JERUSALEM (Mar. 5)
Sharp cuts in the “absorption basket” of cash aid to new immigrants has triggered a rebellion in the Knesset, where many members fear Soviet aliyah will be reduced and that many olim already here will leave for greener pastures abroad.
The outcry cuts across party lines and is aimed primarily at the Treasury and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Diaspora-funded body that pays a portion of immigrant absorption costs.
Knesset members have warned the Finance Ministry they will refuse to vote for the state budget next month if the government persists in its plans to substantially reduce its subsidies to immigrant families.
The cuts amount to a 50 percent reduction of assistance to olim, aliyah activists charge. Government officials dispute that figure.
The handout of about $11,000 in cash and services to a newly arrived immigrant family of three has been reduced to $7,000.
Moreover, the amount is no longer entirely a grant. The Jewish Agency has converted its one-third share of the package to a loan, despite protests raised when the change was proposed at a Feb. 17 meeting of top government and Jewish Agency officials.
“It’s all very well to criticize,” Jewish Agency spokesman Gad Ben-Ari told irate Kenesset members. “But if you propose not converting our part of the grants into loans, you have to propose where to cover the shortfall from.”
Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i told rebellious Knesset members the government had no choice but to cut the immigrant subsidies.
“You are no more sensitive and solicitous than I,” he was quoted as telling them Tuesday. “But something has got to give,” he stated flatly.
1,000 OLIM HAVE ALREADY LEFT
The furor in the Knesset was influenced in part by television coverage of immigrant families in difficult financial circumstances.
In addition to sharply reduced grants, their right to buy household appliances duty free has been withdrawn. The olim receive instead a flat grant of $2,500 for the purpose. But the tax exemption is worth more than the additional cash.
Although newcomers to Israel are entitled to a $38,000 state mortgage, few can carry the costs of a two-bedroom apartment, which averages $65,000, especially in a shrinking job market.
Many highly educated Soviet Jews are finding it hard to get jobs in Israel, especially in the professions for which they were trained.
The situation has led to a nightmare scenario of large-scale emigration of Soviet Jews from Israel and a diminished aliyah.
Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz fears many potential olim are being deterred by Soviet television reports that make the cutback of subsidies seem more drastic than they actually are.
At the same time, he said, lawyers have opened offices in Tel Aviv and Haifa to help and encourage Soviet olim to leave Israel for Germany, Canada, South Africa and Australia.
According to Peretz, nearly 1,000 olim have left already. That is insignificant compared to the 185,000 Soviet Jews who arrived in Israel last year. But Peretz warned, “Every phenomenon starts with small numbers and then may spread.”