Focus on the Issues: Conditions for Olim in Israel Are Better, but More to Be Done

Yair Tsaban, Israel’s minister of immigrant absorption, does not believe the current instability in Russia will necessarily translate into a new flood of emigration.

According to Tsaban, a flood of immigrants from the newly independent states of the old Soviet Union required events that are “more dramatic, not to say more traumatic” than last fall’s aborted coup in Russia or the success of extreme nationalism in the latest elections there.

“In Jewish life, there is a certain tendency to internalize the situation of instability and to live with it,” he said during a recent interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at his office in the Absorption Ministry.

Tsaban took issue with a statement made recently by Uri Gordon, chairman of the Immigration and Absorption Department of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Gordon was quoted as telling a conference in Moscow that hundreds of thousands of would-be emigrants in Russia were “sitting on their suitcases.”

In spite of the uncertainty and instability there, Gordon said, they were not taking the steps to make aliyah because of reports that Israel was not doing enough for new immigrants.

Gordon made it clear that this perception is at odds with the actual data on absorption. But his comments stung nevertheless.

In the interview, Tsaban said Israel must “bear responsibility for every Jew who is ready to come, and we must do everything to improve the conditions of olim,” the Hebrew word for immigrants.

But he rejected the charge that Israel’s absorption policy dramatically influences the rate of immigration to Israel. He said that the quality of absorption may influence whether the annual immigration total “remains nearly 80,000, or whether it increases to 90, 95 or 100,000.

“But I don’t believe that it depends on us to close the gap between 80,000 and 200,000,” he added. “This depends mainly on the situation abroad.”

In fact, Tsaban said, immigration to Israel was nearly the same in 1993 as the year before, both overall and from the newly independent states of the old Soviet Union.

Approximately 77,500 immigrants arrived in Israel last year from countries around the world, including 69-132 from the former Soviet republics, according to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry in New York.

In 1992, the total number of immigrants was 78,100, including 64,057 from the newly independent states, according to the National Conference’s Soviet Jewry Research Bureau.

At the same time, 35,581 Jews from the former Soviet republics arrived in the United States last year under the government’s refugee program, compared to 45,888 the year before, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York.

Tsaban looked back on 1993 as a year in which he repeatedly risked his political prestige in battles with the government to assign a higher priority to the settlement of new immigrants. And he did not always win.

Even after the Knesset on Dec. 31 approved the 1994 state budget submitted by his own government, Tsaban made a point of stating that he was not satisfied with the allocations for absorption. He made the comment even though his ministry received roughly $471 million, up from about $428 million the year before.

Just the same, for Tsaban, a large, soft-spoken, genial man, “the glass is half-full.”

Despite what he described as the “positive, significant changes” he has introduced since the start of his tenure at the Absorption Ministry, Tsaban thinks there is still a long way to go in bringing Israeli public opinion to a recognition of these accomplishments.

While there have been a lot of “positive changes,” there is still not an overwhelming feeling among immigrants and Israeli society in general that “a real radical change in the policies of klitah (absorption) was implemented during this period,” he said.

Tsaban explained the challenges he took on when he became absorption minister in August 1992.

“I didn’t invent the (immigrant) caravan sites and their location,” he said. “I didn’t invent the tens of thousands of empty apartments (slated for immigrants) in places where there is no employment.

“But I have no time and no need to cry and weep because of what hasn’t been done,” he said. “I have a duty to solve (problems) in spite of this legacy.”

Even in the last few days of 1993, two protests against absorption conditions were stark reminders that his struggle is far from over.

One protest was conducted by immigrants from the newly independent states who brandished mops to demonstrate against the fact that many professionals are forced to take menial jobs.

A second demonstration was held by immigrants from Yemen, who claimed the benefits they receive were inadequate.

Tsaban recited impressive statistics to show how the government is meeting the challenge of providing immigrants with housing and employment.

In 1993, he pointed out, 35,000 families took advantage of specially subsidized mortgages and bought apartments, compared to 25,000 the year before.

In all, he said, more than 70,000 of about 140,000 immigrant families are living in their own homes following the influx of nearly half a million immigrants since 1989.

Of these, 53,000 families are living in free-market housing with subsidies provided by the Absorption Ministry.

Tsaban noted that he fought successfully during 1993 for the first increase in housing subsidies in four years. But he said that better solutions need to be found.

He estimated that 30,000 families need public housing, especially single-parent families, the retired and the handicapped.

The Absorption Ministry began distributing 8,000 apartments during 1993 to those in need of public housing. The housing-distribution process, Tsaban noted proudly, included representation by the immigrants “for the first time in the history of this country.”

What is needed now, said Tsaban, is to improve the mortgages – especially for the most vulnerable groups – further increase the rent subsidies and build more public housing “especially in the central parts of the country, where not one single unit of this kind was built during the last 10 years.”

He was referring to the fact that the previous Likud government concentrated on expanding housing in the administered territories, rather than in the congested central region, where the majority of Israelis live.

Tsaban conceded that there is a problem of unemployment and underemployment among the new olim. But he tried to put it into perspective, citing the “impressive decline” in unemployment among olim – from more than 39 percent in 1991, to 29 percent in 1992, to around 20 percent in 1993.

At the same time, he stressed the difficulty of finding appropriate professional employment for the Russians – “a unique group without a precedent on the globe,” in which more than 60 percent have degrees in higher education.

“This is, on the one hand, very precious human capital, but if you get this human capital in a massive way, in an intensive period, it is not simple to use it in an appropriate way,” he said.

Tsaban described how he fought for money for jobs and training programs for vulnerable immigrant groups such as women, musicians and those over the age of 45, who, he said, will otherwise stay “on the margin.”

He pointed to a pilot program that has been launched for engineers over 45. Under the program, employers are encouraged through vouchers to hire the engineers at least on a temporary basis so they “have a chance to demonstrate their abilities.”

He has struggled, he said, to find ways to utilize the extraordinary numbers of musicians who have immigrated here.

One result was the establishment of new conservatories in Israel’s Arab sectors, staffed by Russian Jewish musicians.

Despite these successes, Tsaban still feels there is more to do.

“I shall not hide the fact that there are disputes in the government” about immigrant absorption policy, he said. “And in spite of the fact that I believe we are doing things much better than the previous government, from my point of view it is not enough.”

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