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Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Israel's modern immigrants
Argentine Jewish immigrants arrive in Israel
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By Raffi Berg
BBC News Online

As the Palestinian intifada (uprising) continues, Israel is conducting a second, more global campaign - to attract foreign Jewish settlement.

Shortly after becoming prime minister in 2001, Ariel Sharon set as his goal the task of attracting one million Jews to Israel in the next decade.

Even when I was in South Africa, I felt Israel was always my home

Jacob Chitiz
It was an ambitious target, not least since the influx of foreign Jews to Israel dropped as the intifada gained pace.

Whether the two events can be linked is debatable.

Immigration from the former Soviet Union (FSU), for example, declined as the economy stabilised - and for many Jews who have made the move the eruption of violence was not a consideration.

"Not for a second was the intifada an issue for me," said 31-year-old Jacob Chitiz, who emigrated to Israel from Durban, South Africa, in January, 2002.

"I made a decision to move here regardless of the problems," he said.

Foreign Jews make 'aliyah' - literally, going up to Israel - for a multitude of reasons, but one common thread among immigrants is a belief in Israel as a Jewish homeland.

"Even when I was in South Africa, I felt Israel was always my home," said Jacob.

"I feel comfortable here. I don't have to worry about being Jewish because everyone else is Jewish here as well," he said.

Jews, in fact, comprise 81% of Israel's population and, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, one in every seven people now living in Israel arrived within the last 10 years.

Culture shock

Despite his enthusiasm, Jacob concedes he doesn't yet feel integrated into Israeli society.

Just because things aren't so good at the moment you can't just run away

Mel Davidson

"Anyone who comes from a different culture and says they fit in is not telling the truth."

It's a view echoed by Mel Davidson from Manchester, England, who emigrated in January 2001.

"It's very easy to move to this country and not be Israeli," she said.

Mel said she moved to Israel "to do something a bit different".

"I was never Zionist and didn't know anything about the country before I moved here," she said.

Ariel Sharon greets young immigrants
Mr Sharon has championed Jewish immigration

"What I miss about Britain is how easy it was to do things over there - the attitude and red tape here is terrible.

"What I like about Israel, though, is that anything goes here - nobody judges you at all. It doesn't matter if you work in a restaurant or sweep the street, there's not the same importance attached to status that there is in England."

When Mel moved to Israel the intifada was four months old and the fighting has worsened considerably since.

The violence, she says, has made life hard, "but just because things aren't so good at the moment you can't just run away".

Soviet factor

Since Israel was founded in 1948, more than a third of all immigrants have come from the FSU - nearly one million since 1989 alone.

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There are 400,000 Jews still in Russia and although the exodus has slowed, the flow continues.

Asia Gelfand moved to Israel from St Petersburg 12 years ago during the height of the first intifada.

Then 10 years old, she says her parents decided to emigrate because of rising anti-Semitism.

Now she says: "I feel Israel is home but my parents would probably think twice before they answer this question.

"Young Russian immigrants are accepted here much better than our parents - we learn the language quicker and we adjusted to our new surroundings much easier," she said.

Political impact

The huge influx of Russian Jews has had a significant impact on the shape of Israeli politics, and, consequently, the peace process.

I see what's going on in Europe and I'm not that optimistic that the Holocaust can't happen again

Asia Gelfand

Traditionally hawkish, voters from the former Soviet republics - about 15% of the Israeli electorate - helped unseat former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in elections in 2001, in favour of the right-wing Sharon (himself the son of Russian immigrants).

"We don't always approve of what the government's doing but, as Sharon said, this is the only place on Earth where we can protect ourselves," said Asia.

"I see what's going on in Europe and I'm not that optimistic that the Holocaust can't happen again.

"A lot of people think like I do," she said, "that Israel is our homeland, our only homeland, and it must survive".

See also:

22 Apr 98 | ISRAEL TODAY
The Jewish Diaspora and Israel
18 Feb 00 | Middle East
Training for a new life in Israel
09 Jan 00 | Europe
Jewish immigrants promised help
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