‘We Know Better Than You What is Good for You’ –
Israel and Its Emigrants in the Early Years of the State
Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, masses of Jewish immigrants and refugees flooded into the country, and their absorption became a formidable challenge for the young Jewish state. But during the same years tens of thousands of Jews also left the country, some returning to their countries of origin and others heading to new destinations. Who were these people and why did they leave? How did Israeli government and society react to the troubling phenomenon of Jewish out-migration? Based on new archival material, the lecture will shed light on a little-known yet significant chapter in Israel’s history, which has not lost its relevance even today.
Dr. Ori Yehudai is currently a Schusterman-Taub Postdoctoral Fellow at the Taub Center for Israel Studies at NYU. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned societies, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Israel Institute in Washington, DC, among other sources. Ori’s dissertation on Jewish emigration from Palestine and Israel between 1945 and 1960 was commended for the Fraenkel Prize in contemporary history. He is currently writing a book based on his dissertation.
This paper focuses on the process of linguistic assimilation among post-1990 immigrants arriving in Israel under the Law of Return. We analyse levels of Hebrew proficiency among four immigrant groups (Ethiopia, Former Soviet Union [FSU], Middle Eastern and North African countries [MENA]) and countries in Europe and America [EUAM]) and by language of origin (Amharic, Russian, Spanish, English and French). The analysis is based on a data-set collected by the Central Bureau of Statistics: the post-1990 Immigrant Survey. Controlling for all relevant factors, the data reveal substantial differences across origin groups: immigrants of MENA and EUAM countries have higher probabilities of reporting the highest level of command of the language than their FSU and Ethiopian counterparts. Speakers of Spanish and French attain higher levels of Hebrew proficiency than speakers of Russian, English and Amharic. Apparently, the very existence of a large and residentially concentrated ethnic or linguistic community (as is the case for Ethiopian and FSU immigrants) becomes a potential disincentive for improving their Hebrew skills. The fact that English is a lingua franca understood and prized in Israel explains the slow process of English speakers’ language acquisition. The findings are discussed in light of existing theories of linguistic assimilation.