JERUSALEM (Jan. 7)
Hundreds of Soviet immigrants landing nightly at Ben-Gurion Airport have given new urgency in government and Jewish Agency circles to the problem of how to pay for their absorption.
The influx since the United States tightened its immigration policies for Soviet Jews in October has clearly exceeded all previous estimates by wide margins.
Initially, Israel expected some 40,000 immigrants this year. Now the estimate is 100,000 or more, and at least a quarter million are expected during the next three years.
The cost of providing them with jobs, shelter and other necessities until they are integrated into Israeli society has been put in the billions of shekels, an amount Israel’s severely constrained budget cannot stretch to accommodate.
Since 1973, the United States has been providing the Jewish Agency for Israel, through the United Jewish Appeal, with an annual stipend to aid the absorption of immigrants. The grant now totals $25 million.
On Sunday, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, Simcha Dinitz, requested an increase in that amount, in order to accommodate the Soviet Jewish newcomers.
Dinitz made the request at a meeting with U.S. State Department official Evan Slim, who was accompanied by the American ambassador to Israel, William Brown.
But vastly larger sums will be required.
The most controversial proposal to date is a national, so-called “voluntary loan” of the kind the government has imposed during past emergencies, such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
It is favored by Finance Minister Shimon Peres and is being pressed vigorously by his close associate, Deputy Finance Minister Yossi Beilin.
‘AN EMERGENCY SITUATION’
But the idea is resisted by those who fear a national loan would inflame already simmering resentment toward Soviet aliyah in some sectors of established Israeli society that feel neglected.
Beilin says there is no choice. “Unfortunately, we have no other sources to finance aliyah,” he asserted.
“Just like the people in Israel helped to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the early ’50s, so will they have to lend a shoulder now,” he said.
Uri Gordon, head of the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department, also supports the loan idea.
In a letter to Peres, he stated that the loan “would strengthen our own stand vis-a-vis world Jewry, some of whom still do not understand the importance of the hour.
In an interview Sunday with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Gordon said earlier absorption plans have been made obsolete by the unprecedented number of arrivals.
“What we originally planned to do over a period of five years, we shall have to do in three years, and what we hoped to do in three years, we must do in a year,” Gordon said.
“This is an emergency situation,” he said, because the government does not at this time have the tools to cope with absorption on so large a scale.
Gordon suggested the establishment of a “central unified national authority” with a mandate to facilitate immigrant absorption in all its aspects and with the resources to accomplish it.
During the Cabinet meeting Sunday, Minister of Economics and Planning Yitzhak Moda’i stated flatly that the government is not prepared to cope with the present wave of aliyah.
He charged that preparations were continuing as if nothing had changed. “This is an opportunity for a new kind of Zionism, for the consolidation of the State of Israel,” Moda’i said.
He proposed that the Ministry of Construction and Housing, headed by his Likud colleague David Levy, immediately begin constructing homes for the newcomers.
He also suggested that the government conduct surveys to match new Soviet immigrants with jobs that suit their aptitudes.
“If we continue with the same process, we shall not have a successful absorption, and that would put an end to the flow of this great potential,” Moda’i warned.
(JTA staff writer Cathrine Gerson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)