- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

KIBBUTZ MIZRA, Israel Sasha Damidov laughed when he remembered how it was a decade ago: Israeli audiences sat in uncomfortable silence while he and the other actors tried comedy and flattened punch lines with their tortured pronunciations.

The all-immigrant Gesher troupe was established in 1991, about a year after Soviet Jews began streaming en masse to Israel. In a poignant effort to fit into their new homeland, the actors performed in Hebrew, a language most of them could not speak.

"We didn't understand what we were saying," Mr. Damidov recalls.

Mr. Damidov, 43, is convincingly Israeli today, with a light Russian accent in his speech. Israel has changed him but he and his fellow immigrants have changed Israel, too.

The influx of some 900,000 Russian-speakers since 1989 has increased Israel's Jewish population by almost 20 percent, to 5.2 million. The immigrants, now 14 percent of the population, have made Israel more European, and less religious. They have become a political force widely credited with deciding three elections. Nathan Sharansky, once a jailed Soviet dissident, is now a power broker in Israeli politics.

Just as the breakup of the Soviet Union 10 years ago this Christmas reshaped the world, so the immigrant wave has reshaped Israel.

"It is a critical mass that has created a 'little Russia' in Israel, and it's still not finished," said Eliezer Feldman, a Russian immigrant and sociologist at the National Institute for Immigration Research. "There are constantly things being built in this little Russia in Israel magazines, institutes, higher education."

With a preponderance of scientists, doctors and engineers, the immigrants have provided a booster rocket to a sluggish economy that has since almost doubled in size and helped transform Israel into a high-tech power.

A population that loved fine arts suddenly had more. Gesher, now one of Israel's most acclaimed troupes, travels around the country, on one recent night selling out the 440-seat theater in this northern Israeli communal farm for an unusual performance of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" set to Beatles music.

Still, the name Gesher, which means "bridge," highlights the paradox of a community of immigrants who are also widely characterized as doggedly keeping open the bridges to the old country.

Jews move to Israel from places as different as Morocco, Argentina and the United States, and many keep in touch with their native cultures. But no other groups arrived in such large numbers at once, or were able to create the sort of state-within-a-state that the Russian-speakers have.

Some schools, bars, restaurants and even entire neighborhoods are solidly Russian-speaking. Russian-language dailies abound. A Russian-language TV station is about to go on the air. It will run Hebrew subtitles in hopes of bridging the divide between immigrants and Israelis. Its director, Yulia Berkovic, says that when veteran Israelis watch, "they will understand what the immigrants are going through."

Russian-speaking Jews have been a mainstay of Zionism for at least a century. They have included Golda Meir, the late prime minister, and Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. Many Israeli folk songs are set to Russian melodies.

During the Cold War, the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate was an international cause celebre. U.S. lawmakers struck at Moscow's trade privileges in part to make it let the Jews go. The Soviet Union was the chief arms supplier to Israel's enemies, and had no diplomatic ties with Israel.

Today, officials from the states that once formed the Soviet Union are welcomed as friends, and cultural ties are strong because the immigrants have given Israel one of the world's largest Russian-speaking expatriate communities.

The immigrants have strengthened trade ties, too. Many businessmen hold dual citizenship and live in Israel while working in their native land. Weekend flights from Moscow and Kiev are packed with immigrant businessmen returning to Israel.

The immigrants come from all over the former Soviet Union 887,267 in all between 1989 and 2000, according to official figures.

Of these, 285,713 came from Ukraine, 280,341 from Russia, 111,173 from the Central Asian republics, 68,400 from Belarus, 55,054 from the Caucasus region, 47,302 from Moldova and the remainder not specified by source country in the statistics.

The wave of immigration seems to have crested. Last year, about 51,000 former Soviets came, down from a peak of 185,000 in 1990.

The decline is because of a slightly improved economy and expanded religious freedom back home, said Yehuda Weinraub, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, which brings Jews to Israel. Others have stayed away because of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

In Moscow, Mr. Damidov's aunt, Mariam Zarubinskaya, 52, says she never considered moving to Israel. She says she feels more Russian than Jewish. While her actor nephew in Israel is experimenting with Judaism, Mrs. Zarubinskaya shuns religion.

"I think in Russian. I grew up with Russian culture," she said.

Mrs. Zarubinskaya, a businesswoman, says life in Russia hasn't been easy in recent years, but the rage and bloodshed of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians can't be much better, she reasons.

In the former Soviet republics, at least 1 million people are potential immigrants because of the Israeli government's liberal definition of eligibility: one Jewish grandparent. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that one of Israel's main tasks is to bring them into the country.

Those seeking reasons to stay away don't have to look hard.

Only about 35 percent of immigrants with university degrees are working in their fields, said Anna Isakova, a former government adviser on immigration. Unemployment among the immigrants hovers around 13 percent, she said, compared with Israel's overall 9 percent jobless rate.

Some 20,000 painters, writers, journalists and humanities professors are out of work.

Mechanical engineer Efim Rubinshtein still hasn't found a job in his field 11 years after leaving Minsk, Belarus, for Nazareth Illit in the Galilee, nearly half of whose 50,000 residents are Soviet immigrants.

"Everyone who was working in Russia they were professors, academics, engineers," Mr. Rubinshtein, 48, said with a sigh as he waited with fellow immigrants outside an employment agency. "They had tenure and experience."

So he became a laborer at a plastics factory.

Mr. Rubinshtein said his struggle was worth it. His parents and his brother and sister died of cancer linked to the 1986 accident at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear-power plant. He and his wife survived, but were glad to have access to Israel's high-quality medical services.

Every wave of immigrants to Israel finds itself resented by some of those who came before, and the latest wave is no exception. Many immigrants complain of being stereotyped as racketeers, prostitutes and alcoholics, and brawls between immigrant youths and Jews from older communities are reported frequently.

"Many bad things happening in Israel have been brought by the Russians," said Miki Levi, a 19-year-old seminary student from Jerusalem. "They steal cars. They write anti-Semitic things on synagogues."

The stereotyping suggests to journalist and immigrant Edward Kuznetsov that Israeli society doesn't really understand its newest community.

In 1970, Mr. Kuznetsov led 15 other Soviet Jews in an attempt to hijack a plane to Israel. The plot failed, but Mr. Kuznetsov finally arrived here, with "a lot of optimism about Israel, a lot of illusions."

Under the Soviet regime, Jews were persecuted for their religion, he said. In Israel, as immigrants, they sometimes feel like second-class citizens.

Some of the worst bitterness derives from painful encounters with Israel's tangled relationship between religion and state.

The law says one Jewish grandparent entitles an immigrant to instant citizenship. But the rabbis who control marriage and divorce, manage most cemeteries and wield enormous political clout have a tougher definition: Only a person with a Jewish mother is Jewish.

Immigrants occasionally have been denied Jewish burial, even in cases where they have died in military service or in terrorist attacks.

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