Jewish migration from the former USSR has had a major demographic impact on Israel, ultimately generating fundamental transformations in its political landscape, society and foreign policy.
Significant Russian Jewish migration to modern-day Israel dates back to the end of the 19th century, beginning with the 1st Zionist aliyah (Hebrew for “ascent”, or the “homecoming” of Jews to Israel) when thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire emigrated to Ottoman ruled Palestine. This mass migration latently persisted until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, with significant climaxes during the 3rd & 4th Aliyah right after the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and the interwar period. During the Cold War, migration of Soviet Jews was strongly limited and laborious, though approximately 140,000 Jews managed to legally emigrate to Israel during the late 1960s and 1970s. A crucial peak was reached after the collapse of the USSR, when approximately one million Soviet expatriates arrived in Israel (32% arrived from Russia and 33% from Ukraine). Considering a total Israeli population of only 4.8 million in 1990, the extent of this demographic impact is self-evident. As of 2014, Israel’s population has reached 8.2 million people, while around 20%of today’s citizens have a former Soviet background (colloquially referred to as “Russian”), thereby making it the biggest group of immigrants throughout the country. Israel has the world’s third-largest community outside the former Soviet Union, after the US and Germany, while “Russian Israelis” are widely represented in a variety of fields such as sports, technology, business, politics, and academia.
Such a dominating constituency must have an exorbitant influence on the domestic political landscape, especially in relation to other demographic groups. Even before the dissolution of the USSR, a large number of prominent Israeli decision-makers had a “Russian” background, among them Golda Meir, Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan. However, the conjunction with the “old homeland” and Russian culture remains stronger within a large Russophone voting bloc and modern Israeli politicians such as current Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman. Shaped by a strongly realist-conservative Soviet heritage, many “Russian Israelis” support right-wing movements such as the secular nationalist party “Israel Beitenu” (“Our Home Israel”) and “Likud” (“The Consolidation”), both of which have led the Israeli government since 2009. Around 20 of the 120 seats in the Knesset are purportedly decided by Russian votes, while the leitmotif of a strong leader who is determined to make tough decisions seems to prevail. In consideration of these circumstances, statements such as “Israel might soon get a Russian speaking prime minister” come as no surprise.
Warming Relations with Russia
Resulting from this development, Israel’s political relations with the Kremlin have undergone a transformation within the last decades and created various new spheres of cooperation. This process includes also various social and economic measures, such as the introduction of three month visa-free travel between Israel and Russia, talks about the establishment of a free-trade zone between both countries, and the construction of a Netanya based war memorial for the Red Army, whose inauguration was attended by both former Israeli president Shimon Peres and President Putin.
Far more, despite an ongoing US-Israeli alliance, Israeli policymakers have apparently developed restraint on unnecessary provocations towards Russia, based on wise calculations in regard to possible Russian countermoves. In particular, Israel has largely stayed neutral during the ongoing Ukraine crisis with the aim of minimizing negative effects on its relationship with Moscow. The Israeli permanent representative was absent during an UNGA vote to condemn the Russian incursion in Crimea (a move that reportedly infuriated the White House). Israel refrained from exporting drones to Ukraine as a reaction to blocked arms sales from Moscow to Iran and Syria. Both countries clearly evaluate their opportunities to increase trade in the face of international sanctions against Russia, in which Israel is not participating.
It is evident that the persistent antagonistic position of both countries reached an eclectic new level of cooperation in view of Israel’s large “Russian” community. This compliments Putin’s political realism and positive attitude toward Jews and Israel in general. This development will likely continue in light of a widening political gulf between Washington and Israel regarding the issue of the Arab-Israeli peace process. The dominating and mainly right-conservative majority of “Russian Israelis” will also deepen that transformation, while Israeli politics are extremely likely to stay harshly conservative and reluctant to comply on potentially life-threatening concessions. A pragmatic Russia will likely utilize the mutual understanding and its cultural foothold within Israel to further benefit from that relationship.