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Russian economic crisis spurs Israel to prepare for aliyah wave

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JERUSALEM, Sept. 7 (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, presented plans to a Cabinet committee on absorption Monday that take into account a potential immigrant increase of at least 10 to 20 percent. Before the current crisis, Israel expected about 50,000 to 60,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union this year. According to Edelstein, himself an immigrant from Russia, 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. Edelstein has already begun to survey Israeli towns that have vacant homes to absorb a large influx of immigrants. At the meeting, a new committee was created to draw up plans for handling the possible sharp increase of immigrants. Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of industry and trade, told the committee that on his visit to Russia last week he found an increasingly worried Jewish community. “The self-confidence of Russian Jews has been shaken significantly,” said Sharansky, who also immigrated to Israel from Russia. “Whether the Russian government succeeds or fails at attaining its goals and imposing a tougher economic regime, the Jews do not see themselves profiting, and this concern creates the basis for an increase in aliyah.” The head of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, an immigrants-rights party, Sharansky had gone to Russia to participate in the dedication of a synagogue in memory of victims of the Holocaust. In a sign the government is taking seriously the possibility of an increase in immigration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman both attended the committee meeting. 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 the 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. (JTA correspondent Lev Krichevsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)

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