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Jewish Agency Marks Arrival of 500,000th Soviet Immigrant

The Jewish Agency for Israel this week marked the arrival of the 500,000th immigrant from the former Soviet Union since the vast immigration began in 1989.

In a small ceremony Monday inside the Agency, the massive immigration was hailed as historic and as changing the face of Israel and the Jewish people.

Speakers touched only obliquely on some of the problems the immigrants are facing in the course of their absorption — a topic much on the minds of some immigrant advocates, who say the government has failed to prioritize absorption.

As a result, these advocates claim, the government has been unable to attract hundreds of thousands more Jews who remain in the former Soviet Union.

Because the various Israeli agencies responsible for immigration and absorption use different methods to calculate the flow of immigrants, it was impossible to determine with certainty who the half-a-millionth immigrant was.

Instead, a group of immigrants who arrived on the last plane in May was invited to symbolize the milestone number.

According to a recent report by the Central Bureau of Statistics, these recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union currently constitute 10 percent of Israel’s population.

The report also broke down the Russian immigrant community by profession: 57,000 were registered upon arrival in Israel as engineers; more than 12,000 as doctors and dentists; 12,000 as artists, composers, writers and journalists; and 12,000 as health-care workers.

More than 50 percent were over the age of 15 at the time of their immigration, and approximately 200,000 said they had at least 13 years of education, according to the report.

Yehiel Leket, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, opened Monday’s gathering by citing the “tremendous and meaningful contribution” to Israel made by the influx of highly educated immigrants, despite problems some encountered in adjusting to Israel.

WILL ‘CHANGE THE FACE’ OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE

The immigration “will change the face of the whole Jewish people,” he added. By boosting the number of Jews in Israel, it will help Israel soon become the world’s largest Jewish community, he said. As a result, “the message of the centrality of Israel will become one of quantity as well as quality,” he said.

Finance Minister Avraham Shohat called the aliyah “one of the most historic events” in Israel’s annals, the result of years of hard work.

He said that despite not having all the immigrants working in their original professions, by most measures the absorption is a success.

At the same time, Shohat conceded that the relatively low numbers of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union are cause for concern.

Projections for immigration from Russia and other former Soviet states for this year stand at 60,000, slightly down from last year, and sharply down from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Shohat called the immigrants an “asset, not a burden,” saying they have been a springboard for Israel’s growth and development.

Uri Gordon, head of immigration and absorption at the Jewish Agency, called for more public recognition of the immigrants’ achievements.

About two weeks ago, Gordon gave a briefing to the Israeli Cabinet on the dropping numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the need to improve absorption.

After the ceremony, he said he knows “there are a lot of problems and a lot of pain” among the immigrants, but that he is confident the picture will improve “because we are very serious about absorption as part of our responsibility as a Jewish state.”

At the same time, he said, “the Jews in Russia are not rushing to come out,” but have adopted a cautious attitude, partly because they know Israel’s gates will remain open to them.

Nonetheless, “We have to continue to push to bring another half a million,” he said.

For his part, Natan Sharansky, the most celebrated advocate for the immigrants here, found the ceremony “meaningless,” ostensibly because it did not reflect the struggle to make absorption a higher government priority.

“I think everybody has ambivalent feelings,” he said. “The real question is whether the half-a-million came because of the (government) efforts or in spite of the lack of efforts.”

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