Behind the Headlines: Lack of Government Resolve Blamed for Aliyah Slowdown

Immigration to Israel from the republics of the former Soviet Union declined by 22 percent last month.

A total of 3,696 immigrants arrived here, compared to 4,713 in June, making July the slowest month for aliyah this calendar year.

While even the most ardent advocates for new immigrants here caution reading too much into monthly fluctuations, they argue that the latest figures are proof that the government has failed to assign a high enough priority to absorbing the newcomers.

They say the message of that failure has been transmitted to the Soviet successor states and slowed the pace of recent emigration.

(Jewish immigration to the United States from the former Soviet republics also slowed slightly in July, with a total of 2,250 arriving under the U.S. government’s refugee program, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York.)

Advocates for immigrants in Israel say frustration among the newcomers has reached a climax lately over plans to divert millions of dollars from an absorption reserve fund to other uses and keep regular absorption funding for the 1994 budget at its current level.

The advocates cite new surveys showing immigrants are demoralized because they cannot find jobs in their field.

Others, mainly in the government, counter by citing surveys showing employment has increased along with job satisfaction.

All agree, however, that both the Israeli government and society have failed to stem the isolation and alienation experienced by many immigrants from Russia and the neighboring republics.

The chorus of critics includes Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, who has accused the government of failing to live up to its promises to make immigration a higher priority.

‘DISSATISFACTION STOPPED MASS ALIYAH’

Arguing for an increase in funding for immigrant absorption, Tsaban said, “If we don’t create a real change in attitude, we will have broken our word and will have to pay a public price and an electoral price.”

So far this year, about 45,000 immigrants have arrived in Israel from all over the world, and the total is expected to number between 70,000 and 80,000 by year’s end. That is roughly the same number as last year, but far below the numbers of the two preceding years.

Observers say thousands of potential new immigrants are choosing to stay in the former Soviet Union until they see signs of a true commitment to their resettlement here. For now, they say, those signs are sorely absent.

“Dissatisfaction with the government has been mounting,” said Gershon Gershon, a spokesman for the Zionist Forum, one of the most vocal immigrant advocacy organizations here.

“And it is the dissatisfaction (here) that has stopped the mass aliyah from the former Soviet Union,” he said.

“People are disappointed not to see something being done,” agreed Bella Gulko, who heads a group called Roof for the Needy, which is working to create low-cost rental housing programs for elderly and single-parent immigrant families.

Her biggest complaint is the fragmented approach to immigrants’ problems taken by what she sees as plodding and uncreative bureaucracy.

“Everyone knows this government was only able to take over because of the massive vote of this aliyah,” Gershon said, referring to the Labor Party’s ascendancy last summer.

“But unlike Israelis, they took very seriously the promises of the government about making aliyah a higher priority, and when it came to cash the check, there was nothing in the bank,” he said.

“We are not saying (immigration and absorption) are all bad and that the government is not doing anything,” said Gershon. “But we are saying it’s not doing much more than the last government.”

Uri Gordon, head of immigration and absorption at the Jewish Agency for Israel, agrees wholeheartedly. He recently stormed out of a top-level government meeting on absorption in protest over the absence of Cabinet ministers, except for Tsaban.

‘TIME BOMB WAITING TO EXPLODE’

“I am not happy with the absorption,” said Gordon, who believes the system is poorly coordinated and that Tsaban is “doing his best but doesn’t have power.”

“It can’t be that you build housing in the Negev and create jobs in the center” of the country, he said. “Something is missing. We need a central authority.”

But several observers say the biggest problem is the inability of the “Russians” to integrate into Israeli society, in large part due to what is perceived as resistance and misunderstanding by longtime Israelis.

“The biggest problem is the (negative) image of this aliyah in the minds of veteran Israelis,” said Gershon. He said this image is reflected in a lack of acceptance of the “Russians” that can be seen sometimes in the rejection of their children at school.

“Their lives are parallel to the rest of society — they never intersect,” he said.

He blames the problem, in part, on the failure of national leaders to take up the fight for the immigrants, and he warns of grave consequences.

Gordon of the Jewish Agency does not agree.

“This government has done a lot, but the newcomers don’t feel it because of a lack of information and communication,” he said.

“We have to find a way to talk to them, to show them care and love,” Gordon said.

For now, he said, “we have close to half a million newcomers here, without answers and without a national plan. We have to think creatively, not bureaucratically.”

Tsaban is working on a large-scale plan to counter the negative public perception of the immigrants, according to his spokesman, but he would not elaborate.

Meanwhile, Gershon wonders “what will happen to this country by the end of the decade when we will have 1 million Russians here.

‘No society can afford to have so many disappointed” people in it, he said.

“The Israelis don’t know what’s really going on and don’t really care,” he said. “But this is a time bomb waiting to explode.”

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