part one here: “A saved Soviet Jew goes to Israel.”
Almost half a million Soviet Jews flooded into Israel in just the span of a few years in the very early 1990s — with almost 200,000 coming in 1990 alone. For a tiny country with a population at the time of just over 4 million, this was a colossal transfer of human bodies.
Israel naturally struggled to integrate all these people.
There was not enough housing or jobs, and quite a few Jews ended up moving from what was essentially a comfortable and secure life with a job and an apartment in the Soviet Union to a life of poverty and deprivation — living in tent cities and picking through trash for food, while being ostracizedby Israelis for mooching and for not being “real” Jews. (The “not real Jews” thing is still happening today, by the way.)
The United States provided some funding and so did private Jewish donors. In 1990, American Jewish foundations even launched “Operation Exodus” — a fundraising drive to collect money to help integrate Soviet Jews into Israeli society. It had a flashy anti-communist logo that riffed on the Soviet Union as the evil Egyptian Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, defied the Hebrew God, and was then destroyed for his insolence. This op ultimately collected more than a billion dollars from Jews all across America, but it wasn’t much considering the scale of the migration — a million people by the time the decade ended.
In 1991, Journeyman Pictures produced a great little film about the the experience of Soviet Jews who came to Israel during the huge immigration boom of the early 1990s, and it isn’t pretty. The bit about mine engineers and dentists is particularly funny in a grim and understated kind of way: “Here we have hundreds of mine engineers who have come form the Soviet Union — hundreds. What do you do with them here? We have no mines.”
Most people probably think that these Jews came to Israel of their own free will: When the Soviet Union finally opened the gates, they gave up their former lives and braved all odds to come to the Jewish state — not caring about the deprivations and hardships that they knew awaited them because they believed in the Zionist idea and wanted to do their part for the Jewish people.
While this might have been true for some of the immigrants, it wasn’t true for the majority.
The thing is, the huge burst of immigration to Israel that occurred over several years in the early 1990s wasn’t natural — and I mean “natural” in the sense that most of these Soviet Jews actually wished to come to Israel. No, it was a forced migration. If given a choice, like my own family was in 1989, these Soviet Jews would have gone somewhere else. But they weren’t given a choice. Why? Well, because there was long-running conspiracy to constrain their options and to force them to come to Israel — all in order to fulfill a longterm Zionist dream.
This dream was finally pulled off in 1990 — not long after my own family left.
Ben Gurion Airport, Israel, 1992. Source: Jewish Lens
As I’ve mentioned before, Israel was the first state to covertly inflame and support Jewish nationalism within the Soviet Union. From the earliest days, its leadership saw the Soviet Union’s large Jewish population — which was anywhere between 2 and 3 million or even more — as a powerful weapon to be used in its population war against Palestine.
In the 1950s, Israel established a dedicated covert intelligence division called Nativ that sent in agents into the Soviet Union to proselytize Zionism and Jewish nationalism and to strategize about how to manipulate the commies into letting their Jews out. The operation picked up steam after 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and began constructing settlements. Zionists needed a lot of Jewish or at least Jewish-passing bodies to fill all that newly occupied land — and the Soviet Union stood as the biggest untapped reservoir for this biblical human resource.
Through the 1950s and 1960s…
This story will be continued next week. In the meantime, read: “Part One: A saved Soviet Jew goes to Israel.”
That time when I went on a youth trip to Israel to learn about the unity of the Jewish people and had my Israeli host go off about how Soviet Jews are parasites.
Since we’ve been on the topic of Israel, Palestine, and Soviet Jews, I wanted to tell a story that I forgot to recount on our last episode — a story about my first teenage brush with anti-Soviet Jewish racism in Israel and the giant wave of forced Soviet Jewish migration that had caused it. Yep, forced — as in, “involuntary.”
— Yasha Levine
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