This week recalls American Jewry’s shining moment, the 25th anniversary of the great Soviet Jewry rally that brought 250,000 people to Washington on the eve of a Reagan – Gorbachev summit. Historians have confirmed that this rally – like the Soviet Jewry movement as a whole – had a significant impact on the eventual demise of the U.S.S.R and the liberation of Eastern Europe.
I’ve written elsewhere how this struggle was enormously important for American Jewry, a cathartic do-over, a chance to redeem ourselves from the haunting perception that we — or more precisely, our parents — had not done enough to help our brethren during the Shoah. It was also a chance to jump from the margins to the center of the action. We had always supported Israel during her wars, but Israelis were the ones on the front lines. This time we were the ones fighting the good fight, taking on not just any enemy, but the Evil Empire itself. This time we were the ones saving Jewish lives and a centuries-old Jewish culture.
What made it even better for American Jews of liberal denominations was what happened after the Soviet Union fell. A million Jews, including half-Jews, quarter-Jews and quasi-Jews, began making their way to Israel en masse; especially after American refugee policies became more restrictive, with the assent, incidentally, of American Jewish leaders. We salivated how, in one fell swoop, this wave of secular, well-educated, culturally sophisticated olim would become a demographic game changer in Israel. Not only would they assure a Jewish majority between the Jordan and Mediterranean for the foreseeable future – a fact may have helped bring the Palestinians to the peace table – but it would be a perfect secular counter to the astronomical birthrate of the nationalist Orthodox and Haredim. We expected that while these olim might look askance at peacemaking, their socialist roots would lead them toward the comfortably secular confines of the leftist parties in Israel. We also expected that, in their desire to reconnect with Jewish traditions long denied them, they would naturally gravitate toward more pluralistic streams of Judaism. At the very least, they would pressure the government to liberalize personal status policies so they could marry, convert and be buried in a Jewish context.
For a while, everything worked according to plan. The new immigrants had little experience with democracy and had little trust for Arabs, but they were also suspicious of the religious parties’ control of personal status issues. By forming parties led by moderate but independent leaders like Natan Sharansky, there was little reason to fear this growing political clout, with the assumption that the Russians would be a perfect counter to the influence of the religious and right wing parties.
Then came Yisrael Beiteinu and Avigdor Lieberman, and the law of unexpected consequences. To be fair, what really came were the collapse of Oslo and the terror wave of the Second Intifada, which drove the Russian community, along with many others, into the arms of ultra-nationalists. While the religious issues were still important, they had no problem tossing those concerns aside in joining the government and now, in consummating their marriage to a more extreme Likud and the religious parties. As Israel prepares to go to the polls, at a time that screams for bridge building with the U.S and Europe, Yisrael Beiteinu seems to be solidifying this marriage of convenience with parties who, ironically, will not recognize many of their marriages.
By all accounts, Lieberman’s appearance at the Saban Forum last week did little to comfort those concerned about what his full partnership with Likud will mean for the next government. It is also apparent that he is on a fast track toward becoming Prime Minister, a scary thought for many.
Back in Washington on December 6, 1987, I stood among among the hundreds of thousands praying for a Soviet exodus. Little did we know that we were setting in motion a demographic earthquake that would create an electoral shift that would ultimately make it mathematically impossible for the Israelis to negotiate a two-state solution.
How ironic it is that this historic Russian immigration has helped to reshape Israel in the image of, not a liberal western democracy, but, potentially, into something closer to the culture from which they came. It has not happened yet, but, with democratic values being increasingly challenged (as can be seen in this year’s Israeli Democracy Index survey), many fear that it could. Call it Gorby’s revenge.
To be clear: I think this mass aliyah has been a great blessing for Israel and the Jewish people. It has fueled an economic boom and cultural renaissance that has propelled Israel to the top in start-ups and economic growth. The world is a better and safer place without the Soviet empire, and, most importantly, the ex-Soviet Jews are safer too. They have come home. Israel is strategically stronger in so many ways.
Even given the unexpected political twists and turns, I wouldn’t for a minute want to turn back the clock to 1970. Even given the gift of hindsight, I would still give every ounce of my strength toward helping to free Soviet Jewry.
And who knows what the future will bring?
The story of the Russian aliyah is hardly a finished work. The community is far from monolithic culturally and politically. The Russian community might not take to the merger with Likud as slickly as Lieberman has. They might also find expression in indigenous pluralistic forms of Judaism that are taking shape. Social issues, particularly economic, religious and gender inequalities, may lead them away from this right wing huppah and toward more centrist parties. Perhaps such parties already exist, or maybe they will come into being when Lieberman goes one step too far.
But if not, Gorbachev will have the last laugh, the two-state solution will become the unforseen victim of the mass Soviet immigration, and Israeli democracy will come to look strikingly like Moscow on the Jordan.