Interview with YAKOV FAITELSON
"... and a time to gather stones together;"
by Ilana Romanovsky
A Zionist activist, the first "Russian" mayor in Israel, a politician and a demographer, now Head of Jewish Agency in Ukraine, Yakov Faitelson is speaking about himself, his country and his epoch.
Michael Gold - Yakov, how could you, a Soviet schoolchild who lived under the conditions of total ideological control and went through all the stages of Soviet indoctrination - an "October child" in elementary school, a "young Pioneer" in junior high and later a Komsomol member - become a "renegade" and a Zionist activist? You graduated from the Kaunas Polytechnic in 1969, with a popular in those days specialty - computer engineering - and right away you became a member of the underground Zionist organization "Irgun". What was it - the romanticism of the young, a spontaneous action or the much-talked-about reaction of a part of Soviet Jewry to Israel's victory in the Six-Day War?
Yakov Faitelson - I became a "renegade" mostly because of the Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia, the 16 volumes of which I had the pleasure to read, starting from the age of 13 and which I had read from the first page to the last. When I finished school in 1964, my friends and I even tried to organize our own Zionist group. We regularly listened to "The Voice of Israel" and other foreign stations - all these things formed certain views. In 1968, while working at my Master's paper at a Vilnius Computer Design Office, I met Lyonya Latsman, and at the Hanukah of 1969 five people were officially admitted into the "Irgun". The character of my work (working out state standards for computers) allowed me to use both the [Lithuanian] Republican library and the Library of the Academy of Sciences, and there I read Zhabotinsky (whom the librarians mixed up with his namesake, the famous weight lifter), and Pinsker and many other rare books from the limited access sections. I also wrote on burning issues of the day by myself - typed, to be more accurate - hiding in the wardrobe to keep it secret from my parents. These materials were sent to Leningrad where they were duplicated on a copying machine that had been stolen in Kishinev and were later passed from hand to hand. It should be noted that Lithuanians felt some sympathy towards our activities - one of them even said to me when I was leaving: "You taught us how to fight the Soviet power with peaceful methods". But I would like to emphasize that unlike the dissidents who strove to change the social structure of the USSR, we insisted solely on obtaining permissions to leave the country.
M.G. - Jewish biographies are sometimes more exciting that adventure novels, but your parents' stories stand out even against this background. It must have been their influence that predetermined the choice of your own way - the way of maximal resistance...
Y.F. - My parents were members of the Kaunas ghetto Antifascist Militant Organization (AKO) and later they became partisans. My father organized the escape of 64 prisoners from the Fort of Death. [The Ninth Fort, or Fort of Death, is a part of a XIX century fortress in Kaunas that was later used as the city prison. Lithuania belonged to the Russian Empire at that time; independency was declared in 1918. When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1940, the Fort served as a prison for political prisoners. Under the Nazis the Fort became a concentration camp and a place of mass murder for Jews. Today the Ninth Fort is a Holocaust museum. - Translator's note.] That is why for us the memory of the Holocaust was not only the tribute for the fallen - and in my mother's and my father's families about 100 people were killed - but first and foremost, it was the memory of the resistance. I remember a large group of veteran partisans meeting at our place and my mother serving them cholnt... In 1959 my father succeeded in establishing a museum on the Ninth Fort site. The opening of the museum was filmed, and the film survived. Several people spoke at the opening ceremony and one of them was my father, who spoke Yiddish - it was a matter of principle for him. This documentary in Lithuanian was run before full length movies, and to this day I remember: I am 13, I am sitting in a movie theatre and hearing the reaction of young guys who see the bones of Jewish victims and whisper - such a lot of food for dogs. So Zionist feelings were natural for me. As to my parents' influence, the most important lesson I received from my father was this: no-win situations do not exist, so keep it up. That's how he, a twenty-year old lad, managed to lead out of the concentration camp 63 men, most of whom were much older than himself. Many prisoners could not understand why people called this lad "old man". One of them asked him, and the answer was: "Why, it's my name - Alter." ("Alter" means "old man" in Yiddish). But maybe it was not just the name...
M.G. - He certainly was a well-known and highly respected man in the postwar Lithuania.
Y.F. - My father was often invited to speak at meetings with various delegations; the Baltic Navy welcomed him at their bases and treated him almost as a national hero, but there was always some inner conflict around that famous escape story - on the one hand, it was a heroic deed that could not be neglected, but on the other hand - nobody was decorated for it. It was a purely Jewish story, too clearly Jewish. At one time, the Lithuanians tried to attribute the role of the leader to Jonas Pelvinskas - a prisoner who bore a Lithuanian name because he was a converted Jew, but whose part in the flight was only in participating in it. There was another man whom they tried to present as the organizer - a Red Army captain Nikolai Vasilenko, whose real name was Israel Vasilnitsky.
Anyway, my father was at the head of the organizational committee, he was the only person who could maintain all the contacts, and he had an extraordinary memory. He was very meticulous regarding information and believed that the abundance of doctorates by Holocaust deniers was a result not only of Antisemitism, but also of contradicting facts and made-up stories told by Holocaust survivors. That is why he based his own books only on proven facts that had been double-checked and backed up by documentation. Which sometimes led to breaking up with friends who thought such punctiliousness unnecessary. In Israel it did not suit everyone, either. My father emphasized the fact that of all the organizations that comprised the Antifascist Militant Organization, "the Beitar" [the Beitar movement is a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in Riga in 1923 by Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jaboinsky. During WWII, Beitar militias played major roles in resisting Nazi forces' assaults on Jewish communities .- Translator's note] showed itself in the best way, which cannot be said about Zionists-Socialists, for example. But the leading part in the resistance movement was played by the Jewish Communists. It was not to everyone's liking, so that the interests of the official USSR and Israel coincided in this particular case - on the one hand, the Soviets did not want a Jew to be at the head of the escape, and Nikolai Vasilenko (whose real name was known to few) would be an ideal candidate for the role of the leader, and on the other hand - it suited some people in Israel. Nevertheless, all the escape participants, both in Israel and in the USSR, emphasized that the leader of the flight was my father.
M.G. - In 1971 you, with a group of "comrades-in-arms", arranged a three-day hunger strike in the Moscow telegraph building. Shortly after that, with a group of 11 Lithuanian Jews who were struggling for the right to go to Israel, you held a picket with Stars of David on your breasts in front of the hotel "Rossiya", where at that time an international cinema festival was taking place. What were you counting on? Were you ready to be jailed or, on the contrary, you believed that there was already a crack in the system and just a little pressure was needed to open the way to freedom for yourselves and for others?
Y.F. - The first mass action of the Zionist movement took place during a CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) congress in the February of 1971. In the same year, the first hunger strike was held in the building of Moscow Central Telegraph. As a result, in order to alleviate the emerging tension in the relationships with "fraternal" communist parties of the western countries and the West as a whole, the Soviets decided "to let out the steam". This is how my parents and my sister managed to leave for Israel, but after the Soviets had let out the first wave (about 11 thousand people), they thought better of it and tried to backtrack. By the end of March the gap in the Iron Curtain that seemed to have half opened, was shutting down again.
Then we assembled a group of 27 residents of Vilnius and Kaunas, went to Moscow and started beating down the doors of the reception rooms - the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Supreme Soviet Presidium, the CPSU Central Committee, etc. All that was in vain - we were in a categorical manner notified that we would never get the right to leave for Israel, even within the framework of uniting separated families. That is why it was decided to declare a hunger strike at the Moscow telegraph that worked 24 hours every day. No one knew what that would come to. Together with five people from Riga who joined us, we entered the telegraph building about midday, and in a couple of hours first foreign reporters arrived at that place. At about ten at night, the authorities got worried and sent a police detachment headed by a lieutenant. They had no right to drive us out, but at half past ten a group of sturdy guys started to scrub floors with great energy, and they demanded of the people not to hinder them in their work. Then I asked everybody to stand in a line in the adjacent room, the room for long distance calls, and order calls to subscribers that for sure could not be reached - to a work place where no one was in at that hour or to friends that had left, etc. Playing this game cost 15 kopek for a three-minute call, and after that Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote how we had cheated the KGB for 15 kopek. We would place a call, and when it was not answered, we asked to repeat the call in another half an hour- and then the same game went all over again. All that time our lieutenant was running to the Staff Head and back, but she said that she could do nothing because "they have paid for the calls". He was afraid to call his bosses at that hour - so we won the first night. Next morning the story received coverage in the West, and on the second day the KGB general Leontyi Kuzmich (we called him "Soviet Eichmann") came and started talks with me, because it was I who sent telegrams to Brezhnev [General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee - Translator's note], Podgorny [Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR Presidium - Translator's note] and Kosygin [Chairman of the Soviet Government - Translator's note] about our starting a hunger strike of protest. He began threatening and coaxing and I answered him that it was just a question of uniting families, we had no complaints about the Soviet regime, we were not going to fight against it. More than that, if we received normal human treatment, we would remember all the good things that happened to us in the USSR. This cat-and-mouse game lasted for 68 hours. On the third day there were demonstrations of support all over the world, and our families - in Vilnius, Riga, Tbilisi and other cities - also declared hunger strikes of protest. The tension grew - Black Marias and ambulances were driven to the telegraph - and then we received a message from Israel that we had done our bit, and it was time to stop the hunger strike and take care of ourselves. During that "dieting" period I lost seven kilos.
In October 1971 we carried out the largest action, which was timed to Brezhnev's visit to France. The idea was to assemble all the Aliya activists in Moscow at ten in the morning [on a certain date], and every one of them would have a letter signed by dozens of Jews with a request to re-consider the question of allowing them to leave the country. The KGB knew about it and took strong measures - they even stopped high officials on Moscow-bound flights if they found any Jewish traits in their faces. Jews and people who looked like Jews were not let into Moscow on that October day. Nevertheless, at ten o'clock all the 92 were where they were supposed to be: at the Supreme Soviet Presidium reception building. Each of us handed his or her letter to the official at the counter, and at the exit, buses were already waiting for us - all the 92, including 24 young women, were with due respect taken to a detention center.
Everything was fairly civilized, each interrogation lasted no more than fifteen minutes. When they kept one of our friends, Lyonya Shcherbakov, for a long time, we started expressing indignation and banging on the iron door with our feet. The iron door opened, Lyonya entered the cell and after him leapt out a red-faced major who looked like he was going to get a heart attack and yelled into my face: "What do you think, only you are strong? The USSR is also strong!" Only later did I realize what had really happened. They could have easily smashed us, and they said that they were also strong...
They kept us for about 24 hours in the detention center, and after that they let the Muscovites go home, but took everyone else to the railway station which was already cordoned off by the Home Office troops. Naturally, a huge mob of idlers gathered around, and we shouted from the windows "pharaoh, let my people go!" while the soldiers, with whom the train was stuffed, tried to close those windows - in short, the authorities could not have put themselves in a more ludicrous situation.
When we were already nearing Minsk - our guys and the soldiers were already sleeping and I was standing near the window when suddenly, while passing under a bridge, I saw a homemade Israeli flag that somebody had hung down from it. I realized that we had broken the Soviet power down. They could do nothing with us and probably, the Central Committee decided - to hell with them, let them beat it to their Israel.
Many years later, when I was already working at the Joint Distribution Committee's Representation in Minsk, a man came up to me at a reception of an American delegation and said: when you were holding a hunger strike at the Central Telegraph, I put on a red bracelet with the name Faitelson and prayed for you.
M.G. - How did Israel greet you? Did you feel the effect of frustrated expectations? Or a feeling of emptiness after reaching the goal which you had tried to achieve for a long time? Did you find your feet in this new country soon after coming here?
Y.F. - My first impression on January 7, 1972 was the scent of oranges and I remember it to this day. When I saw children who were singing in Hebrew on their way home from kindergarten I finally realized - I am in Israel. At home. And virtually a day or two after that - a complete emptiness.
However, it went away soon. We - the former Aliya activists - got electrified with the idea of "our own" town. Who gave us this idea? Moshe Dayan. I once met him in a corridor in the Ministry of Defense building - a smallish skinny man, but one of those who make you stand up against your will when they enter the room.
German Jews in the 1930s founded Nahariya in the North, now we - immigrants from the USSR - would found a town and a port like that in the South. Five buses took us (we were 250 people) to El-Arish [a town in Sinai, under Israeli control at that time. - Translator's note], where its mayor orated about the Russian Aliya that would build there a port which would rival the port of Haifa, blah blah blah. Our first question was - when would we start work? The mayor immediately gave a typical Israeli answer: tomorrow morning. This tomorrow dragged on for two years because, as it became clear later, Golda Meir did not exactly share Moshe Dayan's ideas, while he did not really insist on their implementation. As a result, out of the original 250 only eleven were left, and they built a settlement which later became the town of Yamit. The rest of these 250 dispersed in all directions. Four months after coming to Israel I found a job in Haifa, in the Elscint company - my knowledge of Hebrew helped me. I made swift professional progress there - I was soon promoted to Head of a work group. Elscint was thought to be an advanced company in the field of designing electronic equipment for medical purposes and it became the first Israeli firm whose shares were listed at NASDAQ stock exchange.
M.G. - Yakov, you are one of the few "Russians" who came into Israeli politics in the 1970s. You started in "Shlomtsion" - Ariel Sharon's brainchild - a right-wing party with elements of leftist ideology (Sharon neither ruled out negotiations with PLO nor strove to retain Israeli control over the whole of Judea and Samaria territory).
Y.F. - At the fateful elections of 1977, the prognosis was that Sharon would have fifteen mandates, and my place in the candidates' list was number ten or eleven. We won only two mandates, but because I was one of the leaders of the elections campaign in the North, I gained some experience in political activity. The campaign surprised Sharon - he did not show much flair at appearing in public at that time, but I managed to arrange a real pandemonium in the center of Haifa when I scheduled a meeting with his participation at five in the afternoon, when everyone was going back from work. We brought a truck on which he climbed for his speech, and soon a crowd gathered around it because those who had meant to come were joined by people who were just unable to get through the jam. "Shlomtsion" made a good impression in the North and Arik wanted me to go on with my work, but soon after that there were elections to the Histadrut [Israeli national trade union. - Translator's note], and after that I decided to quit. Nevertheless, we remained on friendly terms and Sharon even included me into the Likud's Central Committee (by that time "Shlomtsion" had merged with the Likud).
M.G. - How did "the early" Sharon impress you? Was he a man of rigid ideology or, on the contrary, a pragmatic, whose flexibility enabled the delimitation policy of the mid 2000s?
Y.F. - Sharon is an incredibly interesting man. Together with him I visited settlements that had been founded in the middle of 1970-s at the initiative of... who do you think? Shimon Peres, who was the defense minister and supported the "Gush Emunim" settlement movement. And with his typical assurance he declared that the hills of Judea and Samaria were more important than the Golan Heights because from the Golan Heights you could only see Galilee, while from Samaria you could see Tel Aviv. During that tour Sharon said very important words which I often recall: "Yakov, what we can do today will be hard to do tomorrow and impossible on the day after tomorrow".
M.G. - In 1978 your family was one of the three that settled on Jabel Mat ("Dead Mountain" in Arabic), where soon after that the town of Ariel was founded. In 1981 you left a well-paid job at the "Tadiran" concern in order to head the Ariel municipality and be the first new immigrant to become a mayor of an Israeli town. What was it for you - the realization of neo-Zionism ideals? A possibility to prove that building settlements in the land of Israel was not only the right thing to do but also an economically profitable thing?
Y.F. - I have come to this country to build something, not to become just another consumer in a fine apartment with all possible amenities on Mount Carmel in Haifa. That's why we started to build on Jabel Mat. It was a dead mountain indeed -only bare rocks. Suffice it to say that during the first year not only birds but even flies didn't fly over our place. For a year I kept bringing soil for planting from kibbutz Einav in my car boot. My three kids slept head-to-toe in a tiny modular building.
Our few neighbors knew by hearsay about my ties with Sharon, who at that time was Minister of Agriculture, and helped to the settlement movement. In a couple of months I was elected to the village council and at once we started negotiations about permanent construction with the Ministry. In the end, I wrenched out a hundred plots, after which the head engineer of the Ministry of Construction made a bet with me that he would give me a bottle of brandy if houses were built in three of these plots. To this day he still owes me that bottle because practically within a few months foundations were laid for nearly all of those hundred houses. And very soon (by that time I was already mayor) another 170 families made their first payment towards their new home, the sum required by the construction company which agreed to build in Ariel. Even Tel Aviv did not have a general construction plan, while for us it was what we started from. It was supposed to be a town with a territory of 30 square kilometers and a population of 160,000 residents. The design was fully completed, up to the Barkan industrial zone with eco-friendly enterprises that are still working, and a campus with university buildings that was founded in 1984.
M.G. - Even though, you were not re-elected...
Y.F. - In the discussions of Ariel's future the chief argument of my opponents was - Faitelson wants to build a big city while we do not need this, we want to live in a cozy little settlement. This is what eventually happened, by the way. Another scare story was - if Faitelson builds this town, it would be inhabited by "Russians". "Russians" did settle there anyway, but at that time it was a serious argument against this town... Besides, I was running as head of an independent list, while my opponents were the joint block of the "Likud" and the "Maarach" ("Alignment"- the Labor party now).
M.G. - How do you see the future of Ariel, a town that cuts 20 km into the PA territory and that will be very difficult to include into the sovereign Israeli territory when signing a peace treaty?
Y.F. - There is a consensus on this issue - Ariel with the surrounding settlements will remain Israeli territory under any peace treaty. This is the center of the country, you can see the Mediterranean Sea from your balcony.
M.G. - In the Middle East politics is closely intertwined with demography. It is not by chance that you have seriously taken up demographic studies, is it?
Y.F. - I was spurred on by Arnon Sofer's prognosis - one of the prophets of a demographic catastrophe. The title of his 1987 "Yediot Achronot" article declared: "In 2000 Israel is a non-Jewish state". It reminded me at once that when Herzl arrived at the political stage, the great Jewish historian Shimon Dubnov called Zionism Messianic fantasies that drew young Jews away from the reality of cultural autonomy. In Dubnov's opinion, the Zionists' greatest achievement would at best be that "... by the start of the XXI century there will be half a million of our brethren in our ancient land".
At that time, the Jewish population of Eretz Israel [Land of Israel -Translator's note] comprised 5% of its total population, but that did not scare the Zionists away. By 1972 Jews already made 65 % of Israel's population. Nevertheless, Sofer was undoubtedly right when he maintained that Arabs had higher birth rate than Jews did. That was true. Once upon a time. In 1987 I presented to Prime Minister Shamir my own analysis where I pointed out that the Jewish birth rate had stabilized while that of the Arabs was entering a stage of a steep fall. On top of all that, Sofer claimed that there was no and would be no Aliya, and that Soviet Jews would not go to Israel, even if allowed to leave their country.
Today, if we analyze any sources - Palestinian, American, of the World Bank - we will see that the last 25 years show a sharp fall in the Arabs' birth rate. Only during the period of 2000-2012, the total fertility rate (TFR), that is, the average number of children a woman has over her lifetime, has dropped by 24.5% among Israeli Arab women, by 30 % among Arab women in Judea and Samaria and by 21.5 % with those in Gaza strip. At the same time, with Jewish women, this parameter has risen and makes 2.98 children per woman - exactly like among Arab women in Judea and Samaria.
Concurrently, mass Arab emigration is going on. During the period of 2007-09, 50,000 people per year - young people mostly - were leaving Palestinian Autonomy. They emigrate to Scandinavian countries, Canada, the countries of South America - for example, to Chile, where the Palestinian community, a relatively affluent and the largest one outside the Arab world, makes about half a million people.
M.G. - And how would you comment on Jewish birth rate data according to society sectors? While in the "haredim" [ultra-religious Jews. - Translator's note] families it is 6.5 children per woman, in secular families it is only 2.1, which means that children from NON-ZIONIST families - Arabs and "haredim" - in 2040 will comprise 78% of all the children under thirteen. If we add that these groups of Israeli population are the least productive, the least educated and bear no social obligations, the situation does not look very optimistic.
Y.F. - This is a relatively new refrain to the old song - in the past the biggest scare was the Arab womb, but about a year and a half ago "Maariv" published a long article, where my analysis was cited, and the article was titled "The Arab Womb Has Lost".
As to the "haredim", first of all, it should be taken into consideration that they make only 8% of the population and that fertility rate in this sector has also dropped (from 7.1 to 6.5 children per woman), and it did not happen out of the blue sky, but because the benefits for children were cut down in 2003. Before the allowances for the birth of children had been raised, that is about thirty years ago, an average "haredi" family had five children, and that is where they are coming back today. When a child from an item of a family's income turns into an item of expense, it has an impact on the birth rate in all the sectors - the Bedouin (this parameter has dropped from 10 to 5.6 children per woman among them) and the "haredim" alike.
With secular Jews we see a reverse process - the fertility rate has grown to three children per woman. This process also includes the repatriates, who have adopted from "Sabras" what is called "demographic optimism" - and we see more and more families with three children. In the "Sabra" families, (which comprise 70% of total Jewish population) the TFR has reached 3.1 children per woman.
By the way, even Sofer has now stopped speaking about the dangerous for Israel situation, because, in his opinion, the Zionist majority has already been formed in the country. And into this majority he includes even those whom not long ago he called Russian "goyim" and Moldavian prostitutes. This is why today the question under consideration is whether Israel can exist with a large ethnic minority. In the last years, when the Arab danger has decreased, the "haredim" have been listed as a non-Zionist minority. An interesting union ...
M.G. - But they do have a lot in common - neither haredim nor Arabs serve in the Army, both sectors are insufficiently presented in the labor force, their educational level is lower than in other sectors of society, etc.
Y.F. - These generalizations are often poorly founded. For example, the school with the best in Israel scores in mathematics is an Orthodox one. As to the Arab sector, the median level of education among Muslim women is twelve years - the same as among Israeli Jewish women. More than that, when in the 1960s 98% Arab women were illiterate, their TFR was nearing ten children per woman, while now, when there practically are no illiterate women, the TFR among Arab women in Judea and Samaria is lower than among the native Israeli (Sabra) women - 2.98 against 3.1.
With the haredim things are not so simple, either. How many people know that Rabbi Ovadia Josef's daughter has founded a real university? Besides, the religious establishment is now facing a global problem which they are unable to overcome - dozens of thousands of young Orthodox men do not learn in the Yeshivas but work off the books instead, so that the rabbis lose their influence on them. The population has grown and they have to sustain their offspring somehow. Read interviews with the young Orthodox who wave their arms and shout: no, no, we don't want five of six kids - we want our two children to grow up in normal conditions and get proper education.
For reasons unknown, everyone here has forgotten that the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of the most ardent fighters against religious domination were Orthodox themselves. Life has its own self-regulation laws...
M.G. - So why do so few haredim join the labor force?
Y.F. - Why do only 21% haredim work in Jerusalem when in London the number is 62%? The answer is very simple. In Jerusalem, if you work you do not get welfare money, while in London it is vice versa - you have to work if you want to get a social security allowance for your children. Many repatriates from the USA are Orthodox who wear black kipas (yarmulkes), and mind you - all of them do work - as lawyers, doctors, etc. And their influence in the religious circles is gradually growing.
As to the Army conscription, there is a revolution in this field, too, but this is a time-consuming process. These days the conscription of 3,000 people is underway - this is nearly half of all potential haredi draftees. This only happened in my younger days, when I served in the Army with haredim - men with huge beards, fathers of young kids - it was normal then. From time immemorial only "talmidei-hachamim" [literally: pupils of the wise, that is, of the rabbis - Translator's note] were exempt from certain duties for the state, while the rest of them married at 21 and worked for their living. In Israel, this tradition is being violated for the last quarter of a century. But gradually everything is returning on its course.
Besides, the young Orthodox men who want to serve in the army and start work after that are sometimes rejected so aggressively by their environment that these young people leave the community. It is impossible to ignore the natural processes - all the attempts to forbid mobile phones, the Internet and so on have failed. Why are they so much afraid of the total draft? Not only because of the sergeant girls, but actually because this is a pass into the big world where, as it turns out, one can wear a kipa and serve in the army.
M.G. - The "big Aliya" brought to Israel hundreds of thousands of non-Jews - members of Jewish families, whose ID states "ethnicity not registered". Israelis are a small nation that lives, to put it mildly, in an unfriendly environment. Taking into consideration the demographical situation, it may be helpful to introduce a simplified conversion procedure (as it was de facto done in the 1950s), since many repatriates or their children see Hebrew as their second or even dominant language, serve in the army, pay taxes, etc. To what extent can this be practicable, taking into consideration that the Rabbinate is in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis?
Y.F. - There are certain circles with very rigid convictions, some of which are not really based on ancient traditions, for the problem of conversion was actually solved lots easier in those times. But even in this field there also are certain shifts. For example, a group of converted Peruvian Indians live in Elon More. On Palma-de-Majorca fifteen thousand descendants of Marranos were discovered, and for these people courses for learning the Jewish tradition have already been opened. In Portugal they found a town populated predominately by Marranos. Working with these people is the right thing to do. But when people, who are for more than one reason close to you and who have actually done what Ruth the Moabite did, live near you - a little good will would be expected. The problems are being solved, but VERY gradually.
M.G. - For decades, absorption of new immigrants was the leading ideological trend of Israel - by dissolving everything in "the melting pot", rather than creating a multicolored mosaic out of multiple unique elements. Has this approach justified itself?
Y.F. - There is a time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. Maybe when the goal was to shape a certain core of the society, the melting pot was a necessary stage. Today it is no longer relevant. The time for sectoral parties is passing. Why should people need them when they are not badly settled even without such parties, and would vote for a candidate because he or she is smart and not because they come from Berdichev? For the Aliya of the 1970s it was lots more difficult to smash the glass ceiling, and I was one of those who broke their heads against it. In 1984, when I was asked to stand for membership in the Knesset for the "Likud", Chairman Yoram Aridor insisted that I go as a representative of immigrants from the USSR. I got indignant and put forward my candidacy as the mayor of Ariel - from the settlement movement. Now I think that he might have been right.
M.G. - Looking at Israel from the height of the years you have lived here, could you point out three main problems that the country is facing?
Y.F. - The chief problem remains security. We sometimes forget what a large piece of the national cake is eaten up by the expenses for the security. Security in Israel differs from that in any other country because here it is the question of survival and not just defending the country's borders.
Next comes the economy, its growth, to be more accurate. Even in Israel itself, it is not always clear to everyone that we are approaching a fundamental change, ruining the popular joke about Moses who for forty years was looking for a place where there was neither gas nor oil. Both have been recently found. I am not a religious man, but I tend to think that there is the right time for everything, and it is not by chance that it happened today and not at the time when the destitute Israel would be tempted to get "hooked" on gas. Yes, budget deficiency may follow. But in that case, it will be a result of tremendous investments into developing gas deposits. In three months the "Tamar" gas deposit will start to produce gas, in about a year's time we will feel it when the electricity costs will go down, and the full effect will show itself in about four years, when the "Leviathan" starts to produce gas as well. In the meantime, we can dispute if we should leave in stores a supply for thirty or for fifty years. According to the preliminary estimates, today Israel is able to satisfy the demands for natural gas of the whole world for three years. This means that we have unexpectedly stumbled across a resource of which we could not even dream.
The last but not least - integration or absorption? How to weave a rich rug from different balls of thread? We are a young country whose citizens remind me bus passengers who have already taken their seats and are now pushing the driver - get moving, hurry up! They pay no heed to the people who have not got on the bus yet. They are inside, and that's it. This also passes with time. Children are not asked where their parents came from.
The word "absorption" means sucking up. But people do not want their past, language and culture to be "sucked up". Integration is something entirely different. Contrary to absorption, integration will enhance a balanced society that has room for different sectors. Live and let live. And do not welcome every next Aliya wave with daggers drawn...
A talk with Michael Gold.
The interview was published in the newspaper "Hadashot ("News"), #3 (191) March 2013, (Nisan 5773), http://www.hadashot.kiev.ua/content/vremya-sobirat-kamni and republished here courtesy Yakov Faitelson and the editorial board of the newspaper "Hadashot".