11 JANUARY 1992, Page 22

LETTERS No trace of roguery

Sir: Miss Applebaum appears to think that Israeli society may well be affected by an immigration conditioned by 'the vengeful, unhappy nationalism that reigns in the Soviet Union in the place where commu- nism used to be' CA mixed blessing for Israel', 21/28 December); that, moreover, this immigration, unlike the earlier, virtu- ous one, contains or is affected by a 'Soviet Jewish underground that reaches from Moscow through Odessa to Jerusalem'. In short, that there is an influx of a mass of corrupt, unscrupulous black-marketeers and worse who, apart from their nefariously underground activities, are prepared to 'work for less money than the Arabs', and since for them 'no job is too dirty', this itself will cause mass unemployment among the Arabs, and so make them emigrate. She appears to have derived her impressions mainly from someone she calls Ilyusha, a Jew from Lvov with 'one Polish grandmoth- er, one Russian grandmother, one Tartar grandfather and one Jewish grandfather'. Her account of this figure, whether real or touched up, reminds me of nothing so much as that of Benya 1Crik, the enticing, lively cheat and thief who is the hero, or anti-hero, of some of the most famous of Isaac Babel's stories of the Twenties, so greatly admired by critics in the West. The relationship of such rogues with the solid, bourgeois Jewish Odessa population was very distant, and I think that that of Miss Applebaum's Soviet crooks, who among a vast immigration may well exist, may be equally remote.

I have just come back from a visit to Israel, in the course of which I met a good many Russian immigrants of very varied backgrounds and types, and I can only say thW those I met — and I see no reason for believing that they were not typical of the others — were utterly decent, well-educat- ed, morally sympathetic people, who reminded me of the old pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia, with no trace of the kind of unscrupulous wheeler-dealing which Miss Applebaum appears to suggest. Most of these people certainly know little of, nor were ever interested in, Zionism per se. Their motive for coming was in large part economic deprivation, but mainly the virulent anti-Semitism, which few foreign observers at present deny — not at all the kind of minor insults to which Miss Apple- baum's acquaintance, Ilyusha, apparently sought to reduce it. Most native Israelis I talked to spoke in glowing terms of the Russian immigrants as exceptionally able, high-minded, civilised people, mostly pro- fessionals — doctors, musicians, scientists of various kinds — whose main desire was not merely to make a living, but to live among what they recognise as their own

people, where the anti-Semitism, of which they all spoke to me very bitterly, naturally does not exist. In fact, they felt, and wished to feel, that they had in some sense come home. How long this will last is another question, but not at all for the reasons given by Miss Applebaum. As for their ten- dency to be right-wing, that is no doubt cor- rect, and comes from a natural reaction to words like 'socialism', let alone 'commu- nism', or 'labour movements', which to them have the connotation of appalling Soviet oppression and persecution and murderous injustice and cruelty. This may, in the course of time, in the face of the very moderate Israel Labour Party, not unlike that of this country, pass away.

Naturally, one's impression of people is based on one's own experience. I can only declare that the people I met were very remote from being influenced by Miss Applebaum's operators. Everything is pos- sible, but Miss Applebaum's generalisa- tions, apparently based on the stories told her by the rogue she cited, seem to me to have little foundation. Finally let me add that her criteria, both for what is a Jew according to Israeli criteria and those of Hitler, are, so far as I know, inaccurate — if they come from her informant Ilyusha, they only indicate the extent of his reliability as a social observer.

Isaiah Berlin

Headington House, Old High Street, Headington, Oxford