Following the Six-Day War, many Soviet Jews began applying for exit visas and demonstrating for their right to leave. This was accompanied by a worldwide campaign calling on the Soviet government to allow Jews to emigrate.
Individual citizens of the Soviet Union who wanted to emigrate had to obtain exit visas. Many who sought exit visas were denied. Those who tried to escape the USSR and did not succeed were branded traitors, fired from their jobs, and became targets of public hatred. Those who received exit visas lost their Soviet citizenship and had to pay an exit tax. Under the Communist regime, real estate assets such as apartments usually belonged to the state, and emigrants had to cede those assets in the majority of cases. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the establishment of capitalism in Russia and other former Soviet republics, those laws were canceled. Emigrants who left Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union were able to keep their citizenship and assets.
In response to growing international pressure, the Soviets began allowing Jews to emigrate in limited numbers annually starting in 1968, officially for "family reunification". Initially, most went to Israel, but after 1976, the majority began immigrating to the United States, which had a policy of treating Soviet Jews as refugees under the Jackson-Vanik amendment. In total, some 291,000 Soviet Jews were granted exit visas between 1970 and 1988, of whom 165,000 immigrated to Israel and 126,000 to the United States.
In 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to lift restrictions on emigration. That same year, 71,000 Soviet Jews emigrated, of whom only 12,117 immigrated to Israel. In Vienna, a major transit point for immigration to Israel, some 83% chose to go to the United States. However, in October 1989, the US government stopped treating Soviet Jews as refugees, as another country, Israel, was willing to accept them unconditionally. In 1990, 183,400 Soviet immigrants arrived in Israel (out of 228,400 Jews who left the Soviet Union that year). Approximately 148,000 more arrived in 1991. Between 1992 and 1995, immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union averaged around 70,000 per year. After that, the immigration wave began rapidly declining, although a spike occurred in 1999, and this decline continued into the 2000s.
As the wave of emigration began, Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate left the Soviet Union for various European countries and began gathering at transit points, from where they were flown to Israel, and the Israeli government ordered the national airline El Al to put every available plane at the disposal of the immigrants. Some Soviet immigrants also came by sea on chartered ships.
Direct flights from the Soviet Union to Israel carrying immigrants took place in January and February 1990. The first direct flight, which carried 125 immigrants, departed Moscow on January 1, 1990. On February 22, 1990, the Soviet government suspended the direct flights. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had ordered the direct flights stopped following a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the Jerusalem neighborhood and settlement of Neve Yaakov, a predominantly Russian immigrant neighborhood over the Green Line, hinting that Soviet immigrants would be housed in Israeli settlements. Direct flights were resumed in August 1991. In December 1991, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. Eventually, every city in the former Soviet Union with a large Jewish population became a staging point for direct flights.
In the aftermath of breakup of the Soviet Union, a series of wars erupted in areas of the former Soviet Union, and Jewish refugees from these war-torn areas were evacuated to Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency. During the War in Abkhazia, all Jews who wished to flee Abkhazia were evacuated and resettled in Israel. Jews from Chechnya fleeing the First Chechen War were evacuated to Israel in a rescue operation conducted by the Israeli government and Jewish Agency lasting several months. During the War of Transnistria in Moldova, Jews fleeing the war area went to cities such as Chișinău and Odessa, from where they were flown to Israel.
The abruptness and extensiveness of this immigration wave brought about an immediate severe shortage of housing in Israel, in the Gush Dan area in particular, and a corresponding drastic rise in the prices of residential apartments. As a result, Ariel Sharon, then Israel's Minister for Housing Construction, initiated several programs to encourage the construction of new residential buildings, which partly included the concession of different planning procedures. When those resources were inadequate to the growing immigration wave, and many immigrants remained lacking a roof, within two years about 430 caravan sites were set up across Israel, comprising 27,000 caravans. The largest caravan site was founded in Beersheba, consisting of 2,308 housing units.
After that period, the immigrants dissipated throughout Israel. But this immigration wave exhibited a phenomenon common to previous Israeli immigration waves: the efforts of the state to transfer the immigrants to the periphery primarily affected immigrants of lower socio-economic status, while those from higher socio-economic levels, who had the resources to resist these efforts, moved to residential areas of their own choice instead, mostly in Gush Dan. (Additional cities to which many of the immigrants moved (willingly and unwillingly) were Haifa and the Krayot urban area, Petah Tikva, Ariel and Ashdod.) Thus the immigration wave had a clear ethnic aspect: while the majority of the immigrants originating from the European areas of the Commonwealth of Independent States moved to the center of Israel, most of the immigrants who moved to the periphery were from the Central Asian Republics and the Caucasus.
The absorption laws changed with time. The basic government grants given to each immigrant changed rapidly from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. Most of the immigrants initially located on the periphery and later dispersed to the "Russian" neighborhoods. There were cities, mainly in the medium and lower socio-economic levels, in which immigrants constituted over 50% of all the residents.
Many of the immigrants integrated into the Israeli labor market, but the majority remained confined in their own communities. The closed nature of this immigration wave may have been due to its large size, which resulted in neighborhoods of sometimes tens of thousands of people. Also, many immigrants failed to adapt to the receiving society and the society's expectancy that they change to facilitate their social absorption.
Many of the new immigrants found that their former education was not recognized by many Israeli employers, though it was recognized by institutions of higher education. Many had to work in jobs which did not match their expertise, in contrast with Soviets who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.
Some of the immigrants chose to stick to the strategy of dissimilation, keeping the originating culture and rejecting the absorbing culture. Other groups of immigrants (the political leadership and younger people) chose to stick with the strategy of intertwining, involving themselves in the surrounding culture while conserving their original culture. These strategic choices were different from those of the previous immigration waves, which commonly chose either to assimilate, rejecting the originating culture and welcoming the absorbing culture, or to intertwine. The immigrants' Israeli-born children, however, have completely assimilated into Israeli society.
The demand to gain political power which would comply with their unique needs caused a growth of "Russian parties" - in which the party "Yisrael BaAliyah" gained most popularity in the leadership of Natan Sharansky. The party gained a great success in the elections of 1996 and received 7 mandates. In the elections of 1999 its power descended by one mandate whereas in the elections of 2003 it only gained two mandates and was integrated into the Likud party. Many see the fall of the party of the immigrants as a positive sign to the intertwining in the Israeli society and to the fact that they do not need their own party anymore. The founder and leader of the "Yisrael BaAliyah" party, Natan Sharansky, said after the elections that the reason for the fall of his party was actually in its success to obtain its objectives of intertwining the immigrants in the Israeli society.
In 1999, the politician Avigdor Lieberman (who made Aliyah in the 1970s) established the party "Yisrael Beiteinu" (Israel is our home), as a competitor of "Yisrael BaAliyah". Yisrael Beiteinu focused on the national issues and took a hard line towards Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Arabs based upon the view that they do not support the right of Jews to maintain a Jewish state in the Middle East. This party gained a relative success in the elections of 1999, in which they won four mandates and later united with the right wing party "The National Union" which gained 7 mandates in the 15th Knesset and in the 16th Knesset.
During the 1990s the voting of the immigrants in the elections was confronted, in that it was always against the present authority. In reality, the immigrants had a considerable part in the falls of the governments of Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. With the start of the Second Intifada, a big part of the soviet immigrants tended towards the right-wing of the political spectrum in their opinions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict and held hawkish positions in the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Counter-terrorism. Although most of the Soviet immigrants supported the liberal polices in the subjects of religion and state, because this immigration wave was secular in its majority, they avoided support for the Israeli left-wing parties which consisted of similar positions, as a result of their compromising positions in regard of the Palestinians and their identification of left-wing with the soviet communism. So, for example, the elections propaganda for Ehud Barak based on a distribution of a Russian book which described him as a war hero of Israel. Many political commentators claimed after the elections, that this book had a decisive effect in the victory of Barak in the elections. Likewise, also the big sympathy of Soviet immigrants to Ariel Sharon was in his extravagant militaristic record and in his aggressive image.
The gap between the right-wing positions of the majority of this public as opposed to its anti-religious positions was filled by the Shinui party, a secular party and significant Anti-orthodox party, which gained a great popularity amongst the Soviet immigrants public, in spite of its left-wing tendency the Shinui party was not identified with the left. A study done in the 90s, asked Russian immigrants to choose their favorite party political program, with the party name being deleted. Not knowing what party the program belongs to, most immigrants chose the program of the left-wing Meretz (which came as a surprise to most immigrants).
In the elections of 2006 the "Yisrael Beiteinu" parted from the "National Union" party. The logic that stood behind this decision was that in spite of the similarities between the positions of "Yisrael Beiteinu" and "National Union" party, the two parties have two separate target audiences: while "Yisrael Beiteinu" turns mainly to the is a Russian voters and to the right-wings seculars, the "National Union" party turns mainly to the religious national public and to the public of the settlers. This assumption became clear after "Yisrael Beiteinu" gained alone 11 mandates and became the second largest right-winged party after the Likud, which received only 12 mandates, while most of the mandates it received arrived of course from the target audience of the party – the immigrants from the Russian Federation.
In the Israeli elections of 2009, Yisrael Beiteinu gained 15 Knesset members its highest ever. Leading to Avigdor Lieberman being called a 'king maker'. Lieberman then sided with the right wing hawks becoming Israel's Foreign Minister.
The weakening of the Zionist ethos and disappearance of the melting pot perception brought more tolerance from the Israeli society to the attempts of the Russian immigrants to preserve their culture. In tandem, many of the immigrants saw themselves as delegates of Russian culture, and they considered it superior to Israel's largely Levantine culture. These parallel trends, combined with the separate immigrant neighborhoods, helped create a distinct Russian-Israeli culture.
This culture is characterized to a great extent by the combination of characteristic elements from the Soviet Union and Israel. This mixture created a new secular culture which speaks both Hebrew and Russian, and which puts a great emphasis on high culture activities in the fields of education, science and technology, literature, music, theater, etc. Russian immigrants are much more likely to go to the theater or to classic music concerts than Israel-born people, and in literature the Russian aliyah introduced the "fantasy" realism genre into Israeli literature, as opposed to "dry" realism.
The Russian immigrants brought the battle reconstruction hobby into Israel, founding few clubs.
Also, due to demand from the new immigrants, many Russian language newspapers appeared, and with the development of the multichannel television in Israel during the 1990s, many Russian channels started being rebroadcast in Israel. And in November 2002, a new Israeli-Russian channel, Israel Plus, emerged. Seven Russian newspapers were also established. However, the Israeli-Russian media is declining, as the children of Soviet immigrants rely far less on it than their parents do.
Though Hebrew courses are offered to every immigrant, many Russian immigrants prefer to speak Russian. Only 51% of them are proficient in Hebrew, while 39% cannot read Hebrew or have poor Hebrew literacy, and 26% can barely speak or cannot speak Hebrew at all. Some 48% speak only Russian at home, 6% at work, and 32% with friends, while 8% speak only Hebrew at home, 32% at work, and 9% with friends. The rest speak in an amalgamation of Russian and Hebrew.
The secular character of this immigration wave and their attempts to preserve their eating habits caused in the mid-1990s the opening of stores selling merchandise which was prevalent in the USSR, notably non-kosher meat such as pork. Even though the sale of pork is allowed in Israel, and there are even pig farms in kibbutz Mizra, the marketing of the meat in cities with a high rate of religious or traditional residents constituted as a contravention of the secular-religious status quo in Israel, and caused many confrontations. In most of the cases, the different sides reached a compromise and the pork stores were moved to the industrial regions of the cities.
The majority of the Jewish immigrants were Ashkenazi Jews; however, Mizrahi groups such as the Mountain Jews, Georgian Jews, and Bukharan Jews also immigrated in great numbers to Israel during the collapse of the USSR. They were more traditional and brought their culture, food, and music to Israel.
Many immigrants Hebraized their names, but most kept their Russian ones. However, Russian parents largely gave their children Hebrew first names, and the trend steadily rose throughout the 1990s into the 2000s. Many children of Russian immigrants have been given Biblical first names which are recognized as Israeli but are also common in other countries. While the immigrants themselves did not completely integrate into Israeli culture and hold on to part of their Russian identity, their children are entirely integrated into Israeli society, according to a 2011 study.
Orthodox interpretations of Halakha recognize only matrilineal descent. However, the Law of Return qualifies anyone who has a Jewish grandparent, or is married to a Jew. As a result of this discrepancy, the immigration wave included many people who were not considered Jews by the Israeli Rabbinate, such as children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, grandchildren of Jews, or non-Jewish spouses of Jews, who were eligible under the Law of Return. In 1988, a year before the immigration wave began, 58% of married Jewish men and 47% of married Jewish women in the Soviet Union had a non-Jewish spouse. Some 26%, or 240,000, of the immigrants had no Jewish mother, and were thus not considered Jewish under Halakha, or Jewish religious law, which stipulates one must have a Jewish mother to be considered Jewish. This causes problems when they wish to marry, as in Israel marriage arrangements for all religious communities are made by the relevant religious authorities, and in the case of Jewish citizens, only by Orthodox rabbis. This leads many to marry abroad in civil ceremonies, as civil marriages conducted outside Israel are recognized upon the couple's return.
At the start of the mass immigration, almost all those immigrating from the former USSR were considered Jews under Halakha. The proportion of those who were not considered Jewish by Orthodox interpretations of Halakha among the immigrants consistently rose throughout the immigration wave. For example, in 1990 around 96% of the immigrants were Jews and only 4% were non-Jewish family members. However, in 2000, the proportion was: Jews – 47%, non-Jewish spouses of Jews – 14%, children from Jewish father and non-Jewish mother – 17%, non-Jewish spouses of children from Jewish father and non-Jewish mother – 6%, non-Jews with a Jewish grandparent – 14% and non-Jewish spouses of non-Jews with a Jewish grandparent – 2%.
The immigrants integrated relatively successfully in the Israeli economy, and they are characterized as having a higher rate of participation in the work market. The Israeli high tech field went through a small revolution with inculcation of several business incubators which were set up to provide employment for the thousands of the scientists and the engineers which came through this immigration wave. The Israeli economist Shlomo Maoz said about the Russian aliyah: "The Russian saved Israel, big time. The aliyah improved our situation almost on every parameter". The overall contribution and potential of the immigrants that have contributed to the State of Israel and to Israeli society as scientists, doctors, academics, in technology, research and the arts were of key importance to the overall culture and economy of Israel.
Of the immigrants who arrived between 1989 and 1990, 60% were college-educated, then twice the number of college-educated Israelis. From 1990 to 1993, 57,000 engineers and 12,000 doctors immigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel. By contrast, there were only 30,000 engineers and 15,000 doctors in Israel in 1989.
A study conducted in 1995, which checked the wage level of the literate immigrants (16 years of education and above) in comparison to the level of the wage of the Israeli-borns with the same level of education, showed that the wage level of the immigrants is rising in the relation to the wage of the Israeli-borns. The wage of a new immigrant in his first year in the country stands on 40% from the wage of an Israeli-born, while the wage of an immigrant which lived in Israel for 6 years would arrive at about 70% from the wage of an Israeli-born. Amongst the age group of 22-40, which has 16 years of education and above, the gap between the immigrants and the Israeli-borns is close, and after 6 years there even seemed to be a gap of about 6% in favor of the immigrants.
According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics about 1/3 of the 1990s immigrants got their former education recognized in Israel as higher education. But less than half of the literate population of workers works in the field of their expertise.
At first the reaction of the Israeli society to the Jewish Soviet Union immigration wave was very positive, and the common phrase "with every immigrant, our strength rises" was used amongst the locals. This positive attitude changed with the time as a result of fears in parts of the Israeli society to the effects the massive immigration wave would have on the Israeli society. The two central reasons for the fear which were related to this immigration wave were the fear of that there may be a percentage of religious and cultural non-Jews amongst the immigrants, and the apprehension that the new immigrants would take away the workplaces from the veteran population.
Another additional reason for negative attitudes is connected to the general characteristic of a migratory society, the inhospitable attitude of the veteran group towards the population of immigrants. In this respect, negative stereotypical rumors started to spread about the new immigrants. This inhospitable attitude intensified also because—in contrast with the previous immigration waves to Israel—many of the immigrants from this wave kept their culture and language, without trying to blend their customs with their new lives in Israel. Much of the criticism towards this wave was related to their cultural distinction, which included many negative stereotypes regarding Israeli society.
Since that time, the immigrants have succeeded in blending into Israeli society in different fields, and contribute greatly to Israel. In 2009, Science Minister Daniel Hershkowitz said the immigration wave helped the Israeli universities, where one of every four staff members is now a Russian-speaker. At the same time, prime minister Netanyahu said the Soviet Jews have now "integrated into the life of the country and have become a principal and important element in all aspects of life". At the same speech, he called the Russian aliyah "one of the greatest miracles that happened to the state".