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The Russian Intelligentsia in Israel – A Reassuring Foreignness

Danielle Storper Perez, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 1998, 312 pages.
Anne de Tinguy
p. 137-139

Texte intégral

1The unprecedented wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s (roughly 800,000 people) has been dealt with in numerous research studies. More than 300 publications appeared in Hebrew between 1989 and 1993 on the subject. The book by Danielle Storper Perez has a specific place within this vast literature. Studies dealing with what the Israelis globally term “the Russians” mostly cover the “instrumental features of immigration such as housing, employment, planning policy, etc.” in a functional perspective. Israeli institutions encourage researchers to give their work a pragmatic bent, which is scarcely surprising given the impact of these new immigrants in the culture. D. Storper Perez adopts a different approach: her goal is to “grasp how a disoriented community attributes a meaning to the new situation in which it has found itself” and to “analyze the role of cultural opinions (of the new immigrants from the intelligentsia) in their strategies of adaptation.” The methodology used is the study of individual trajectories as told through life histories. It covers fifty in-depth interviews of individuals the author met through the snowballing technique, completed by analyses of the Russian press produced by new immigrants and the results of other qualitative surveys as well as short works by two anthropologists Deborah Golden and Narspy Zilberg (herself a new immigrant).

2The outcome of this major work is a careful and stimulating analysis of this immigration and the relationship to the host culture it has developed. The approach highlights the wealth of the identities of those who although de-Judaized, were perceived as Jews in their native country (a Jewishness which some became aware of due to official anti-Semitism which existed for many years in the former Soviet Union, or the “ordinary anti-Semitism” which took its place) and who are now perceived as Russians in Israel, this accounts for the often painful nature of the spiritual and material journeys “strewn with hesitations, fears, difficulties of all types.” Emigrating is never considered to be easy, and in all cases it calls for “a great deal of courage.”

3What also emerges from this study (and is probably its most innovative feature) is the high complexity of the adaptation process defined by these new immigrants and the role played by their native culture in this process. The goal of these new immigrants is not assimilation, marginalization (characterized by a dual refusal, i.e. refusal to preserve their original identity and refusal to adopt the culture of the host country), or separation (i.e. lack of interest as regards integration in the host country and a strong desire to preserve the culture of origin). Rather their aim is to find their place in Israeli society, something that is not easy to do. Finding a job often involves de-qualification, a change of profession or job precariousness (Ilya, a musician and singer, works as a stock boy in a supermarket, Sergei, an actor, is also a guard in a supermarket. Olga found the job she wanted as a restorer of archeological textiles but to make both ends meet she must do restoration privately and do cleaning). Nevertheless the statistics show that most new immigrants have found employment on the job market. Integration takes place however under specific conditions, set by the immigrants themselves, who remain extremely attached to their own identity. This goes hand in hand with a refusal of acculturation. The newly arrived claim the right to have a say in the Israelization process laid out for them. Although they want to adapt to their new country they expect the country to make an effort to adapt to who they are.

4The role played by the native culture in the lives of the people interviewed (which for most is Russian culture even when they do not come from Russia) is not only preponderant, but crucial. This can be explained by the fact that this study focuses on the intelligentsia “a creative social category or one which carries social goods between the power and the masses” many of whom were in this wave of immigration. It is also accounted for, states the author, by the fact that culture in the Soviet Union plays a key role since other possibilities for entertainment were lacking: “people were forced to fall back on their own resources: books, music, art and friends.” For the Russians encountered by the author, culture is not a ‘luxury’; it is “what feeds the soul” and is at the core of their existence. “It has made me a person with a moral conscience”, states Sergei, the actor-supermarket guard. Paradoxically, it is the force behind migration. Many of these members of the intelligentsia were purveyors of Russian culture. After the split and collapse of the Soviet Union their feeling of uselessness prompted them to make the decision to emigrate to preserve this culture. Those who remained in Russia found themselves with other representatives of intelligentsias, in particular those from former republics of the Soviet Union, in a new environment in which the values had been radically altered. Those who were living in the newly independent states were forced to adapt to another language than Russian and to another culture, no longer had their place (or thought they did not). This gave rise to the feeling that to preserve the culture which was at the heart of their existence and which constituted their wealth, they had to leave. Once settled in Israel their goal could not be to break off with this culture; rather it is to perpetuate and transmit it, in particular to their children. The weakness of the attraction of the culture of their new country and the difficulties they encounter in their professional lives only reinforces their attitudes. In the difficult adaptation process to their new existence, their culture plays the role of a protective shield. It is the key feature of the “reassuring Foreignness" in which they have found refuge.

  • 1  In this issue, see: A de Tinguy, Les Russes d'Israël, une minorité très influente, Paris, Les Étud (...)

5Accustomed to being strict with themselves, the members of the intelligentsia are also demanding with their children who “now form a large proportion of the ranks of the universities”. This immigration, stresses the author, could give rise to the Israeli elite of tomorrow, which would enable it to make an even greater impact on its host country.1

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1  In this issue, see: A de Tinguy, Les Russes d'Israël, une minorité très influente, Paris, Les Études du CERI, déc. 1998, 32 p.

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Référence papier

Anne de Tinguy, « The Russian Intelligentsia in Israel – A Reassuring Foreignness », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, 4 | 1999, 137-139.

Référence électronique

Anne de Tinguy, « The Russian Intelligentsia in Israel – A Reassuring Foreignness », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem [En ligne], 4 | 1999, mis en ligne le 12 octobre 2009, Consulté le 18 juillet 2018. URL :

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