TEL AVIV (Dec. 23)
Alarmed at mounting chaos in their homeland, thousands of Jews have left the Soviet Union in recent days and are arriving in Israel in record numbers.
More than 5,500 landed at Ben-Gurion Airport from Thursday evening through Sunday morning, and the weekend total was expected to exceed 7,000 by Sunday night.
The arrival rate is about 100 an hour. Chartered El Al planes and aircraft of the Polish and Hungarian airlines are bringing the olim in from Warsaw, Budapest and Bucharest, Romania.
The immigrants are required to change planes at those points because there are still no direct flights to Israel from Moscow.
Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which pays the cost of transporting the immigrants, predicted that between 1,200 and 1,300 immigrants will be arriving daily from now on.
By comparison, 1,909 Soviet Jews arrived in Israel in all of 1987, and only 220 arrived during the entire previous year.
Soviet Jewish immigration for December is expected to exceed 30,000 and rise to 40,000 in January, as economic deterioration and political uncertainty grip the Soviet Union. By comparison, just under 5,000 Soviet Jews arrived in Israel last January.
NO CHANGE AFTER SHEVARDNADZE
The weekend volume was so large that the Orthodox-controlled Absorption Ministry had no choice but to allow flights to land on Friday night and Saturday. But it insisted that immigrant processing be put off until after the Sabbath.
That meant that the newcomers had to be bused to hotels in the Tel Aviv area and returned to the airport after Shabbat to be registered and assigned to absorption locations around the country.
The flood of arrivals is placing a severe strain on Israel’s economic and social fabric.
Uri Gordon, head of the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department, was sharply critical of the government’s absorption efforts in an Israel Radio interview Sunday. He rapped the various ministries for wasting time arguing among themselves over jurisdiction.
“It’s about time everybody realized we are in an emergency situation,” Gordon said.
On the same news broadcast Knesset member Arieh (Lova) Eliav of Labor, speaking by telephone from Moscow, denied the mass exodus of Soviet Jews was an act of panic.
Eliav, who has been touring the Soviet Union with Knesset Speaker Dov Shilansky of Likud, objected to articles in the Israeli press that depicted scenes outside the Israeli consular mission in Moscow as “breicha.”
The word literally means escape and also refers to the illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine right after World War II.
“There is no doubt that the Russian Jews feel a strong pressure to leave, but it cannot be compared to the ‘breicha’ of the 1940s,” he said.
Eliav said he and Shilansky had received assurances that “even after the resignation of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet emigration policy will not change.”
Eliav also said the two Knesset members “met with over a thousand Russian Jews studying Hebrew with teachers sent from Israel.
“We have lit Chanukah candles with Jews in Lithuania, we have spoken at endless mass meetings and we are both very satisfied with our visit here,” he said.
FIRST MOBILE HOMES ARRIVE
Like Gordon, however, Eliav stressed that Israeli politicians and citizens in general must realize “we are being tested, the greatest test of them all: absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jews streaming into the country.”
One of the most serious challenges is housing the newcomers.
A container ship arrived at the port of Ashdod on Sunday with 441 American-built mobile homes, the first consignment of temporary housing to reach Israel from the United States.
Each unit is 40 feet long and contains 144 square feet of living space. Another 3,000 of the same kind are due in Israel next month, and 50,000 smaller units will be imported next year.
But they may not be enough to keep pace with immigration, and tent cities may have to be set up.
The first shipment was three days late. The vessel had an engine breakdown near Crete and had to be towed to Israel.