Israel’s Russian Wave, Thirty Years Later

By: - November 20, 2020





reat changes in Jewish history have manifested themselves in pillars of smoke, talking bushes, royal edicts, and divine scriptures, but probably never in TV crime dramas—at least not until a few weeks ago. I was about a minute into the first episode of Manayek, a new Israeli hit, watching the main character navigate a hospital ward. I was not expecting any great sociological insight, but insight came when I heard one of the characters speaking Russian. It was just a few Slavic syllables whispered in a woman’s voice.

It wasn’t that the sound of the language stood out. Like most Israelis, I hear Russian almost every day. It was the fact that it had no importance to the plot. The character had no ties to the Russian mafia, as you might expect in a crime series. There was no mention of immigration at all. Russian was there only because no authentic portrait of Israel in 2020 would be complete without it. It was a small detail that threw into relief a momentous change now celebrating its 30th anniversary—one that deserves far more attention than it has received. The character wasn’t speaking a foreign language, like English. She was speaking an Israeli language.

Thirty years ago, the final crumbling of the Soviet Union began a human wave that you remember if you were alive and paying even casual attention at the time. The prologue was the arrival in Israel of the gulag hero Natan Sharansky after his release by Gorbachev, blinking in the Middle Eastern light, a little man auguring a great exodus: hundreds of thousands of stunned arrivals descending from airliners in useless winter coats, landing here along with the Scuds of the first Gulf War. Within a decade more than 1 million people immigrated to a country whose population in 1990, at the beginning of the wave, wasn’t even five times that number. “To appreciate the scale of the accomplishment,” one observer wrote, “imagine the great United States absorbing in one decade roughly all of France and Holland…”

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