JERUSALEM (Feb. 2)
A variety of explanations are being given for the sharp drop in aliyah from the republics that formerly constituted the Soviet Union.
Despite widespread food shortages and a civil war in Georgia, only 6,237 Jews from the former Soviet republics came to Israel in January.
That was the lowest monthly total since February 1990, when 5,746 Soviet Jews arrived in Israel, according to the Soviet Jewry Research Bureau of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
Aliyah from all countries totaled 7,375 for January, a 35 percent decline from the month before, when more than 10,000 olim arrived from the former Soviet Union alone.
But even with the decrease, Jews from the former Soviet republics are still streaming into Israel at a rate of well over 1,000 per week. Last week, Israel welcomed the 400,000th Jew to arrive form the former Soviet Union since the massive exodus began in the fall of 1989.
The latest fluctuation, though, has raised questions about whether aliyah has tapered off permanently or has only slowed down temporarily. There is also speculation about whether the dip is caused by the perception of worsening conditions in Israel or expectations of a better life in the newly independent states that-were until recently components of an authoritarian superpower.
One explanation was offered by the editor of the Moscow-based Jewish Herald, a bi-weekly that claims a readership of 48,000 in more than 150 cities in the former Soviet empire.
In Israel for the fourth International Conference of Jewish Media, Dr. Tankred Golenpolsky told an Israeli newspaper that Jews are not coming because they are optimistic about the future in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
They have received just about everything they had fought for in the old Soviet Union, Golenpolsky said: freedom of movement, independent Jewish schools and the right to partake in Jewish cultural activities.
PROPERTY LAW MAY BE A FACTOR
But Uri Gordon, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department, maintains aliyah is being deterred and deferred primarily because of Israel’s worsening unemployment situation and other absorption difficulties.
Predictably, Likud Knesset member Michael Kleiner, chairman of the Immigration and Absorption Committee, rejects the theory advanced by Gordon, a Laborite, and its implied criticism of the governing party.
The Jewish Agency’s deputy spokesman, Yehuda Weintraub, offered a different explanation for January’s decline in aliyah.
Jews are delaying their departure because recent legislation recognizing private property throughout the commonwealth enables them to sell their apartments and take the money out of the country, he said.
Another source of delay, according to Weintraub, is the recent establishment of direct flights to Israel.
Many Jews booked on flights departing from transit cities in Eastern Europe are canceling them and rebooking seats on direct flights to Israel from one of the eight departure points in the commonwealth countries, he said.
After these initial dislocations, the aliyah flow is likely to pick up in the next few weeks.
Aliyah emissaries in the 11 commonwealth republics are already reporting a growing phenomena of youth aliyah.
Parents, caught between bureaucratic delays in the privatization law and fears of mounting local instability, are sending their teen-age children to Israel now. They plan to join them there later, after selling their properties.
There have been conflicting reports about the aliyah process itself.
According to one source, hundreds of Jews are beginning the process daily by making applications for exit visas to reunite with families in Israel. In the republic of Georgia, which is not a member of the commonwealth. 600 applications were made for exit visas in the past two weeks.
The Interior Ministry in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, has posted a government official to the local Jewish Agency office to speed up bureaucratic procedures. The Israel Consul in Moscow is sending an official to Georgia to speed up the issuance of visas.
But the Israeli Consulate in Moscow itself reported a drop in visa applications to about 150 a day, compared to more than 1,000 a day earlier in the year.
According to Gordon, the deceleration of aliyah will continue this month.
(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)