Russia invades the Middle East

They came in their hundreds of thousands from the crumbling Soviet Union, and they have brought chan

Imagine the United States absorbing France. That is the usual comparison made with Israel's intake of immigrants, one-fifth the size of its population, from the collapsing Soviet Union, who arrived penniless and had to be found homes, jobs and schools, and integrated into a language, culture and society radically different from their own. Even for a country of immigrants it was a daunting task.

And it has been achieved remarkably well. "The Russians", as they are called in Israeli shorthand, are still poorer than the average and there are signs of glass ceilings that bar them from top jobs. But over time the sad tales of doctors sweeping streets and nuclear physicists driving taxis have been matched by success stories. They have reinvigorated art, music, theatre and sport, as well as the audiences for them. Exiles from Soviet research institutes work in fields of applied science that were virtually absent from Israel before. Their competitive pressure even spawned a fashion for after-school tutoring. "The stereotype of the Jewish kid who studies and then goes to play chess and do maths puzzles had practically disappeared until the current wave of immigration," says Yuri Shtern, a Moscow-born member of Israel's parliament who arrived in 1981.

But Israel, used to thinking of itself as far more of a melting-pot than America ever was, has struggled to grasp that so huge an immigration cannot be swallowed whole. Where once old men from the same Polish village could be seen doggedly conversing in broken Hebrew rather than use their mother tongue, there are now youngsters who have spent more than half their lives in Israel, been through the mixers of school and army and speak Hebrew flawlessly - yet in each others' company their language, clothes and taste in music make them virtually indistinguishable from twentysomethings in St Petersburg or Novosibirsk. They have Russian-language newspapers, radio and television services (the TV channel Israel Plus is so popular it is broadcast to Russian-speaking communities in the US), as well as a Russian film festival. Coming from a country with so epic a past, many Russians also feel a vague cultural superiority over the upstart, history-less Israelis.

Moreover, because Israel guarantees citizenship to people of partly Jewish origin, and thanks to over-zealous recruitment, about a quarter of the post-Soviet immigrants are technically non-Jews. That has led to tension and even - shockingly for the Jewish state - anti-Semitic attacks.

Inevitably, therefore, many Israelis saw the new arrivals through prejudiced eyes, as everything from culture snobs to welfare scroungers to criminals. Time and integration have softened those stereotypes, but the last has been harder to shake. According to Eliezer Feldman of the Mutagim Institute, an Israeli polling firm, the crime rate among Russian-speakers is between 2 and 2.5 per cent lower than the national average, although it is higher among teenagers and young adults - not surprising, as Russian-speakers tended to be settled in towns with high unemployment.

But the police and courts still treat them with bias, says Shtern. And a few have brought less welcome imports such as prostitution rings and drug-running operations. This month two Russians were the first to be charged in Israel's biggest ever money-laundering case. Nor has it helped that a few Russian "oligarchs" have flitted to Israel to shelter from Moscow's periodic witch-hunts. Their influence in business and politics is little known and rarely discussed.

Politically, Russian-speaking voters tend to be right-wing and hawkish - whether in revolt against their socialist upbringing, in line with the Soviet mindset of friends v enemies, or because, as big users of public transport, they have suffered disproportionately in terrorist bus bombings. Yet many are swing voters, amplifying the perpetual oscillations of Israeli politics. And, as their homelands' economies have surged while Israel's continues to struggle under the conflict with the Palestinians, some are trying to build lives that straddle both places. That makes the absorption project look like a failure to some Israelis. On the other hand, it gives the country rich potential for economic ties to a huge region. Within a generation or two the Russian-language newspapers, television stations and political parties may disappear, but Israel - in ways it does not yet understand - will remain a subtly different country.

Gideon Lichfield is the Jerusalem correspondent of the Economist