Israel and its “Golden Million”

hr-zustrichi-15-04-04-hanin-mp3-image-120x120Iryna Slavinska: You are listening to a new episode of the program “Encounters” on Hromadske Radio, with Iryna Slavinska working in the studio. I would like to remind you that the podcast “Encounters” is dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations in all its different spheres: cultural exchanges, translations, joint historical experiences, and coexistence in the modern world.

Today I am talking with Ze’ev Khanin, the chief scientist of the Ministry of Absorption of Israel. This ministry works with repatriates, those people from other countries who come to Israel and want to settle there forever. Khanin will talk about the Ministry’s work, the “golden million,” and the “real Israeli.” I would like to remind you that this program is possible with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund “Ukrainian Jewish Encounter”.

Ze’ev Khanin: I work at a ministry that is called the Ministry of Aliyah or Absorption. Absorption is a historic word, and depicts those tasks that the Ministry was implementing during its creation, when Israeli society was adhering to the concept of the melting pot. In other words, it stems from the fact that Jewish repatriates from various countries of the Diaspora had to leave behind their cultural baggage and dissolve into a solid core of Israeli society. And accept their local cultural codes, as they say, whatever it means. The discussion about what it means to be a real Israeli is not yet finished today, but by default it seemed that an Israeli is a person with a primarily Ashkenazi rather than Sephardic origin.

Absorption started with the fact that Israeli society was built on the melting pot model. Of course, this melting pot worked on the basis of Zionist Hebrew culture. We are well aware that language is not only a means of communication, but is also a culture. We call it “language as culture.” Every word is not just a way to transfer information, but also a certain set of cultural codes and allusions, as you very well know. Therefore, we...professionals regard a translator not as a “translator” but as an “interpreter.” The mission therefore is not just to translate a word, but also to put it within the appropriate cultural context. Hebrew culture therefore was that model itself, so it is clear that the integration of repatriates into the host community assumed an ultimate transitional language. Other languages were irrelevant, and that is why the enormous cultural baggage of the Jewish Diaspora in Israel…the price to be paid for the making of the country so to speak...was largely lost. There was for example no struggle against certain other languages. Russian and English for example were not enemies, but there was a battle against two languages: Arabic and Yiddish. This was for understandable reasons. Arabic was the language of the enemy, and Yiddish was the enemy of the language. You understand what I am saying? Many of those who came here still had Yiddish as their everyday language, and even in the 1940’s-50s in Tel Aviv there were patriotic groups of Israeli youth—even during the Mandate era or in the time of early independence—that went out into the streets and listened to what language the older generations, Holocaust survivors, were speaking. Such a brat could come up to an elderly person and say: “Jew, speak Hebrew!”

I.S.: Why was it so important that it was Hebrew and not Yiddish?

Z.K.: This was important because it was, at first, a symbol of the nation reborn. Secondly, it was the language of collective communication. Not just the language of communicating information, as I said, but also an element of identity in transferring to Hebrew culture. It was a symbol of renunciation, a symbol and a way of repudiating a poor heritage, the legacy of the Diaspora. It was all finished. We were not at home for two thousand years, we returned home, and enough, there was nothing good back there, and there was nothing to suffer here. What was good back there except for pogroms? Yes? What was right back there, except for discrimination?

Yes, a great Jewish culture was indeed created in the Diaspora. But the Jewish culture was created in the context of local cultures. It enriched these local cultures, and so what? Did Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, Russian say, “Thank You” for the fact that we gave them artists, writers, scholars, professors, lawyers, and businessmen? Who remembers this? This is such a classic Zionist discourse, from which there is little left. Today we live in an era of neo-Zionism that of course very well understands the unity of Israel and the Diaspora and is well aware of the fact that without a strong Diaspora things will not go very well for Israel, but without Israel the Diaspora will be lost.

I.S.: Therefore, in the current situation there is no desire to irrevocably reject the heritage?

Z.K.: It is finished, of course. Today we live in an era of multiculturalism. But our multiculturalism is different from that in Europe. The time when the Diaspora and its cultural heritage were rejected, those times are more or less gone. Perhaps this was normal during the formative period of any nation, but that is a childhood disease that happens to all, and then it passes, except for those who had it in an acute form, and it happens that people die from it. That is, it is possible for the nation to not even be constructed. But at some point chicken pox has to be endured for the appropriate immunity. This immunity has been formed, and the Hebrew language and Hebrew culture today are not threatened with anything, so we can afford to play with multiculturalism, but within certain limits.

In contrast to the European situation, Israel is, after all, a national-ethnic state. In the sense that, of course, there is no way to diminish the rights of individuals and groups of ethnic and religious minorities, which have their own individual rights as all other citizens, and they have cultural, educational, legal, informational autonomy, whatever you want. But Israel still emerges from the fact that we are the national state of the Jewish people, because Jewish people do not have any other place where they can exercise their right to national self-determination.

I.S.: As a result, what are the rules of the games that it provides?

Z.K.: The rules therefore are the following: this country is the Jewish state; in this country there are ethnic and religious minorities with their rights; this is a Jewish state by definition and by the fact that here the titular nation constitutes a majority. But within this majority, what we call the “Israeli-Jewish collective,” within this there is a complete multiculturalism. In contrast to previous periods, when it was assumed that everything should be dissolved only into this Hebrew-Zionist culture, within the Jewish collective today the widest possible set of cultural identities is allowed.

That is, roughly speaking, if we take me as an example...Remember, like it was in Kalman’s operetta: “Let’s take the dog, or rather take me.” So, then, let’s take me. I am a native of Ukraine, born in Zaporizhzhia, who was educated in Moscow and Oxford, and have lived in Israel for 24 years already. Perhaps I can serve as a typical example and be absolutely representative of what we call a “cultural minority within the ethnic majority.” I am Jewish by nationality, I am Israeli by citizenship, and I have another nationality and another citizenship...I would say that I do not have another country with which I completely identify, but at the same time I am a man who understands his Ukrainian roots and his cultural background which is a Russian background. Not Russia itself, but Russian, a Russian-speaking background, as you understand. Every Israeli person can say the same things about himself or herself.

Thus, to be a true Israelite-Jew today, it is not enough to be an Israeli. You have to be something else as well. In the full sense of the word, an Israeli person thirty to forty years ago was a person who spoke Hebrew and had little interest in what was going on in the country of his ancestors. In addition the ancestors themselves did not talk that much because the memories were too heavy for many of them. Only when there appeared the generation for whom a grandfather is not a survivor of the Holocaust, the grandfather is not a man who fled from Iraq, taking with him what he was allowed to take with him, or even a person who escaped from Yemen, because he managed to get on a plane in time, but a grandfather who is the one who grew up in Israel, who gave gifts for the holidays, who gives a computer to his grandchildren, whom they are visiting with the whole family and gather around the Shabbat table and who is nice to visit.

We experienced all this and we have entered a new era, we entered later than most European countries. I hope therefore we were able to avoid many imperfections from which European society is suffering today, when the idea of multiculturalism was interpreted literally. Immigrants from Third World countries who found themselves in European countries—in the end it turned out that they were the third and the fourth generations—are not only unwilling to integrate, but they are also aggressively imposing their stereotypes and norms of behavior on what we call “local residents of the countries.”

I think Israel could find some modus vivendi between these two approaches.

I.S.: But Israel has a second language—Arabic. How does it look? How do Hebrew and Arabic interact?

Z.K.: Well, very easily. We do not have...I think, for example, that the cancellation of the English language as a state language was a mistake. During the period of the British Mandate there were three official languages. The Arabic language is an indication that the Arabs, as the cultural minority, not only have individual civil rights, but also collective rights. That is, the rights to their cultural, ethnic, religious, and other identities, except for the national one. The person who is not satisfied with the Jewish national character of the state should know that Ben-Gurion Airport is open.

Those of us who lived in Ukraine and thought that a Jewish national identity is vital for them—they live in Israel. Today it is possible to live a good and calm life in Ukraine with an ethnic and cultural identity. Well, it will be as good and calm as for the Ukrainians, of course.

I.S.: Taking into the consideration the war, it is not the most peaceful place.

Z.K.: That is correct. But here we are also in wartime conditions.

I.S.: I know, but for us it is more of a novelty, but we are not talking about that.

Z.K.: Yes, back to our story. We are talking with you now that today you can have these matryoshka doll identities that are easy to integrate into each other and that are secured with your solidarity with the country, an identification with Israel as your homeland, your historical or physical homeland, as the country where you will realize your right to national self-determination, as the country that gives you the opportunity, as far as you are able and as circumstances allow, the means to fulfill yourself as a person, as a citizen.

The question we have just finished…

I.S.: Who are “we?”

Z.K.: The Ministry of Absorption. Around 40% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union told us that for them the most important thing in Israel is its Jewish character. And about half of them said that this is a modern developed state, where it is possible to secure a decent standard of living. I believe that this is an absolutely normal ratio for a contemporary, postmodern, multicultural, open-and-integrated-into-the-global-processes society.

I.S.: What are the factors of identification with the country, with Israel? How does it work?

Z.K.: This is citizen identification with the country, first of all. We have a strange mix of ethnic and civil nation. We know that the old democracies usually grew from ethnic nationalism and new democracies and emigrant communities are based on civic nationalism. Israel on the one hand is an immigrant community, and on the other hand is an ethno-national one. This combination of these two things somehow works. Our experience shows that these are not mutually exclusive things.

Solidarity with the country as with a civil nation and solidarity with their ethnic group, which, like any other, has the right to national self-determination, are not mutually exclusive, and do not necessarily imply discrimination against others. Consequently, in this sense, of course, as long as all the groups that are present in the community originate from the fact that the general is more important than separate.

I.S.: But you are describing the result now. I think we should consider the process. I do not know what exactly, but perhaps some gestures from the state, schools, some everyday things that fill all of this with a meaning.

Z.K.: Right. So let’s return to the structure of the Ministry. It was created when there was a “melting pot” and now it operates under this multiculturalism. The Ministry of Aliyah or Absorption secures 99% of the emigration to the country. Israel has no emigration, we do not accept immigrants, we only accept repatriates. We of course have a law about entry into the country, but that is for some special cases: refugees, family reunification, and some humanitarian cases. Those are relatively marginal matters, and the Interior Ministry deals with them and they have a department of migration, as in all other countries.

Our function is to perform you know some very minor, absolutely marginal, absolutely not relevant to the issue, work. We are just building Israeli society. This was our task in general. Our work will determine how this society develops in ten-fifteen-twenty-fifty years. That is, we are the state structure whose task is just focused on nation building.

The name is historical. For example, in Georgia they call it the Ministry of National Integration. There they also have the task of taking back their territories, as they think, and so on, and so on.

It is clear that in this case it was not possible to do anything without science and scientific support. Decisions are not made without serious analytical calculations. We must predict how our words resound, how the decisions that we make today will appear tomorrow and the day after. So we have quite a powerful department of science, and its head is called the chief scientist, and that’s me. In Ukraine I do not even know how it would be called. Maybe you could come up with some title like “the deputy minister for science,” something nice, but we like a more modest name. Or maybe I am exaggerating, I do not know.

In any case, it is clear that we are already working...Before it was all done in house, that is, it was done within the structure of the Ministry, because there we had more research institutes and so on...Today, it is mostly done through outsourcing. Our task is to maintain constant contact with the Israeli academy and foreign academies, to work with government and non-governmental research institutes, universities, colleges, international organizations, non-governmental actors, and so on. Well, in general it looks like this.

I.S.: What are the bricks?

Z.K.: What are the bricks in the construction of society? Society is made up of different groups of Jews who come from different countries of the Diaspora. And the task on one hand is to enable them to integrate into society, and on the other hand to enable them to maintain their own “self,” their identity. It is not quite identification, it is not quite identity. It is that part of the identity that allows a person to be himself, while feeling a part of the whole, if I express myself clearly.

For this we have some means. The first one is, of course, language integration. A person should study the language.

I.S.: Some language courses, for example?

Z.K.: Yes, the language courses. Every repatriate is required to attend a half-year of classes of Hebrew, and many of them continue to study it further.

I.S.: Are those courses free of charge?

Z.K.: Of course. The state allocates a so-called “absorption basket,” that is, an integration basket. The integration basket, unfortunately, is not as big as we would have liked it to be, although we are endlessly fighting with the Ministry of Finance for more money. We, in the Ministry, have a large budget, but it is allocated. That means that 95% go to some absolutely specific things described in the law.

I.S.: How much money? I just would like to understand the amount…

Z.K.: Approximately two billion shekels, and this is about a half billion dollars. It is not that much compared with other ministries, for example the Ministry of Trade and Industry. They have a totally crazy budget there. Their budget only for the Industrial Investment Fund equals the entire budget of our Ministry. I am not talking about the Ministries of Education or Defense, where the main budget items are. Defense takes first place, education is second.

But, in general, the vast majority of our budget is tied to specific allocations. This includes financial assistance for your initial period in the country, an allowance for renting housing, and language courses. Financial payments are very important of course so that people do not have to worry about anything at first but just concentrate on studying the language.

I.S.: Do you mean that they do not have to work and make money?

Z.K.: Yes, but the majority still does. Despite all the attempts of we old-timers to explain to the newcomers that, guys, you are being given this money, so just learn the language. You will always have time, God forbid, for the dirty work. But this does not always work. You cannot change somebody’s head. Everybody always makes the same mistakes in a new country. Let us say you can buy your first car in the country with a big discount, without taxes, let us say, for 55% of its value, because that is how it is sold. They all buy a cheap car. You are told you are given a huge discount and buy an expensive one. You have such a chance, and you will not have it again. But they all act the same.

Potential repatriates ask us: “What do we have to bring with us?” You do not have to bring anything. Just bring yourself, and we are happy that you came. Also, try to learn the language as much as possible. Besides, in the Diaspora there are possibilities to learn Hebrew and English. So try, and then, thank God, everything will be fine. Well, only, of course, if you are not an oligarch, and you do not bring a suitcase with money. But those people do not need us.

So, coming back to our talk, this is the first thing. In the same basket there is also medical insurance, of course. In the same basket there is also an inadequate but still some amount of money to rent an apartment. In the same basket there is a living allowance. Calculations are made on what a single person earns, what a married couple or a single parent with children makes, and so on and so on and so forth.

In the same basket there is a budget for students. Students for the first three years after their arrival have the opportunity to study for free. In Israel, the tuition fee is not very high, but it is still there. It can be, for example, eleven and a half thousand shekels or about three thousand dollars a year, but you still have to get this money from somewhere. For newcomers this can also be a burden, so the government takes responsibility for that.

There are all kinds of courses, vocational courses, retraining courses, special training centers, centers for retraining, especially for those professions that are in short supply since there is a shortage of doctors, teachers, certain specialties of engineers and technicians, and so on. Thus, the Ministry of Absorption comes up with some projects so that now it is with the doctors. In the early 1990’s 25,000 physicians came here, and we did not know what to do with them. People somehow dealt with it. Today, the Minister of Absorption every Tuesday and Friday receives a phone call from one more clinic director, who says: “Well, did anyone arrive?” Therefore, the arrival here of large groups of immigrants from the former Soviet Union probably pushed back for twenty years the need to create one more Faculty of Medicine in Israel. It has been created only today.

Cutting it short, it’s all there in the basket. There are so-called vouchers, subsidies for starting a business, for example. The state, generally speaking, is taking a part of the risk. There is the state “mashkanty” insurance that is a mortgage loan for the purchase of the first apartment. Not that it is something God knows what, but you still get a loan with a state guarantee, and you can somehow solve this issue. It will not be easy but, as they say, no one promised that it would be easy. But, overall, the state takes over.

Well, of course, and here we come back to our story, in that package—the financial and non-financial one—is what we call “social integration,” that is projects of social integration.

I.S.: What, Israeli courses?

Z.K.: They are not really courses, but more the opportunity to get acquainted with the country. These are tours of the country, visiting museums, some lectures, the funding of repatriate clubs. Now they have mainly turned into pensioner clubs because it has been 25 years already, and a big aliyah ended in the early 2000s. People are somehow more or less integrated. They have the opportunities. They read different newspapers, watch different television. And those who work, they do not always have the time to attend this kind of thing. Quite often we see young people and middle-aged people there as well.

Also in this package there are Israeli holidays, and celebrations of eastern countries. For example, thanks to the arrival of this “golden million,” May 9 is a national holiday in Israel. This is what is happening at the state level. But this also affected everyday culture. For example, if my students who are the children of repatriates of the 1970’s before told us that they celebrated the civil New Year, and then on January 1 they still went to work, because no one would understand why all of a sudden you did not come to work on January 1, and how is January 1 different from April 1 or March 1? So today, if you want to celebrate the New Year, you must reserve a table at the restaurant in advance. This is not because all this is entirely occupied by the Russian-speakers. It is just that this became a part of popular Israeli culture.

I.S.: I think the term “golden million” should be explained. What is this million?

Z.K.: The “golden million” is one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This is the so-called third Israel, the new Ashkenazi, although there are Sephardics as well, natives of the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South Caucasus, as it is now politically correct to say. They became the creators of their subculture in Israel, and it was considered normal in Israeli society. For example, if you in the 1970’s asked the question: “How do you feel about the fact if Israel had kindergartens in Russian, Russian schools, Russian newspapers, and Russian TV?” Meaning it would be Russian-speaking. The answer was: “Why?” Today’s answer is, “Why not?”

Generally speaking, I think this shows that society has stepped forward. But this social acceptance, this tolerant approach to multiculturalism is an approach to multiculturalism, rather than multi-nationalism, and society is ready for it, because it understands that a person is the bearer of Jewish identity, and has solidarity with Israel as a country, and with the Jewish collective as a nation. Therefore, multiculturalism in this sense bothers very few people except for the old Zionist fighters who grumble, “That's what we fought for? That the granddaughter will say that she will take the great-grandson to a Russian kindergarten to be taught manners…is that what we fought for?” You know what I mean.

That is how we work, more or less. And I think that is the best version out of all possible versions.

I.S.: Finishing our talk, throughout our conversation we talked primarily about the integration of those who come to Israel. But obviously there are those, and it is not a single generation, who were already born here. How is their identity built? People are not becoming Israelis because they are born here, obviously.

Z.K.: Well, for many years it was like this. Let’s say that we do not have any surveys for the immigrants from the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain out of the 1970’s. They are just Israelis, and this is it. The same is with the Hebrew-speaking Israelis. By some norms of behavior you can say that this boy, for instance, is the grandson of immigrants from Germany, because there, relatively speaking, when the youngest child leaves the school, and he and his friends are debating whether to go to the movies, my son and his friend will say: “I’ll call my mother,” and the rest are just going to the movies. Thus, those who decided to call their mothers are my son and grandson of a person who came from Germany. So it is some sign, but otherwise we do not see them.

Second-generation immigrants are the invention of our days, which is a part of the community of parents. Therefore, in our polls we cover children of the aliyah of the 1990’s, but not from the aliyah of the 1970’s, for example. We see this everywhere, and by their cultural habits, because they are still influenced by the atmosphere that exists in their families, and it is not only about the parents who are busy, but also about the grandparents who spend more time with the kids. The grandparents here live relatively long, in comparison with the Jews in Russia. Men here live for five to six years longer and women for seven to eight years longer. We criticize Israeli medicine, but not everything is so bad here.

Thus, the presence of these three generations here still creates a certain cultural pressure. The second generation, and especially the “one and a half” generation, that is those who arrived at the age from six until fifteen, and those who feel themselves equally comfortable and equally uncomfortable in the world of their parents and in the host society, this now also creates some lubrication for the cultural situation.

I.S.: How is it possible to work with them?

Z.K.: The Israeli land works with them, the Israeli climate, the country and the institutions of integration. School and the army are still the two main institutions of integration.

І.S.: That was Ze’ev Khanin—the chief scientist of the Ministry of Absorption in Israel. This Ministry deals with the repatriates. I would like to remind you that you were listening to the program “Encounters.” Iryna Slavinska was working in the studio. I recorded this talk in Israel, thanks to the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund “Ukrainian Jewish Encounter”.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Editing and additional translation by Peter Bejger