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
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. …