Mr Rabin's cavalry is coming

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN WHAT part of the world is the arrival of huge numbers of Russians welcomed with the same sort of feelings as have traditionally accompanied the appearance of the United States cavalry in the last reel of a Western movie?

The answer is, of course, Israel. But not all Israelis, by any means, view in that light the arrival of more than 400,000 Russians since the end of the Cold War, and the expected arrival of many more, at the rate of about 5,000 a month.

Those who rejoice wholeheartedly in this particular influx are a minority of Israelis: Israel's founding aristocracy, the descendants of the Russian Zionists who prepared the way for the Jewish state and secured its survival by their own unaided efforts in the year of Israel's foundation, 45 years ago. The ancestors were the Russian Zionists, Russian-acculturated Jews, long eager for assimilation and then savagely rebuffed by Russia - rulers and people alike - with the return of persecuting anti-Semitism after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

But it is not mainly because of the link with Russia that the descendants of the founders of Israel welcome these new immigrants so fervently. The band is not primarily territorial but ideological. The founders of Israel were secular Jews, and so are the new immigrants.

At the beginning of this month, I was shown around Jerusalem by a greatly respected Israeli, whom it would be indiscreet, in the present context, to name. He was showing me the many developments that have happened in the city since my last visit, four years ago.

One of them was a caravan encampment for the temporary accommodation of the most recent Russian immigrants. It is a tidy, well-serviced settlement, a marked contrast with other accommodation I have seen for recent immigrants. I asked my guide how many of the Russians are religious Jews. He replied 'none'. His tone was carefully neutral, but I know him well enough to be aware that he is not displeased with this statistic. Others do not conceal their joy.

I was a bit surprised at that answer, having heard much about the re-emerging strength of religion in the former Soviet Union. I suspect that two factors have to be taken into account here. The first is that the main beneficiary of most of the new religious enthusiasm in the former Soviet Union is the Russian Orthodox church, which makes the present Russian environment even more menacing to Jews than was the case under Communism.

The second factor is that the word 'religious' has in Israel a more precise (and, to the secular-minded, more menacing) connotation than elsewhere. It does not embrace Western versions of Judaism (whether 'conservative' or 'reformed'). It refers to the various forms of fiercely dogmatic, exclusive, intolerant and legalistic sects that are lumped together by outsiders under the general description of 'Orthodox' or simply 'religious'. It appears that the new immigrants do not wish to be included in that description, and probably would not qualify anyway.

On arrival in Jerusalem, I was expecting the mood among my friends to be one of gloom. The peace talks were stalled. The government was split, and seemed to be about to fall. The intifada continued, and was taking on even bloodier forms.

I was thinking primarily about Israeli-Arab relations, on which I had written a book called The Siege: a siege of Jews by Arabs. But I soon found that my friends were more concerned with a different kind of siege altogether: a siege of Jews by Jews, uneasily presided over by the Jewish state, whose legitimacy is bitterly contested by a significant minority of those, including Jews, within its jurisdiction. Many of the Orthodox refuse to serve in Israel's army or vote in elections.

My friends in Israel are mostly Jews of European origin, secular in outlook. These are the Israelis who speak English and like to talk to foreigners. But they are in a minority. Oriental Jews, most of whom do not speak English, have long been in a majority. If we add to these the 'Orthodox' communities, we have a large majority of Israelis whose values are significantly different (though in different ways) from those of the European and secular minority that still occupies most of the leading roles in the society.

Furthermore, these two groups - the Oriental and the Orthodox - both have much higher birthrates than the secular Israelis. For those reasons, the secular people - the maskilim, the children of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskala - have been feeling themselves an endangered species, at least from the late Seventies to the late Eighties.

And that is why my friends now, rather than feeling gloomy, are euphoric. The Russian immigrants appear, to the maskilim, like the pennants of the US cavalry appearing over the brow of the hill.

These developments have, on the whole, a benign significance, internationally as well as domestically. The more confident the leadership feels, the more likely it is to be able to reach agreement with some Arabs. Agreement with all Arabs is never on the cards. By far the most likely candidates, at the moment, are, first, Syria, and after that Palestinians approved and protected by Syria.

The Rabin government - which could not have come into being without the Russian influx - is moving, necessarily slowly, in that direction. This present government is probably not strong enough to consummate its intentions. But the tendency of the Russian immigration works in the right direction.

So, too, does the growing acculturation, through intermarriage and otherwise, of the Orientals. By the first quarter of the next century, the distinction between Orientals and Europeans may well be lost; even in the medium term, benign effects of the acculturation are likely to be felt.

The Orthodox are another matter. No Israeli government has yet been formed without the participation of a religious party. This month Yitzhak Rabin, in calling what he perceived as the bluff of his religious partners, Shas, threatened to rely, after their departure, on Arab members of the Knesset. He seems, for the moment, to have got away with this.

The next elections in Israel may, with the help of the Russians, lead to the formation for the first time of a government not depending on any religious party. If so, most Israelis, including a great majority of the women, will heave a sigh of relief. And when the government prepares to sacrifice the Golan Heights to get a peace treaty with Syria - just as Menachem Begin 14 years ago sacrificed the Sinai to get a peace treaty with Egypt, which still holds - it will no longer have to look quite as nervously over its shoulder.

(Photograph omitted)