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Russian economic crisis spurs Israel to prepare for aliyah wave

JERUSALEM, Sept. 2 (JTA) – Israel has begun to dust off emergency absorption plans to prepare for a possible new wave of Russian Jewish immigrants. In light of the economic crisis ravaging Russia, Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s minister of absorption, is preparing plans that take into account a potential immigrant increase of at least 10 to 20 percent, according to an aide. Before the current crisis, Israel expected about 50,000 to 60,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union this year. According to Edelstein’s assessments, the number of Russian immigrants could even double if the economic crisis worsens and there is an outburst of anti-Semitism against Jews in Russia. The economic crisis has not yet driven large numbers of Russian Jews to apply for immigration visas from the Israeli Embassy. But Israeli officials in Russia say there has been a flurry of inquiries in recent days about immigration visas. A sharp increase in Russian immigration would likely have a dramatic effect on the Israeli economy. The more than 800,000 Jews from former Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel since 1989 have played a key role in fueling Israel’s rapid economic growth of about 6 percent a year during the early 1990s. But massive immigration also demands an increase in government spending on absorption – at a time when the government is committed to cutting the budget deficit. Next week, Edelstein will present his projections to a government committee on immigration and absorption headed by Natan Sharansky, who, like Edelstein, is himself an immigrant from Russia. Sharansky, Israel’s ministry of industry and trade, was in Russia this week to participate in the dedication of a synagogue in memory of victims of the Holocaust. On Wednesday, he held meetings with Jewish community leaders, who told him that the economic crisis has already sparked an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric. Meanwhile, President Clinton expressed his concern about instability in Russia and its possible ramifications for the country’s Jewish community. Clinton made his remarks in Moscow at a meeting with American Jewish leaders who came to the Russian capital for the commemoration of the new synagogue. “He understands the dangers of the Jewish community,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and one of the participants in the discussion. Clinton was in Moscow for two days of talks with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. (JTA correspondent Lev Krichevsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)