Meeting the Russians in the Israeli Army


         


 
 
 
 

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There it is a Mess,
Here it is Better

By Gary L. Rashba

One. Two. Three. Four. Open Up the Iron Door.
Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Let My People Emigrate!

I chanted this and other slogans at the Soviet mission to the United Nations in New York in the late 1980's. I had written letters and sent postcards with pre-printed messages to Soviet diplomats in New York and Washington calling for the freedom of Soviet Jews to emigrate. When those doors began to open, I greeted a planeload of new arrivals at Israel's Ben Gurion airport in 1990, waving an Israeli flag as a band struck up hava nagila.

This all fit in nicely with the romantic notion of the struggle by Soviet Jews against their insensitive government - the story Jews in the West were either led or chose to believe for so many years. It gave us a mission: we were caring for our Jewish brothers and sisters in distress.

Perhaps our involvement helped assuage guilt over inaction half a century earlier when another repressive regime targeted the Jews. Yet as is so often the case, reality diverged from our idealistic notions. The millions of Jews just waiting to leave their repressive homeland for a life of freedom in Israel did not materialize.

The truth is that rather than an expression of their Zionist dream, the vast majority of Russian immigrants to Israel were simply in search of something better. However, by virtue of the fact that the Russians have done a wonderful job integrating themselves in Israel, from their healthy presence in the Knesset to their success in all walks of Israeli life, it seems this (continuing) wave of aliya is Zionism at work.

I had the opportunity of getting to know a large group of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. As an immigrant to Israel myself, I had been drafted to serve a brief stint in the Israel Defense Forces along with other similar new immigrants who were older than regular army age. The vast majority of my fellow soldiers were from the former Soviet Union. Due to the great disparity between the number of immigrants to Israel from the Soviet Union and from my native United States, it is easy to see why I found myself serving an army unit almost exclusively with Russians.

The Israel Defense Forces has long served the role of melting pot for Israeli society in addition, of course, to its obvious primary role of national defense. In the army, men and women of both religious and secular backgrounds, ashkenazi and sephardi descent, veteran Israelis and newcomers alike, all serve together side by side. For me, the experience was quite different. Rather than an immersion into Israeli society, it offered a unique glimpse into the Soviet immigrant community and painted a completely new picture for me of the Soviet aliya.

The experience allowed me to debunk some of the myths of the Soviet Jewry rallying cry once used to mobilize Western Jews into action. For example, the reality of emigration from the Soviet Union is really no different than the reasons my great-grandparents left that country a century ago: a search for greener pastures. With the Soviet Union disintegrating, no-one knew what the future would bring. Many therefore decided to try their luck in Israel, which had long-ago issued an open invitation for Soviet Jews to immigrate, an invitation sweetened by a package of benefits available to new immigrants.

I quizzed many of my fellow soldiers on their reasons for coming to Israel. The answer that best epitomizes all the replies I received was: "Shama balagan. Po, yoter tov," Hebrew for "There it's a mess. Here it is better." When Soviet Jews began arriving in Israel and found a high quality of life, they naturally reported their good fortunes to friends and relatives back home. Rather than a massive rush to escape the Soviet Union now that the once-sealed escape route had been opened, as we might like to believe, the aliya was described to me more as a case of "following the herd" and "going with the flow." It was not the product of Zionism or any other ideology, but rather the mundane search for a better life.

I welcomed the circumstances of my army service as a way of really getting to know the Russians. I could think of no better way to dispel the various stereotypes that abound (widespread prostitution, drunkenness or that a great many are not Jews and arrived with forged identification in order to fraudulently reap the benefits offered to new Jewish immigrants) than by spending four months immersed in a microcosm of the Russian-immigrant community--an eye-opening experience full of insights and new understanding, some of which I have shared below:

One Shabbat eve on base, as I prepared to head out to the synagogue tent, I saw Stanislav, who slept on the cot next to me, lying down for a nap - enjoying the first uninterrupted break of the week. A short while later, I saw that he had been rounded up to complete the minyan. I nodded to myself in admiration that he had given up his free time to help out.

That night on guard duty, Stanislav told me that he is not Jewish - that he is in Israel with his Jewish wife. His Israeli identity card lists his nationality as "Russian" - a scarlet letter of sorts which, he told me, caused him to be turned down for two different jobs. In a middle of the night guard shift conversation with another Russian soldier, I heard a similar story. "I'm not Jewish at all," my other friend told me.

Assuming that that meant he didn't do anything Jewish, I was curious which parent was Jewish and whether they or his grandparents are practicing Jews. "No, no," he replied. "Mother no. Father no. Grandfather no. Grandmother no." He too had come to Israel with his Jewish wife, meaning that neither one of them was in Israel under any false pretenses. Yet here were two non-Jewish Russians who had taken advantage of new-found freedoms in the former Soviet Union to come to Israel.

I was literally staring in the face of my prejudiced disdain for non-Jewish Russians coming to Israel to reap this country's benefits. At first, I was speechless. Yet then I considered the circumstances of our conversation. True, while both men benefit from the country's rights and privileges, both were also meeting its obligation of military service. The three of us were all awake in the middle of the night guarding our base, with no distinction between religion or any other factor. The only difference between them and me was the motivating factor that led us to move to Israel.

While my guard shift discussions cast a new light on the issue of non-Jewish Russians in Israel, I was disheartened by the lack of Jewish knowledge among some of the Jewish Russians. Certainly circumstances and views towards Jews in the Soviet Union influenced and contributed to this Jewish education vacuum. An example of this became evident to me during a visit to the Ammunition Hill battlefield, the site of a pivotal battle during the 1967 Six Day War whose victory by Israeli paratroopers paved the way for Jerusalem's capture and unification.

One of the Russians asked why so many lives had to be sacrificed in the battle for Jerusalem. The commanding officer answered the question with the simple explanation that it was for Jerusalem, assuming that that would be understood as reason enough. It wasn't. After several more attempts to convey the idea that the battle was not fought over some insignificant hill thought to be strategic in some far-away general's eyes but rather for Jerusalem, our eternal capital, the commanding officer reasoned that perhaps those who came from the Soviet Union just weren't educated about the centrality and importance of Jerusalem to Jews whereas all Israelis and those who came from western countries would have been exposed to this.

Lest I be totally discouraged by the previous incident, there were certainly examples of the triumph of Judaism over adversity. For example, one morning as I headed off for morning prayers, a fellow soldier named Tashkent (who hails from, you guessed it, Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan) joined me for the walk, without knowing where I was going. Not wanting "Tash" to feel obligated in any way to join me, I suggested once we arrived at the synagogue that he head off to the mess hall and that I would catch up with him. He wouldn't hear of it. Tash came with me to the synagogue and asked what he needed to do and where to stand.

Sensing his unfamiliarity and having already learned not to assume that everyone in uniform is Jewish, I asked him if he is Jewish. He proudly answered that he is. So in we went and I told him to stand wherever he wanted and to do whatever he felt like doing. As I sat in one of the rows of benches saying the shacharit prayers, Tash went up to the raised bima and stood there, either alone in his thoughts, praying silently or respectfully waiting for me (I'll never know).

A short while later, as others began filing into the synagogue, the hazan found his place occupied and had to find an alternate location. All the while, Tash never even glanced in my direction to check on my progress - the unspoken way of trying to speed someone along.

When I finished my prayers, I caught his attention and we both headed off together to breakfast. The following morning, immediately after our crack of dawn wake-up (during the groggy period before one's senses are fully on-line), Tash asked whether I would pray that morning. When I answered yes, he asked why. I couldn't help but wonder why it took Tash almost a full 24 hours before he asked his questions, as if they brewed in his mind for a full day before he was ready to ask!

It is noteworthy that I even had these opportunities to speak with Russians about life in the Soviet Union. In another of my guard shift conversations, I once mused with a Russian over the changes the world has seen in East-West relations. Having grown up during the Reagan years, I knew the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" that endeavored to spread a thing known as communism throughout the free world.

Not surprisingly, my friend explained that a similar negative impression of the United States was imbued by official Soviet propaganda. With this backdrop, the fact that the two of us were serving under arms together in the Israeli army was all the more remarkable. Here we were: two former "enemies" united by a common religion, both now living in the Jewish homeland. We are both living examples of Zionism's concept of kibbutz galyu'ot, the ingathering of the exiles.

In the army, I encountered immigrants from the Soviet Union, England, India, Ethiopia, Denmark, France and a host of other nations. While we were all motivated to come by different reasons and factors, so too were our German and Eastern European predecessors around the turn of the century, and the sephardic Jews that came around the time of the state's independence, yet all contributed to the building of this state. The Soviet aliya is therefore just another chapter in the ongoing saga of Jewish history. I just happened to be lucky enough to be here to see these pages come alive before me.

 

 

 

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