Dr. Solly Dreman (photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
With the large numbers of refugees and immigrants making their way to Winnipeg and elsewhere in Canada, Winnipeg Friends of Israel invited Dr. Solly Dreman, a Winnipegger who moved to Israel in 1964, to speak on the topic.
In the Sept. 19 lecture at the Asper Jewish Community Campus, Dreman drew from his own experience and expertise, using the work he did, along with colleague Dr. Ava Shinar, on immigration in the 1990s to illustrate an optimal way of integrating immigrants into Israeli society, which could be applied to other countries.
“I did the workshop with her over a decade ago, but the implications are certainly relevant to the contemporary problems occurring in the world today, and to immigrant and refugee populations all over the world,” said Dreman.
“Immigration is widely recognized as a stressful event which increases psychological vulnerability,” he explained. “Researchers have noted that adolescent immigrants … we know that many terrorists are in that age group … constitute an extremely high-risk population. In adolescence and late adolescence, there’s a need to cope with profound physical, psychological and social transformations. And, in those adolescents who have become immigrants and [are] in a strange and often unwelcoming environment, the uprootedness and difficulties in establishing a solid base of identity and meaning could have disastrous results. Indeed, the violence evident today in such places like Paris, Nice, Brussels, Orlando, San Bernardino, as well as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, testifies to this. Youth confronted with a strange environment and difficult economic conditions, as well as lack of purposefulness in their lives, often latch onto causes and groups that implement terrorism and violence in the international community.”
Dreman also discussed other issues.
“In the 1990s,” he said, “with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a mass exodus of over a million Soviet Jews to Israel. Soviet students comprised about 10% of the student body at Ben-Gurion University. They were competing for limited resources, such as dormitory space, scholarships and, eventually, opportunities for employment.
“There were many negative stereotypes and attitudes prevailing between the native Sabra students, who were born in Israel, and their Soviet counterparts. As far as the stereotypes that Israelis had toward the Russians, well, they often viewed them as manipulative, clannish and corrupt … while the Russian students perceived the Israelis as loud, aggressive and uncouth.
“The Russians, in that first year of the workshop, we also heard some terrible things they had to say about the Ethiopians, referring to them as subhuman, subspecies, monkey-like, etc.”
With the extreme alienation between Sabras and the immigrant students – to the point of outright violence and fist fights – Dreman needed to find ways of reducing tensions and bringing understanding, cooperation and solidarity between the groups.
He said it was important to create an atmosphere where each group could participate in an evolving melting-pot culture, where each side would begin to listen to and understand the other. As such, he and Shinar created a two-credit academic course that eventually became a four-credit, year-long course because of its popularity.
“So, students were given an award for their participation and for completing course assignments,” said Dreman.
He explained, “The syllabus described it as being designed to help students learn about their family and individual transitions in the face of such phenomena as birth, adolescence, illness in the family, divorce and death … but with a particular emphasis on aliyah immigration.”
Normative aspects of immigration and transition were discussed in an academic context, so participants could then discuss their own experiences in a non-threatening atmosphere and place those experiences in an appropriate context, in an effort toward understanding what they themselves were going through.
At first, due to the Israelis’ fluency in Hebrew and the Russians’ more reserved manner, the Sabras monopolized the class. But, after a few sessions and with a little prompting, the Russians became much more comfortable and vocal.
“What we wanted to do was create an evolving identity,” said Dreman. “Emphasis was placed on joining the new culture, but space should be provided for the immigrant representatives to give expression to their culture of origin, needs and expectations. On the educational level, awareness workshops should be introduced in citizenship classes in elementary schools, high schools and colleges. It is also critical that government and volunteer groups work together to help promote immigrant absorption.”
Dreman recognizes that the work they did in Israel had many atypical factors working in its favor, but said the attitude of creating a type of melting pot should yield a good result in most cases. As well, while the workshops had some factors going for them, like participants with a common Jewish identity, working with young adults (18-to-24-year-olds) posed challenges that are less common with older immigrants, such as extremism and radicalization.
Dreman wanted to be very clear in differentiating between immigrant and refugee populations, noting the difference “between immigrants who want to immigrate and refugees who are exiled and may not necessarily want to.
“The purpose of our workshop was to make the hosts and the new immigrants understand where the other person is coming from, to create a merging of cultures and understanding in order to ease the process of assimilation,” he said. “I think the beautiful thing is that it was based on reciprocity. It was very successful. In the workshop, at the beginning, people hated each other. At the end, almost all had befriended people from the other group.
“If people knew that the immigrants had a real desire to be part of the hosts’ community, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for mutual understanding,” he added.
According to Dreman, the setting also plays a significant role. “In one of the projects we did, we sent kids out in one of the groups to interview Israelis – native Israelis – concerning their attitudes towards Russians. We sent them to a marketplace, a competitive marketplace with pedlars. And, another group, we sent to interview Israelis in Dizengoff Centre, which is upper-class…. How did the native Israelis describe the Russians in the marketplace? ‘Swindlers, crooks, gamblers, prostitutes, bastards.’ What about in the centre? They described them as ‘wonderful, contributing to the nation,’ and so on.
“In Europe and North America, if somehow they could take select groups of people who host immigrants and let them have that encounter and spread the gospel – ‘Hey, they aren’t that bad,’ that sort of thing – there is no reason it would not be successful.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.