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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 November, 2004, 10:33 GMT
Israel faces Russian brain drain
By Lucy Ash
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

The "Wailing wall" in Jerusalem
Immigration has slumped and many of those leaving are Russians

One million Russians have arrived in Israel since 1990, making them the country's largest group of immigrants, but poor employment prospects and the fear of terrorism has led to many deciding to return home.

Sitting in her Tel Aviv flat, Irena flicked through photographs of dancers wearing brightly coloured costumes. "I made all these," she said.

"But nobody here cares about your professional skills. Israelis just see Russians as people who have come over to clean their houses, look after old people or sweep the streets."

They promised us a beautiful future, but life here is pretty tough
Irena, Russian immigrant
These days Irena mends clothes for a living but she was once chief designer at the Palace of Culture in Sochi, Russia's most famous Black Sea resort.

The town was badly affected by the rouble crash in 1998 so Irena went to Israel with 16 members of her family.

Now, 12 of them, including her husband, have already returned home.

Sochi is enjoying a revival with 6 million tourists each summer, and Irena's husband has already opened his second restaurant there.


By contrast Israel faces high unemployment and a stagnant economy.

Irena is also nervous about suicide bomb attacks, and worries about her son in the army. When he finishes his military service she plans to go back to Russia.

"I do not know why the government encouraged us to emigrate in the first place," she said.

"They promised us a beautiful future, but life here is pretty tough, and they should have warned us about that."

Vita Martinova (right), Journalist
They are finding that Russia offers better opportunities for them
Vita Martinova, journalist (right)
Vita Martinova, a journalist for the Russian language weekly Novosti Nedeli, said: "Russians want to be more prosperous. They want more money, better cars and good jobs.

"Now they are finding that Russia offers better opportunities for them."

A study released this year says that at least 50,000 Russians returned from Israel from 2001 to 2003.

According to Eliezer Feldman, a sociologist in Tel Aviv, there are three distinct categories of new Israeli citizens returning to Russia and the former Soviet Union.

In the first group there are people like Irena who had great expectations but were disappointed.

If they were lucky enough to find work, their larger earnings in Israel were wiped out by the higher costs of living there.

So they return to the relative security of a low-rent apartment in a provincial town in Russia or one of the ex-Soviet republics.

Global potential

The second group said Feldman is made up of people who saw Israel as a stepping-stone to a third country.

Refused access to America, Canada or other Western countries and unable to adjust to life in Israel, these people often end up back home.

Sasha Danilov
I am hoping to sell Israeli technology to new markets
Sasha Danilov
Sasha Danilov, who has been successful in Israel, belongs to the third group of people leaving the country.

He arrived aged 18 from St Petersburg with nothing but a guitar and one small suitcase. At first he worked nights in the airport as a porter and studied during the day.

Seven years later he had his own hi-tech consultancy firm. Now though he has closed his Tel Aviv office because he and his girlfriend are off to Novosibirsk.

Sasha sees Siberia as his exit strategy from Israel's economic crisis. "There is huge potential there and I am hoping to sell Israeli technology to new markets. I want to act as a bridge between the two countries."

Positive discrimination

Sasha is just one of a new breed of Russian speaking Israelis with Western know-how and a globalised outlook who are in high demand across the former Soviet Union.

Anton Nosik is another. He said he simply outgrew the Israeli market and went back to Moscow in 1997 to open several internet news sites.

"In Russia there are more than 14 million internet users compared to just 2.2 million in Israel.

"Israel is a beautiful country but it feels parochial. And if you have not gone to the right school or university it is hard to get promoted beyond a certain level," he said.

I am deeply unhappy with this trend because I think we are losing some of our best and brightest people
Yuri Shtern, Israeli MP
Yuri Shtern, one of the 12 Russian members of the Knesset, recognises the problem and said Russians are under represented in Israel's public sector.

He wants to bring in a positive discrimination law to put more Russians in the top jobs.

"I am deeply unhappy with this trend because I think we are losing some of our best and brightest people," he said.

People from the former Soviet Union are still coming to Israel but they tend to be far less educated than the Russians who are leaving.

Moreover only one third of the latest wave of immigrants is Jewish according to religious law. Under the Law of Return anyone with a Jewish grandparent may seek Israeli citizenship.


Some worry that aggressive recruitment drives by the Jewish Agency, responsible for bringing immigrants to Israel, is persuading the wrong kinds of people to emigrate.

Jewish Agency
The Jewish Agency is responsible for attracting immigrants
Zalman Gilichensky, a teacher from Jerusalem, claimed that people with very distant Jewish roots and even anti-Semites are being encouraged to move to Israel.

He said he has evidence of more than 500 outbreaks of anti-Semitism over the past year and he has set up a website to monitor them.

The incidents include swastika graffiti on the walls of synagogues, and verbal and physical abuse.

"The only way to stop these attacks is to change our immigration policy," Mr Gilichensky said. "It does not bother me that some non Jews come here.

The government has done its best to sweep all this anti-Semitism under the carpet
Zalman Gilichensky, teacher
"But I cannot see why we are importing people who hate our guts. Would-be immigrants should have to prove they know something of our history and respect our customs.

"But the government has done its best to sweep all this anti-Semitism under the carpet because these attacks are so damaging to the image of Israel."

Nevertheless the Israeli Attorney General launched a criminal investigation into a neo-Nazi website which called itself the White Israeli Union, after pictures appeared of a man in an Israeli army uniform with his arm raised in a "Heil Hitler" salute.

But since then, other Russian language websites with similar content have appeared, with tasteless jokes about Jewish people and Holocaust denials.

Yuri Shtern admitted it is a "terrible paradox that such attacks take place" but he said they involve only a tiny minority of Russians in Israel.

"This is not really conscious anti-Semitism, it is mainly teenagers from the lower social classes playing a stupid and very insensitive game."

Michael Jankelowitz of the Jewish Agency said there are no plans to change the Law of Return:

"When Hitler was hunting for Jews to kill he looked for anybody with a Jewish grandparent, so tampering with the Law of Return would dishonour the memory of the six million who went to the Holocaust.

"It is a law of the Jewish people not a law of religion."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 25 November, 2004 at 1100 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 29 November, 2004 at 2030 GMT.

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