Soviet Jews Are Troubled by Job, Housing Gaps Series: THE NEW ISRAELIS: Soviet Jewish Immigrants. Part 2 of a 5-Part Series. Part 1 Appeared July 25. Parts 3, 4, and 5 Will Appear July 29 and 30 and Aug. 1

By Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 26, 1991 | Go to article overview
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Soviet Jews Are Troubled by Job, Housing Gaps Series: THE NEW ISRAELIS: Soviet Jewish Immigrants. Part 2 of a 5-Part Series. Part 1 Appeared July 25. Parts 3, 4, and 5 Will Appear July 29 and 30 and Aug. 1


Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


SITTING on the bed in a grubby hotel room that is now her only home, Galina Levin hugs her husband and baby daughter to her and tries bravely to keep a smile on her face.

"Before we came, we knew it would be difficult here," she says. "But not this difficult."

Glad though they are to be out of the Soviet Union, the Levins' outlook, two months after their arrival in Israel, is distressing. Unable to find an affordable apartment, they are paying 750 shekels ($320) a month - more than half their government living allowance - to stay in the hotel.

Galina, a third-year medical student now in a country where doctors are sweeping the streets because they cannot find work, is already thinking about a new career. Her husband Vladimir, a physical education teacher, speaks scarcely a word of Hebrew even after two months of intensive classes and knows his hopes of getting a job depend on how fast he can learn the language.

The Levins are facing the sorts of problems that almost all new Soviet immigrants have to cope with. But as plane after plane full of newcomers lands at Ben-Gurion airport day after day, those problems are threatening to overwhelm the Israeli government's capacity to solve them.

"Everyone knows that things will get worse before they get better," warns Deborah Lipson, spokeswoman for the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, an immigrants' rights group. "We just hope that they will get better."

There are many who say that, for a country the size of Israel, the task of properly absorbing 1 million Soviet immigrants over the course of five years is simply impossible.

"I don't see any way to absorb such large numbers," says Eduard Kuznetsov, a former Soviet dissident who now edits a Russian-language daily in Tel Aviv. "It's the most difficult problem in the world, and anyone who solves it deserves the Nobel Prize."

For Mikhail Kleiner, head of the parliament's Aliyah and Absorption Committee, the solutions exist, but they are politically impossible to apply. "If the government was to do what has to be done to absorb the immigrants properly, it would have to take decisions that would cost the (ruling) Likud (party) political office," says Mr. Kleiner, himself a member of the Likud. (Aliyah is a Hebrew word meaning "ingathering.")

"It would have to cut services to Israelis by 25 percent and raise taxes by 25 percent. And it is not going to do that," he concludes.

The task of absorption is made no easier by the constant spats among the government officials responsible for immigrants. For a while, earlier this year, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon would not speak to Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz, while feuding ministers boycotted the "aliyah" Inner Cabinet meetings.

"The problem is lack of leadership," complains Gad Ben-ari, spokesman for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency that brings Jews to Israel. "The prime minister shows interest in absorption but nothing more than that. Since he is not a member of the aliyah Cabinet it means the issue is not top priority."

Yonatan Livni, a lawyer who assists Soviet immigrants with day-to-day legal problems and says he constantly runs up against official inaction, is blunter. "Absorption is happening despite the government, not because of it," he declares.

Initially, immigration planners say, the authorities intended to let free-market forces handle absorption, trusting that private entrepreneurs would build the houses and create the jobs that the newcomers needed. The government's role was to be limited to providing an "absorption basket," a living allowance for one year, currently set at about $8,800 for a family of three.

This free-market approach contrasted strongly with the dirigiste manner in which the government of the 1950s handled the last wave of aliyah in Israel's early years. Then, newcomers were obliged to live and work where the government decreed.

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Soviet Jews Are Troubled by Job, Housing Gaps Series: THE NEW ISRAELIS: Soviet Jewish Immigrants. Part 2 of a 5-Part Series. Part 1 Appeared July 25. Parts 3, 4, and 5 Will Appear July 29 and 30 and Aug. 1
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