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With Situation in Israel Tense, Many Russians Are Staying Put

May 8, 2002
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After fleeing the tense Caucasus Mountains region, Ilya and Taira Shubayev planned to immigrate to Israel.

But the couple, both in their 40s, are planning to stay here for now because of the violence in Israel. They worry that their son, 16, and daughter, 14, would be endangered by serving in the Israeli army.

The Shubayev family is not alone. Immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union is down 50 percent this year.

Approximately 5,200 new immigrants arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union in the first four months of this year, a drop of nearly 50 percent from the same period in 2001 — and the 2001 figures were down 40 percent to 50 percent from previous years.

The improving economic situation in Russia and Ukraine, where the majority of Jews in the former Soviet Union live, plays a role. Most emigration from Ukraine and Russia today is coming from small towns, where the economic recovery has not been as strong.

Alexander Faytelson, 38, a Jewish businessman from Ukraine, canceled his planned aliyah after a month-long visit to Israel earlier this year. He decided to settle in Moscow instead.

“I simply wouldn’t find a good job in Israel, in today’s situation, and for that matter, in Germany. In Moscow my chances are greater,” he said.

Faytelson’s elder brother moved to Boston a few years ago, and his parents left Lviv, in western Ukraine, for Germany last March.

But Vladimir Shapiro, a sociologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, told JTA that the main factor behind the decline in aliyah is the tense situation in Israel.

“In addition to simple fear, there is a new widespread psychological phenomenon that stops a lot of people — the absence of a light at the end of the tunnel, of the futility of the peace process,” Shapiro said.

A 1998 survey that his group conducted showed that 45 percent of Russian and Ukrainian Jews said Israel was a more secure place for them than Russia or Ukraine, while only 5 percent to 7 percent thought the reverse.

“Today, the most probable result would be exactly the opposite,” Shapiro said.

Other experts cite additional factors. Roman Spektor, vice-president of the Va’ad Federation umbrella group of Russian Jews, told JTA that one factor behind lower emigration to Israel is the “depletion of the aliyah reservoir” from the former Soviet Union.

“The improving situation in Russia and growing political stability also shouldn’t be discarded, whereas the anti-Semitic outbursts” that occur occasionally in the former Soviet Union “have only a marginal influence, in my opinion” Spektor said.

Almost one million Jews from the former Soviet Union moved to Israel between 1989 and 2001. An estimated 10 percent of them have returned — and the return flow has intensified recently.

While emigration to Israel is decreasing, the number of Jews moving from the former Soviet Union to Germany increases each year.

The former Soviet Union still provides the main source of new immigrants to Israel, giving 60 percent to 65 percent of the total aliyah figures.

Of the 737 new immigrants who arrived in Israel last week, 480 were from the former Soviet Union, according to the Jewish Agency.

Alexey Vayman, a 25-year-old office worker from a town near Moscow, made aliyah in late April, despite the ongoing violence and the poor chances of finding a good job.

“I am more scared by the terrorism in Russia itself, where terrorists are in power,” Vayman said, referring to the Chechen war and to 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow allegedly organized by the Russian security service.

But, he added, his coworkers, Jews and non-Jews alike, were surprised by his decision to emigrate to Israel in the current situation.

For many, Russia seems like the better option right now.

“I was stunned to find out that the Israeli on an El Al flight to Moscow was a guy in his 30s returning to no other place than Kazan, which never seemed to me a decent place to live,” said Marc Obukhovsky, a 55-year-old Moscow-based sales manager.

Obukhovsky himself left for Israel in 1991, but later returned. He now shuttles between Moscow and Jerusalem, where part of his family lives.

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