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Sergey Melkonyan about Jews and Israel: Myth and Reality

Sergey Melkonyan about Jews and Israel: Myth and Reality

Interview with the associate of the Israel Department of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, head of the Middle East Studies Department of ARDI Lab, expert of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs Sergey Melkonyan. 

Armenia is often compared with Israel, and Armenians are compared with Jews, which is not surprising: both nations survived the genocide, have a large diaspora throughout the world and millennia of history. Today we talk a lot about the problem of assimilation of Armenians in the diaspora, so the first question will be: how did the Jews resist assimilation for two thousand years?

S.M. - The answer to your question is connected with several factors. The first factor is geographical: Jews lived compactly in certain areas in the United States, Europe (the Baltic states, Poland, Germany, Spain) and in the Middle East. That is, they lived in communities. In addition to this, they were engaged in similar activities and it was easier for them to cooperate with each other. The second factor is cultural-religious, which distinguished them from the local population and restrained them from interethnic and interreligious marriages. 

Unlike Jews, Armenians, being Christians, did not particularly detach themselves from the local population of Europe, could participate in cultural and educational life, and had no problems with employment.  Meanwhile, the Jews were considered an alien element: when people found out that you had Jewish roots, they treated you differently, and that influenced their self-awareness.

The fact that the Jews escaped assimilation is a small myth:  today the process of assimilation is quite intensive. Most of the Jews who today repatriate to Israel under the Law of Return are only a quarter Jews. For example, their grandmothers are Jewish, and based on that they receive citizenship. According to Halakha (traditional Jewish law, the collection of  laws and regulations of Judaism - approx.) you are Jewish if your mother’s grandmother is Jewish and one of her children is Jewish.. And if your great-grandmother is Jewish, then you are no longer a Jew.

To be honest, I don’t think that they really had a problem of self-awareness. That is, there was an opportunity to repatriate, and many took that opportunity, but I won’t say that they live due to the Jewish traditions, no. It is most likely that good conditions for repatriation are created for them. 

What were their motivations to move to Israel? 

S.M. - There were many waves of Jewish migration and they all were different. However, I would like to distinguish several of them. 

The first two waves were associated mainly with pogroms. The physical oppression of the Jewish population left many with no choice but to return to their historical homeland. Despite the fact that there were no institutions that could guarantee the Jews’ complete security, nevertheless, their attitude towards them was more lenient than in the Russian Empire. Then, with the spread of the idea of ​​Zionism, the establishment of the British Mandate, as well as the publication of the Balfour Declaration, many were encouraged by the possibility of consolidation on historical land and decided to migrate. All this happened against the background of continued growth of anti-Semitism, which, after the Nazis came to power in Germany, further spurred the desire of the Jews to find a safer place. 

Children of Immigrants, Israel, 1950s / myjewishlearning.com

Subsequent migrations occurred after the creation of the State of Israel, which guaranteed the safety of all Jews. Moreover, the ongoing Arab-Israeli wars partly acted as a catalyst for the return of the Jews: majority of them returned to defend the homeland they had been waiting for centuries. 

Therefore, there are several reasons and the balance between them differed depending on  historical periods. The first is physical oppression and anti-Semitism. Secondly, it is patriotism based on the ideas of Zionism. Then the Jewish state began organizing repatriation, which became one of the priorities of the state for many years after its establishment. 

Young people gathering to celebrate Israel's Independence Day, 2007 / myjewishlearning.com

How did it happen that Hebrew, in fact, the dead language, was recreated again? How many Jews speak Hebrew now? 

S.M. - You can’t say that Hebrew is a dead language. Materials written in Hebrew were published in different parts of the world and the number of people who read them was large. Eliezer Ben- Yehuda is at the roots of its recreation and spread. It can be said that the language implementation was taking place by force. The Hebrew language was decided to become the spoken language among the Jews of Diaspora. In order to study and develop Hebrew, a special institution has been created in Israel, which today is engaged in the creation of new Hebrew words. Some of the newly created words weren’t used at all, and they disappeared from uses. 

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, “father of modern Hebrew”, a person who has been involved in the revival of Hebrew as a modern spoken language, its development and enrichment all his life / israelalbum.org

Today, the majority of the population of Israel speaks Hebrew, as the public policy obliges to study the language and conduct the entire document management in Hebrew. Some new immigrants do not speak the language, but most of them take courses in the host country.

Today, the population of Israel, which has an area of 22,072 km², is almost nine million. For comparison, in Armenia and Artsakh (total area 41 201 km²) the population is three times less. What are we doing wrong? 

S.M. - Moreover, most of the territory of Israel consists of deserts, which are less suitable for living compared to the coast. However, there are small cities and settlements there. In addition, the territory of southern Israel is massively bombed from Gaza. Despite this, the residents of border regions do not leave their homes.

At the present stage of building a policy of repatriation, driven by the idea that it is necessary for the development of the state, it will take too much time, which Armenia does not have. Therefore, in my opinion, at the first stage, it is important to minimize the level of emigration from the country by creating more favorable conditions for life and development. Based on this, it will be possible to engage in strategic repatriation.

Only when Armenia will be able to offer better conditions for life and work than the host country, can a person leave the comfort zone and repatriate. Otherwise, most Armenians who are highly qualified and of social status do not need to move anywhere unless their life or the life of their family members is under threat, as it happened with many Jews.

What ethnoreligious and ethnographic groups is the current Israeli population divided into? What is the relationship between them? 

S.M. - Today, majority of the population of Israel are local Jews (sabras) who were born in the country. However, most of the returnees come from countries of the former USSR. At different times of history, Jews arrived from Europe, the Middle East, Africa (mainly Falash, Ethiopian community) Latin America and Asia. However, we must not forget that more than 1.5 million Israeli citizens are Arabs. There are also ethno-religious minorities represented by the Druze and Circassians, who live in the north of the country, as well as Bedouins. If we talk about the relationship between them, then, as a rule, serious conflicts and discussions in society happen quite rarely. I recall an incident with an Ethiopian guy who, inadvertently, was shot dead by a police officer. As a result, the Falashas began blocking key roads in protest, paralyzing traffic for several days. Issues with the Bedouins arise at a time when municipal authorities begin to demolish illegal buildings. But the problem is that Bedouin populations living mainly in the desert are unofficial and illegal. This leads to an increase in criminality in these areas, as clashes between clans often arise. 

Falash, Ethiopian community that considers itself the descendants of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba / isralove.org

Israel as a state arose on a desert patch of land and since 1945 it has been surrounded by states wishing its destruction. How, did Israel manage to achieve advanced results in such serious areas as medicine and military affairs taking into account such conditions? 

S.M. - The answer is already in the question. Probably, because of the fact that Israel has been under permanent political, diplomatic and military pressure since its creation, there was an urgent need for the rapid development of key sectors of the economy: agriculture and high technology. The development of latter results in the development of medicine and military-industrial complex. However, it is worth noting that at the initial stage, the development of the defense industry was possible largely due to the support of the American allies. Speaking about medicine, it is worth noting separately that the presence of highly qualified personnel who migrated from the USSR, USA and European countries highly influenced this progress. In addition, as these areas were considered by the state the highest priority, their development was vital. 

Interviewer: Eleonora Sargsyan

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