Gary C. Gambill
Alex Selsky, CEO of the World Israel Beytenu movement, former adviser of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and a lecturer at the School of Politics and Journalism at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, spoke to participants in a May 11 Middle East Forum webinar about the role of Jewish immigrants (olim) from the former Soviet Union and their descendants in Israel today.
Although commonly referred to as “Russian Jews,” Selsky emphasized that only 30% originated from Russia itself, the rest hailing from other former Soviet republics. They number around 900,000, or 1,200,000 if Halakhally non-Jewish members of Jewish households are included. Most arrived after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Selsky also disputed use of the terms “immigrants” and “Russians” in describing Russian-speaking Jews who made aliyah to Israel. “There are no Russian immigrants in Israel,” he explained. “There are Russian-speaking Jewish Israelis who repatriated to their homeland. Russians are in Russia. We’re Jews.”
Although Soviet origin Jews are the most highly educated of all Israeli olim, many struggled to find work in their fields upon arriving in Israel. Stories about physics professors cleaning streets were “unfortunately true,” said Selsky, who himself made aliyah from Russia at the age of 16. Much has changed. Today, they have the highest rate of participation in the labor force of any demographic (around 90%) and play a vital in many sectors of the Israeli economy.
Soviet olim are ubiquitous in most manufacturing fields. Selsky noted that Shmuel (Sam) Donnerstein, CEO of the Rav Bariach Group, a giant in the lock-making industry, remarked in an interview that one “hears only Russian” in his company’s plants. They are especially overrepresented in defense industries, owing to the large number of engineers and scientists who worked in this capacity in the former Soviet Union.
Soviet olim have also put their educational pedigree to use in the medical sector, comprising around 30% of doctors in Israel.
While Soviet olim have built an enormous Russian language media sector, including three radio stations, two television channels, and many print periodicals, Russian-speaking journalists have also become increasingly prominent in mainstream Israeli media. Their growing integration into Israeli society has been accompanied by a higher profile in the arts, popular entertainment, and sports.
Politically, Russian Jews are “very right wing,” with about 70% voting either for Likud or Avigdor Lieberman’s secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu. “They come from a superpower mentality, realpolitik: you defeat your enemy and you don’t negotiate,” explained Selksy. Around 90% self-identify as Zionist, higher than any other Jewish demographic. They have made a “huge contribution” to Israeli security, with a high share of service in combat units of the IDF.
Despite their increasing integration into Israeli society, popular misconceptions and stereotypes persist. Notwithstanding the common belief that Israel has a large Russian mafia, for instance, police statistics show that “olim from the former Soviet Union are involved in crime proportional to their representation, no more.” They are often seen as eager to leave Israel, despite the fact that only 8% have permanently moved to other countries. They are also accused of “not hav[ing] a democratic mentality” because they favor a strong state that “fights [Israel’s] enemies,” and of not being Jewish enough because they had little formal religious education growing up in the former Soviet Union.