IMAGINE A MILLION Catholics moving to Northern Ireland in the space of a few years—or the influx of a million Protestants. The social changes and the inter-communal problems arising would easily fill a book. In the Middle East, such a migration is no fantasy: 75,000 Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel in the first five months of this year alone. Many are predicting that a million will arrive by 1995—this could mean a 20-25 per cent increase in the Jewish population.
Although the comparison with Northern Ireland is not exact, only those who find themselves caught within a conflict between minorities can have some insight into the unimaginable difficulties that will arise. No modern industrial state (aside from the upheaval of German reunification) has undergone such a phenomenon—it has been compared to the United States absorbing the entire population of Italy.
If one million Soviet Jews do arrive, there will be 130,000 engineers in Israel where now there are 30,000. There will be an increase of 40 per cent in the number of doctors. There will be 10,000 new musicians and 5,000 new artists, plus a multitude of writers and journalists.
Clearly, no normal polity would contemplate such a severe dislocation in the moulding of its society or a deliberate shunting of its economic rationale into the sidings. Behind this apparent madness, however, motivating such huge sacrifice, is the desire to transform the Jewish people from a pariah group on the periphery of history into a normal nation-state. The gathering in of the exiles relates to the very core of the Zionist experiment.
Since the rise of the state of Israel coincided with the development of a Palestinian national consciousness, a struggle between these two minority peoples over control of one piece of land inevitably ensued. In 1947, the UN proposed a compromise—partition into an Israeli-Jewish state and a Palestinian-Arab one. Whilst the former was accepted by the Jews, the latter was rejected by the Arabs. It was only at the end of 1988 that the Palestinians seemingly accepted the historic compromise of two states, when Yasser Arafat proclaimed the state of Palestine.
Meantime, however, Israel had moved in its 40-year existence from being an admired, pioneering collective to a country where the far right had penetrated to the centre of power. Considerable demographic change meant most Israelis now came from Oriental countries which had not experienced the far-reaching changes catalysed in Europe by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Arguments for socialism never impinged on their host societies, which had at worst persecuted them and at best downgraded them to second-class citizens.
Moreover, after the six-day war of 1967 religious Jews shed their inferiority complex, which had been fostered by a condescending and spiritless Labour bureaucracy. A new generation decided to prove themselves by establishing settlements in the occupied territories, in places which evoked tales of biblical splendour.
The coming to power of Menachem Begin in 1977 was an inevitable consequence of these changes and represented an end to the tired and corrupting Labour hegemony. His successor and Israel’s current prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, is however even further to the right. He opposed the Camp David agreement and has resisted any hint of compromise with Palestinian nationalism. Mr Shamir’s stonewalling tactics, his expertise at ‘doing nothing’ amidst a hubbub of activity, are legendary. Indeed, George Bush refused to telephone him, such was his disdain for the Israeli leader, during the ‘phoney war’ period in the Gulf between August and January. Only when it became imperative to prevent Israeli retaliation after the Iraqi Scud attacks on Tel Aviv did the US president actually talk to the Israeli leader.
Mr Shamir started his political life as a member of the Stern group which attacked British military targets in the early 40s. His mentor, Avraham Stern, had been influenced by the Easter Rising and Irish republican writings—he had even translated P S O’Hegarty’s The Victory of Sinn Fein into Hebrew. Significantly Mr Shamir’s nom de guerre underground in the Lehi (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) was ‘Michael’—after Collins.
In the summer of 1990, following the fall of the National Unity Government with Labour, Mr Shamir established a coalition between Likud and numerous far-right and non-Zionist religious parties. Earlier this year, he asked the notorious Rehavam Ze’evi of the Moledet fringe party to join the government—this caused an outcry even within his own Likud party since Mr Ze’evi advocates the ‘transfer’ of Palestinians out of the occupied territories.
The formation of such an extremist government, together with the entrapment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation by, and its alignment with, Saddam Hussein—and the emotional support given by Palestinians to Iraq—undermined the Israeli peace movement. Many dovish Israelis retreated into disillusioned isolation, particularly given the deep hopes of recent years for a rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians.
The great immigration of Soviet Jews has significantly bolstered the ideological beliefs and morale of the current Israeli government. The higher birth-rate of the Palestinians would have meant that by 2015 Arabs and Jews in Israel and the territories would otherwise have reached demographic parity. A million Soviet Jews would delay this by a decade.
Initial surveys show that the new immigrants are actually further to the right than the indigenous Israeli–a consequence of subsisting for so t many years under neo-Stalinism. Yet they clearly do not wish to settle in the occupied territories: why go for perilous uncertainties after all the problems of life in the Soviet Union? Yet, coming from the vast expanses of the USSR, they are unable to understand why at least half the Jews in Israel wish to return the territories for peace: why, they argue, dissect such a narrow strip of land? Moreover, they are well acquainted with ‘transfer’, through Stalin’s wholesale expulsion of entire peoples such as the Crimean Tartars. Even so. Many dovish Israelis hope that this highly intellectual, secular imagination will still challenge the right, once they have shaken off the Soviet experience.
The cost of absorbing one million Soviet Jews has been estimated at $30 billion by the governor of the Bank of Israel. Others have put it as high as 540 billion. The only source of such enormous funds—necessary to avert a social and economic catastrophe—is the United States. This provides the White House with an instrument of leverage on the Shamir government.
Effectively, the Americans are saying that a choice has to be made—between the territories and the new arrivals. Last month. President Bush indicated to a delegation of American orthodox Jews that his administration wouid not adhere to an Israeli request for $10 billion in loan guarantees until settlement activity ceased. This is the opening gambit in the White House’s strategy to secure a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians
The stonewalling has to stop. Mr Shamir, it seems, finally has to choose.
Fortnight July-August 1991