In his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, anthropologist James Scott offers two rules for would-be social engineers. Prefer incremental changes to grand designs and make sure that those changes are reversible.
Those seeking to fashion a totally secular Israel on the basis of the 300,000-400,000 non-Jews from the former Soviet Union admitted under of the Law of Return in the 1990s, and tens of thousands more still expected as the Russian economy collapses, have violated both of Scott's rules. The repercussions of the open invitation to non-Jews are neither incremental nor reversible.
Such an influx of hundreds of thousands with no historical ties to the Jewish people represents, in the words of Uri Gordon, former head of the Jewish Agency Aliya Department, a form of 'national suicide.' Echoing his sentiments, Yossi Beilin wrote in Yediot Aharonot that only an amendment to the Law of Return 'can prevent the entry into Israel of criminal elements and non-Jews.'
The presence of so many non-Jews undermines the very foundation of political Zionism: the dream of a country in which Jews will at last be masters of their own fate.
That dream may already be beyond grasp. The 15 percent Arab minority wields a decisive vote in Israeli elections. For a right-wing candidate to be elected prime minister, he must win a landslide 59% of the Jewish vote. Thus an Arab minority increasingly susceptible to pan-Arab nationalist incitement, as demonstrated by the recent arson in Wadi Ara, often has the determinative voice on crucial security issues confronting Israel.
The addition of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union only exacerbates the problem. For many, Israel was only the most expedient means of egress from the Soviet Union, and the preservation of Jewish lives is not a special value for them. (Bargain basement conversions are no solution to this problem.)
As one secular teacher in Karmiel, the city with the largest concentration of non-Jewish Russians, put it recently, 'They are simply another people. I see in them a contempt for Jews and Judaism that has no parallel among Israelis.' A Meretz activist in the same city wrote in one of the regional weeklies, 'We fled from antisemites in Russia in the hopes of finally reaching a place of Jews, and we find ourselves living opposite a family of Ukrainian antisemites.'
By admitting en masse hundreds of thousands of non- Jews, we weaken our claims to the land and to the loyalty of Diaspora Jewry. The former claim has always been predicated on the historical relationship of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael. But the hundreds of thousands of Russian non-Jews admitted under the Law of Return are not returning; their ancestors neither lived here nor yearned for this land. They have far less claim to the land than Arab refugees from 1948, who can still point to their ancestral homes.
There are those who view the Russian non-Jews as a counterbalance to the huge Arab population advantage. Arguing that the only relevant distinction is between those willing to don an IDF uniform and Palestinians, they, in effect, consider the Russians mercenaries. Those holding such views would be well-advised to turn to Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for a consideration of the long-term stability of societies that rely on mercenaries for their security.
Indeed, dramatically increased population is far more likely to endanger our security than enhance it. It complicates peace negotiations and makes future war more likely. Israel is already projected to be the most densely populated country in the world by 2025. Our very limited water resources make any peace with Syrians and/or Palestinians, who would gain control of the sources of the Jordan and the West Bank aquifers, far more risky.
And thirst could well be the tinder box kindling future wars.
But the greatest danger of the mass immigration of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union is the increased potential for social conflagration. That mass immigration has played a large role in rekindled Sephardi rage. Just as descendants of those who lived in ma'abarot were poised to take an increasingly large role in running the country, they found themselves being shunted aside by newcomers from the Soviet Union.
When development town residents hear Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky proclaim that there is no place in Israel for low-tech jobs, and that such jobs should be exported to Jordan and other Arab countries, the message to them is clear: You are expendable. Your 50 years here mean nothing.
A writer in Novosti Nedeli characterized those with the most to lose from the Russian immigration as the 'rabble of Middle Eastern origin.' Such open expressions of contempt are found only in the Russian-language press. But it is not hard to convince many Sephardim that the eagerness to import non-Jewish computer technicians reflects a similar society-wide contempt.
That is one of the reasons why the electoral strength of the 'haredi" Shas continues to grow, although less than a quarter of its supporters are even Shabbat observant. Not by accident is Shas, whose voters harbor the greatest resentment for non-Jewish newcomers, the party most strongly pushing the conversion bill.
The final irony is that those who look to non-Jewish immigration as the demographic answer to the haredi menace may well be strenthening the hands of the haredi party they fear most.