Make a Diaspora for Yourself, Become a Homeland: The Case of the State of Israel and Jews from the Former USSR / Illa Ben-Porat

In the debate on the notion of homeland and diaspora communities, the State of Israel provides a unique case study of the relationships between the two. One of the basic premises in the discourse on diaspora and immigration is that in the relationship between diaspora communities and homeland, homeland precedes diaspora, and that the existence of diasporas is the product of forced or voluntary movement of populations from the homeland to other countries. This premise remains valid even when over time the diasporas have settled and blended into the host countries, even when the homeland has undergone reconceptualization, and even when the diaspora communities harbor no aspirations of returning to the homeland (the very term ‘return’ in this context attests to the basic premise whereby homeland precedes diaspora). By contrast, the State of Israel was established by different groups of Jewish immigrants who came from all over the world in the course of the twentieth century. As early as Herzl’s seminal treatise, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), which was published in Berlin and Vienna in 1896, the Jewish State, which went on to become the State of Israel, was intended to be a center for the Jewish people that would become a lodestone for Jews from the diaspora and assume responsibility for safeguarding and ensuring the interests of the world’s Jewry. In this respect, it would be true to say that Jews who lived in different countries, namely the Jewish Diaspora, imagined a homeland that would become a lodestone for the diaspora communities. In other words, by its very existence Israel challenges the self-evident premise that homeland precedes diaspora, and illustrates the possibility of a reverse process: rather than a homeland which the diaspora communities left and subsequently settled in the ‘host countries’, Jewish communities from different countries and nationalities, which at the end of the nineteenth century became a national movement with territorial aspirations, established a nation state that claims ownership of all the Jewish communities around the world by defining them as its diaspora communities. This case can teach us that just as nation states sometimes ‘diasporize’ ethnic communities in other countries and establish them as their diaspora , thus a reverse situation is also possible whereby ethnic communities ‘homelandize’ a particular territory and establish it as a homeland that has not yet been actually founded, already effect diasporization of the communities it defines as ‘belonging’ to that homeland. This example illustrates the contention whereby the term ‘homeland’ does not necessarily describe a primordial historic entity, but is first and foremost the product of a discourse that seeks to construct it as such.

As we have seen, the State of Israel describes itself as the homeland of world Jewry and strives to be united with it. In this article I seek to illuminate Israel’s diasporization process of populations outside its borders, and show how this process functions as a dual-purpose mechanism: on the one hand it bolsters and establishes Israel’s status as the homeland of world Jewry, and perpetuates the ‘negation of the exile’ perception whereby meaningful Jewish existence is not possible outside the borders of the homeland, and on the other it seeks to draw and shape the borders of the national collective in a manner that is congruent with Israel’s self-perception as a Western entity in the Middle East. Israel’s diasporization of populations outside its borders therefore establishes it as a homeland to which Jews ‘return’ in order to redeem themselves, and renders irrelevant the question of ‘where to’. To demonstrate this, I shall examine the specific case of Israel’s diasporization of Russian-speaking Jews.

The law that expresses more than anything else Israel’s self-definition as the sole homeland of world Jewry is the Law of Return which enables every Jew, as well as the children and grandchildren of Jews, to immigrate to Israel with their family and become fully-fledged citizens. It was this law that facilitated the arrival of the massive wave of immigration from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which began in the 1990s and today constitutes approximately 17% of the population defined as ‘Jewish’ in Israel. However, Israel’s aspirations to define itself as the homeland of the Jewish people are not always consistent with the self-definition of the Jews themselves, certainly not of all the Jews. In an article addressing the issue of immigrants to Israel from the former USSR returning to their countries of origin, Yossi Yonah contends that the explanation for this phenomenon lies, inter alia, in the disparity between Israel’s definition of the Jews from the former USSR as its diaspora community, and the self-definition of these Jews themselves. He argues that the State of Israel justifies its immigration policy by means of ethno-cultural Zionist rhetoric that describes the Jews of the former USSR as a diaspora community driven by an adamant and determined aspiration for repatriation. According to this description, the diaspora community aspires to attain religious, cultural, and spiritual self-realization by means of aliyah (immigrationto Israel) and assimilation into the Jewish-Zionist collective[1]. However, as Yonah shows, the diaspora communities and the ‘nation’ have not always enjoyed a harmonious relationship. Although some Jews from the former USSR indeed defined themselves as a national minority connected by a deep bond with the Zionist ethos, others defined themselves as an ethno-religious minority group whose connection with Zionist ideas and the Zionist-Jewish nation state is loose and flimsy. The inconsistency between the self-definition of Jews from the former USSR and the State of Israel’s conceptualization of them explains the fact that during the nineties many of the potential immigrants sought to define themselves as ‘refugees’, and that their preferred immigration destination was primarily the US, not Israel. The significance of this is that the majority of Jews from the former USSR did not adopt the national affinity that Israel sought to impose on them. However, as a consequence of the US enforcing stricter immigration policies in 1989, which prevented the unrestricted entry of immigrants from the former USSR, Israel became an attractive immigration destination for them since it offered automatic citizenship and numerous material benefits[2].

Yonah argues that this historical description does not seek to question the present affinity of immigrants from the former USSR to the national-Zionist ethos, but rather indicates the impressive ability of nationalism to bring about changes in the collective self-definition of diaspora communities[3]. Employing the terminology of nationalism researcher  Brubaker, the basic premise in this description is that nationalism should be viewed as a political stance rather than an ethno-demographic fact, a practical category rather than an analytical one[4]. The national identity of different groups does not constitute a primordial fact, and consequently does not mark the end of a natural and necessary process of the collective acknowledging its national identity and its demand for self-determination, but is the product of a random, circumstantial process. Consequently, the fact that Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants came to Israel even though it was not their preferred immigration destination, and did not define themselves as Zionists or Jews, does not contradict the fact that once they do immigrate they acquire the Jewish-national identity.

Even today, after the immigration wave from the former USSR to Israel has virtually ceased, the State of Israel continues to regard Jews from the former USSR who remained in their countries of origin as its diaspora community, and emphasizes the need for every Jew to immigrate to Israel, despite the fact that many of them do not define themselves as Zionists, and their attitude to Israel can be defined as ambivalent. A survey conducted in December 2007 among Jews from the Ukraine and Russia shows that although 75% of the respondents claimed they were “proud to be Jewish”, only 9% think it is necessary to believe in the principles of Zionism, and 37% believe it is “advisable” to do so[5]. In the main their answers to the question “Who is a Jew?” do not correspond with the definition of Judaism as it is expressed in the Law of Return, or alternatively as it is formulated according to the Jewish  Halacha (religious Jewish law). Thus, 16% claim that a Jew is anyone who perceives himself as such, whereas 33% (the highest number of respondents) claim that a Jew is a person who observes tradition or leads a Jewish way of life[6].

Nevertheless, the fact that a large proportion of Jews from the former USSR do not define themselves as Zionists and do not wish to leave their countries of origin does not prevent Israel from investing efforts to persuade them to immigrate to it. Israel’s motivation to continue encouraging immigration from the former USSR, despite the fact that a considerable percentage of immigrants are not Zionist-oriented, and many of them are not Jewish, should be ascribed to its fears of demographic inferiority in light of the natural increase among Palestinians, and to its aspiration to strengthen its Western character vis-à-vis the population defined as ‘mizrahi’ (Jews of Eastern/Oriental origin) within the Jewish collective[7]. In other words, the non-Jews are coveted since they are, in the words of Ian Lustick, “neither Arab nor Oriental”[8], to which can also be added “and not haredi (ultra-Orthodox)”, and Israel invests considerable efforts in the diasporization of communities that do not define themselves as its diaspora, do not perceive Israel as a ‘homeland’, and certainly do not consider themselves as living in ‘exile’.

The disparity between the self-definition of Russian-speakers outside Israel and how Israel defines them is perceived by the authorities in Israel as a technical problem rather than a fundamental issue. In a meeting of the Knesset Absorption Committee entitled “Unprecedented Slump in Immigration to Israel”, Director-General of the Jewish Agency Moshe Vigdor described the efforts made by the organization he heads to increase the number of immigrants from Russia to Israel. He reported on preparations for the renovation of a new building purchased by the Jewish Agency opposite the new synagogue in Moscow that would constitute a lodestone for young Jews, and described the educational activities held by the Jewish Agency in Moscow, and its collaborations with various organizations. According to him, the purpose of all these activities was to persuade Jews to immigrate to Israel: “It is very important for all of us to be networked so that we can bring here as many young people as possible because this experience is important and increases the chances of aliyah later on”[9]. Vigdor also described the Jewish Agency’s activities among populations of Russian-speaking Jews around the world, a fact that illustrates even more so the disparity between how the State of Israel perceives these Jews and how they perceive themselves, since with the fall of the Communist Bloc these people preferred to immigrate to different countries, such as the US, Germany, and Canada, over the option that was open to them to immigrate to Israel. As we have seen, this fact is perceived by the authorities engaged in immigrant absorption in Israel as an obstacle that needs to be overcome by any means, rather than a fundamental problem mandating renewed debate of the basic premises underlying the policy to encourage immigration. Thus for example, Israel asked the US to stop granting refugee status to Jews from the former USSR so that they would not be able to immigrate to the US and would be compelled to come to Israel[10], and Vigdor reports on similar efforts to stop the immigration of Jews from the former USSR to Germany:

The issue of Germany was already marked at the [Jewish] Agency about four years ago. There was a task force that went to Germany and studied the issues there. There was intensive activity of the Agency’s previous director-general with the German government to stop the entry process and the building of the community there, and it was no simple matter […][11]

Additionally, Israel continues to invest efforts to bring back another population, namely the immigrants to Israel who chose to return to their countries of origin. The number of people holding Israeli citizenship in Russia is estimated at 100,000[12]. In November 2007, the State of Israel launched a heavily-budgeted international campaign that appealed to Israelis living outside Israel to “come back home”. Great emphasis was placed on Israelis in the CIS, but disappointingly it transpired that they do not visit the website where the campaign was held. In an interview for the daily Haaretz, Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption Ya’akov Edri contended that a campaign needs to be formulated that meets the unique needs of people with Israeli citizenship in Russia: “I intend to invest special efforts to bring back the former immigrants. I am certain we will soon be able to announce a gradual increase in the number of immigrants returning to Israel”[13]. Following reorganization, the campaign stopped engaging in the emotional aspect of appealing to sons and daughters to come back home, and focused on describing the various benefits they would be entitled to should they decide to come back to live in Israel. This example shows how Israel adapts its tactics to changing reality and recognizes that a campaign that appeals to Zionist emotions does not have the power to attract the immigrants who returned to Russia. However, even if the strategy changes, the supreme objective – returning all Jews to their homeland – remains firm, and as I shall now show, the narrative that shapes it remains unchanged, but assimilates the new reality.

As we have seen, from a practical aspect Israel is not averse to trying to bring back Jews who do not define themselves as Zionists and do not express a desire to immigrate to it. This therefore raises the question of how Israel contends with the existence of a narrative that proposes the possibility of meaningful Jewish existence in the Diaspora, which challenges the hegemony of the State of Israel with regard to world Jewry and its self-definition as a homeland with which they aspire to unite. One of the ways of contending with this is to describe Zionism as the ultimate stage of Jewish consciousness. This progressive perception, which presumes a gradual continuum of consciousness development, and that Zionism expresses the highest point to which this development aspires, facilitates the arguments that a Jew who is not a Zionist is a Jew who is ‘stuck’ in a lower developmental stage, and that this is a temporary situation. In this way the revival of Jewish life in Russia typifying Vladimir Putin’s period as president can be described as a stage constituting a natural foundation for the inevitable development of Zionist consciousness. This is illustrated in the speech delivered by Chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora, MK Zvi Hendel, before guests from the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jews who attended a meeting on “Israel-Diaspora Relations, Expressing Solidarity with the State of Israel”:

We need you in the world, we need the solidarity of the Jewish people, because you are our brothers and we are the state that gives you confidence throughout the world, and your help is important. And help that is no less important is that anyone who has reached a stage of Zionist maturity, we need them here. People who can encourage their surroundings, friends, neighborhood, city, town, or country, to immigrate to Israel. The place of the Jewish people is in Israel. […] Not everyone can immigrate, and it is difficult for some and it takes them time to immigrate, but those who can, must be encouraged.[14]

Emerging from these words is that living in the Diaspora is perceived as a temporary matter. The premise is that while the help and assistance of Jews living outside Israel is important, those who have “reached a stage of Zionist maturity” have concluded their role in the Diaspora and should come to Israel. It further emerges that this development is inevitable: ultimately the future of all Jews is to reach the aforesaid Zionist maturity, but in the meantime “it is difficult for some and it takes them time to immigrate”, and consequently they should be supported and encouraged.

Another illustration of the tension between the self-definition of Jews in Russia and Israel’s aspiration to define them as its diaspora, a diaspora that is destined to return to its homeland, can be found in a speech delivered by Prime Minister  Olmert in October 2006 during a visit in Moscow to the Marina Roscha Jewish  Community Center, which was built by Jewish oligarch Lev Leviev, who is associated with the Chabad[15] movement. In his speech Olmert attempts to ‘walk the tightrope’, that is, to give expression to the conflicting desires and different stances vis-à-vis the Jews of Russia. He expresses the tension created as a result of the differences between how the Russian government views the Jewish community in Russia, how the Jews in Russia perceive themselves, and how the State of Israel defines them. This situation gave rise to a speech filled with inner contradictions that on the one hand commends the Jews for remaining in Russia, and at the same time pleads with them to “come back home” to Israel:

We have a small problem here with this issue and I need to speak about it candidly. On the one hand there is a very friendly president who embraces the Jews of Russia. On the other there are Jewish institutions, international Jewish organizations, and there is the Jewish Agency. In addition, and first and foremost, there is Lev Leviev. Everything is so good that the Jews remain in Russia, but there is nothing we want more than for all of you to ultimately come home. Home is to our Jerusalem, a unified Jerusalem in Eretz Israel.

[…] I know you are happy where you live, and we have great respect for this country and all the countries you live in, and we appreciate the friendship extended by the governments to the Jewish communities. But the thing we want most and pray for and yearn for more than anything and hope for is that you come home.[16]

It emerges from Olmert’s words that his stance, whereby the Jews of Russia are a diaspora of the State of Israel and an inseparable part of it, is not an innocent one, but a clear and conscious ideological perception that seeks to surmount rival narratives, such as the one whereby Israel constitutes a spiritual center for world Jewry, but it is not the homeland of the Jews of Russia in practical terms, and consequently they do not aspire to unite with it, and living in Russia is not a temporary stage on the way to self-realization by immigration to Israel. The logic of Olmert’s words can be explained by means of Brubaker’s assertion that diaspora is a category of practice that is used to make claims, to articulate projects, to shape identities and loyalties, and not a bounded identity[17]. This perception is strengthened as Olmert continues:

[…] But especially – and this is the most important thing – when you come to us you’ll be home and we want all of you – all of you – from all the places you hail from, after you receive the best Jewish education that Lev Leviev and Rabbi Lazar and the Jewish Agency and the Russian government help you to receive, after all that pack your bags, come home and we will all live in the State of Israel and Eretz Israel.

Inherent in his very definition of Israel as “home” for the Jews of Russia is the premise that the current place of residence of his audience is not – and cannot be – home. Olmert’s appeal to the Jews to receive the Jewish education offered to them by the Russian government, Lev Leviev, and the Jewish institutions, and then pack their bags and come “home”, interprets the cultural-religious revival of the Jews of Russia and Lev Leviev’s enterprise as a revival stage on the way to the Jews’ return to their homeland, and constructs it as part of the national-Zionist narrative. Lev Leviev’s enterprise which, like its owner, is not Zionist-oriented, alongside Putin’s pro-Jewish policy, turn in Olmert’s speech into a chapter in the national-Zionist narrative, whose role is to prepare the ground for the maturation of Zionist consciousness.

It is evident, therefore, that the rhetoric employed by the State of Israel’s various agents is directed toward defining Israel as the sole and exclusive ‘homeland’ of Jews around the world, and that the dominant narrative is ‘negation of the Diaspora’. Living in the Diaspora is perceived as temporary, and the objective is to bring about the ‘return’ of all the Jews to their homeland.

In summary, the inclusiveness of the definition of Judaism in accordance with the Law of Return and the desire to bolster Jewish demography[18] give rise to expanding the definition of the Jewish Diaspora in a manner that is not contingent either on the Halachic definition of Judaism or the self-definition of members of the diaspora. In other words, as an outcome of Israel’s self-definition as the homeland of Jews wherever they may be, and its desire to strengthen its national collective, it lays claim to populations that do not define themselves as Zionist, do not express interest in immigrating to it, and their affinity with Judaism is frequently doubtful. In this context it is important to bear in mind that the diasporization of populations that are perceived as desirable for the collective is firmly linked to practices of excluding non-Jewish groups within Israel’s territorial borders, groups such as migrant workers, non-Jewish citizens, and first and foremost Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. This exclusion is grounded in the logic whereby the national-Jewish collective should be reinforced on the one hand, and contending with the ‘demographic threat’ inherent in the growing number of non-Jewish groups on the other. A typical illustration of this can be found in the law that constitutes a mirror image of the Law of Return: The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Order) 5763-2003, which denies the issuance of Israeli citizenship or residence to spouses of Israeli citizens who are residents of Judea and Samaria or the Gaza Strip, and freezes the issuance of citizenship under the ‘family reunification’ provisions for Palestinian families that are Israeli citizens with Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens. In other words, the desire to enlarge the national collective by diasporization of populations outside its territorial borders is founded on Israel’s desire to establish and ratify its central status as the homeland of all the Jews around the world, and at the same to strengthen its Western character and ensure the existence of a stable and steadfast Jewish majority within its borders.

Translated by: Margalit Rodgers


[1] Yonah, Y. (2004). Israel’s Immigration Policies: The Twofold Face of the ‘Demographic Threat’. Social Identities 10(24), 195-218.

[2] Lazin, F.A . (2005). The Struggle for Soviet Jewry in American Politics: Israel versus the American Jewish Establishment. Lexington Books: New York.

[3] Yonah, Y. (2004).

[4] Brubaker, R. (1996). Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: UK.

[5] Haaretz, December 18, 2007.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Yonah, Y. (2000).

[8] Lustick, I.S. (1999). Israel as a Non-Arab State: The Political Implications of Mass Immigration of Non-Jews. Middle East Journal 53(3), 417-433.

[9] Minute No. 199, Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora, June 3, 2008.

[10] Lazin, F.A. (2005).

[11] Minute No. 199, Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora.

[12] Lily Galili, Haaretz, April 4, 2008, “The Immigrants Who Left for Russia Don’t Want to Come Back”.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Minute No. 235, Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora, July 3, 2002.

[15] A Chasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism

[16] Speech retrieved from the Chabbad Movement website

[17] Brubaker, R. (2005). The ‘Diaspora’ Diaspora. Ethnic and Racial Studies 28(1), 1-19.

[18] In this respect it is important to note that paradoxically it is actually the inclusiveness of the Law of Return and Israel’s declared aspiration to enlarge its Jewish collective that in effect enabled the immigration to it of approximately 300,000 non-Jews who are eligible for immigration under the provisions of the Law of Return.