ROMAN TIMENSHIK, author and professor of Russian literature,
moved here from Latvia three months ago. His reason for joining the
flood of emigrating Jews was simple.
"All my readers had come to Israel," he shrugs. "I was obliged
to follow them."
The professor was being only half-facetious. Since Mikhail
Gorbachev started letting Jews out of the Soviet Union in 1987 and
George Bush placed strict limits on their entry into the United
States in 1989, Israel has been filling up with Soviet immigrants at
an unprecedented rate.
It is a pace faster than the country can keep up with, say
immigrants and officials charged with caring for them. As problems
mount, warns one mayor struggling to cope with his new citizens,
"the blessing of this aliyah could become a plague."
The current aliyah, a Hebrew word meaning "ingathering," is
expected to top 1 million people by the middle of this decade,
increasing Israel's population by almost 25 percent. It is,
officials here like to point out, as if the entire population of
France were to move to the US over just five years.
Those immigrants will change the face of Israel irrevocably, and
the 272,000 of them who have arrived over the past 18 months are
already straining the fabric of Israeli society.
Absorbing the newcomers poses practical challenges on a scale the
country has not faced since its creation drew hundreds of thousands
of Jews from Europe and North Africa in the early 1950s. And to
complicate matters further, the new crop of Soviet immigrants is a
uniquely skilled group, especially hard to employ: Over 75 percent
of them come from professional or technical jobs.
The tidal wave of immigration also has raised political questions
- about the impact the new voters will have on the parliamentary
scene and also about what kind of country Israel wants to be or will
become. Clouding these issues is a central doubt: Can Israel rise to
the challenge of feeding, housing, and employing 1 million new
citizens while it is at war with its neighbors?
"Who believes it is possible to govern 1.5 million Arabs (in the
Israeli-occupied territories) and absorb 1 million Jews at the same
time?" asks Uri Gordon, head of the Aliyah Department of the
quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which brings immigrants to Israel.
"We have to set our priorities."
Symbolic of this dilemma is the looming debate in the US Congress
over Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help it
finance immigrant absorption, while it continues to establish
settlements in the occupied lands that Washington considers "an
obstacle to peace."
Premier Yitzhak Shamir insists the two issues are unrelated. But
his ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, warned recently that
"the Israeli government will have no choice but to decide whether it
is more important to continue settlements ... or to get American aid
for immigrant absorption. There is no escape."
Meanwhile, each planeload of arriving Soviet Jews angers
neighboring Arab countries for the very reason that it warms Israeli
hearts: More Jews, they feel, help build a stronger Israel.
"With 1 million more people we are stronger politically vis-a-vis
the Arabs," says Deborah Lipson, spokeswoman for the Soviet Jewry
Zionist Forum, an immigrant rights group.
"Demographically," she says, "we will also have a better balance
... with Israeli Arabs," whose high birthrate could give them a
numerical advantage over Jews in parts of Israel by the end of the
decade without a Jewish influx. …