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More Than 145,000 Jews from USSR Made Aliyah During Its Final Year

The Soviet Union may have ceased to exist, but the stampede of Jews surging from its 15 former republics continued without interruption in 1991, despite a slight dip this fall.

According to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, a total of 145,005 Jews from the former USSR made aliyah in 1991, bringing overall immigration to Israel to a grand total of 170,740.

The figures failed to match the peak year, 1990, during which a record 186,815 immigrants arrived in the Jewish state, 181,759 from what was still the Soviet Union.

But the monthly decline that began in July and hit a low of 8,090 arrivals from the Soviet Union in November appears to have been reversed, as 10,359 Soviet Jews came to Israel in December, during the one-time superpower’s final days. That represents a 28 percent increase in one month alone.

1991 was also the second-biggest year for Soviet immigration to the United States. According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a total of 34,715 Jews from what was the Soviet Union arrived here last year under the U.S. refugee program.

That figure fell short of the 1989 total of 36,738 and was considerably lower than expectations at the outset of the year. But December’s total of 4,350 U.S. arrivals was more than triple the number that came last January.

All immigration is sensitive to changing conditions. If in 1991, Soviet aliyah was down about one-fifth from the previous year, it should be remembered that 1991 was a more tumultuous year.

It began with the Persian Gulf War, which bred uncertainty and paralyzed travel to the Middle East. Then midyear, the Soviet government changed its emigration laws, requiring passports to leave the country. By year’s end, the country had split up into 15 separate republics.

‘A STEADY STREAM’

Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said it was gratifying that “despite a year of dramatic upheaval — both in the Middle East, where Operation Desert Storm threatened to interrupt normal emigration, and later in the year, with the demise of the Soviet Union — Soviet Jews continued to arrive in Israel in a steady stream.”

A continuing disincentive with longer-term repercussions is the rising unemployment in Israel. An estimated 40,000 new olim are on the dole. Of those who find work, few are employed in the professions or skills they were trained for.

Inevitably, letters home advise relatives and friends to postpone emigration until conditions improve.

Nevertheless, at the year’s end, the Jewish Agency said it expected between 150,000 to 170,000 to arrive in Israel in 1992, virtually the same as in 1991, though it could handle greater numbers if required.

Agency officials noted that about 105,000 Jews already hold Soviet exit visas, and 45,000 of them also have Israeli entry visas. It is expected that the individual republics will honor the Soviet visas.

But Cardin said she is still concerned with free Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union’s successor states. She referred to still-unresolved cases of refuseniks and the problem of “poor relatives” holding up the departure of would-be emigrants.

There seems to have been some attrition. Jewish Agency sources claim that more than 9,000 Soviet Jews left Israel for South Africa in 1991, and that another 3,000 are seeking South African entry visas.

The Absorption Ministry claims that only 500 emigre families — about 1,500 people — have left the country.

4.7 PERCENT POPULATION GROWTH

Ethiopia continued to be the second-largest source of aliyah.

About 20,000 Jews arrived in Israel from that country during 1991, some 14,200 of them in a single 36-hour period last May by an emergency airlift known as “Operation Solomon.”

Some 4,500 Jews are left in Ethiopia. But the Jewish Agency is optimistic they can be gotten out soon and reunited with families in Israel.

Immigrant absorption problems persist. About 11,300 Ethiopian olim are still living in hotels. The Jewish Agency hopes to move all of them into permanent housing by next June.

Summing up, Israel’s population now stands at 5,050,000, swollen by the 340,000 Jews who have arrived from the former Soviet Union since the aliyah wave began in 1989.

The population grew at a rate of 4.7 percent in 1991, a slowdown compared to 1990, when the growth rate was 5.7 percent.

(JTA correspondent Yehonathan Tommer in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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