Israel, as a democratic, First World ($38,000 GNP/capita) hi-tech power, is often seen as a Western country that accidentally landed in the Middle East. No doubt, Israel is radically different from most of its Arab neighbors. Yet, less than 10% of Israeli Jews grew up in the United States or Western Europe. Fully half of Israeli Jews are Sephardim who came from the Middle East and played a significant role in Israel’s success.
How could they develop a modern country when Israel led the world in a number of unfortunate ways? It has fought more wars (11) since World War II than any other country in the world. 80% of the males serve three years in the army and then 30-40 days a year in the reserves until they are 40 years old. Almost 60% of all women serve two years in the army.
Israeli remains a country not recognized by 90% of the the Arab states. Its area is only 8,000 square miles, of which 58% consists of the Negev Desert. That leaves Israel with 1,000th of the fertile land of the United States. At its narrowest Israel is 9 miles wide thereby leaving the country permanently vulnerable to attack. When Israel won the 1948 war, it was a poor, Third World country ($3,000-$5,000 GNP/capita). It had to absorb in the next 50 years over 3 million Jews, many of whom arrived with the clothes on their backs and little or no money.
How then has Israel become such a success story? This seems even more unlikely when one considers that 40% of Israeli Jews and almost 80% of Ashkenazi Jews came from Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union. Both were highly authoritarian, repressive, anti-Semitic regimes which lacked a strong Westernized consumer economy. Most Tsarist Russian Jews were poor and not well educated. Even now Russian GNP/capita is less than 10% of American GNP/capita.
And yet, spearheading the creation of Israel, were Russian Jews like David Ben Gurion ( Plonsk), Chaim Weitzmann (Pinsk), Golda Meir (Kiev), Yitzhak Ben Zvi (Vishneyev) and Shimon Peres (Belarus). They were deeply influenced by late 19th century Russian democratic socialism that led to the strong role of kibbutzim, moshavim and Histadrut trade unions in the Labor dominance of Israel from the 1920s to 1977. Stalin, despite his anti-Semitism, helped create Israel by influencing the UN vote in November 1947 and selling it weapons in 1948. More recently over one million Russian Jews came to Israel to become 50% of the Israelis working in Silicon Wadi.
It also led to a unique relationship with Russia especially after the end of the Cold War. One time, when I was in Moscow giving a course at the Russian Foreign Ministry, I asked a Russian diplomat where Russian diplomats preferred to be assigned and she replied, “after the United States, Israel of course. It feels like home.”
Russian is the #3 language in Israel. There are two billion dollars of trade, Israeli drones sold to Moscow, the new 50 million dollar Jewish Museum in Moscow, and 600,000 Russians who come without needing a visa yearly to Israel.There is Israeli help in the Russian Silicon Valley effort in Skolkovo and daily talks between Israeli and Russian pilots to avoid a conflict in Syria. There is the Russian stress on high culture, classic literature, history and the special focus on science and technology. Every Friday night there are extended groups of families and friends vigorously arguing with each other, speaking multiple languages and dealing with the problems of the world.
Putin has been twice to Israel and Netanyahu, who speaks regularly with Putin, will make his fifth trip this week in the last 20 months to speak with Putin in Moscow. A poll showed that 60% of Israelis prefer socialism to capitalism. Even now 5,000-7,000 Russian Jews make aliyah to Israel each year. Many Russian Jews have bought television antennas to keep in touch with the Motherland. Even the Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, is a Russian emigre.
Israel and Russia are in many ways polar opposites yet Russia remains significant in Israel’s successes in the world.
Professor Jonathan Adelman is a full professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver.