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Hard times in the promised land.

Word has reached Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union that resettlement in Israel is fraught with difficulties. The exodus which peaked last year is slowing down noticeably. Melanie Fenton looks at some fo the advantage and disadvantages experienced by new immigrants.

TALES OF widespread unemployment in Israel among new immigrants has considerably slowed down the rate of immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. The absorption minister, Yitzhak Peretz, did not expect more than 5,000 immigrants to arrive in May, one of the lowest monthly figures for the past two years. Some 420,000 Soviet Jews have come to Israel since late 1989, with about 200,000 Soviet Jews arriving in 1990 alone and another 145,000 last year.

Many of the immigrants have encountered problems of overcrowded accommodation, financial difficulty and unemployment. The reality of resettling is often in sharp contrast to expectations. Moreover, Berush Gur, head of the absorption ministry's Soviet Union division, says that an additional factor reducing the influx is new legislation in many of the ex-Soviet republics allowing citizens to buy and sell property. Suddenly Jews are finding themselves the owners of apartments, reducing the incentive to put up with inadequate living space in Israel.

Last April, in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Pesah, the Israeli immigration department held a big fair, exhibiting the cultural arts of immigrants in the country. It was intended to celebrate the arrival of 400,000 Jews over the past two years, coinciding with the commenmoration of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Israelis and new immigrants displayed little enthusiasm for the occasion.

"We already have many problems and now we have to deal with financing the Russian absorption," says Yosi Kauffman, 28, an Israeli-born presenter for the top Jerusalem radio station. This view is shared by many Israelis (especially those of the second and older generations) who feel the burden of coping with the influx is just too heavy. "Immigration has caused vast unemployment and an increase in inflation, it has made things hard for us all. Everyone here in Israel is paying a high price," comments Helick Azulai, a 33-year-old Israeli-born chartered accountant.

Vladimir Shifrin's family moved to Israel from Moscow just over a year ago. They now live in a three-roomed flat in a poorer area of Jerusalem. Vladimir was employed in Moscow as a musician and his wife worked with problematic children. Their two sons, twins aged 20, were taught music from the age of five and both of them were studying at the Moscow music academy when they emigrated.

"We left Russia so we could be free and to get away from the problems there," says Peter, one of the twins. He was translating for his family as the other speaks little Hebrew or English. "My mother said she was sick of being afraid and when you loo as Jewish as we do you know what anti-semitism is. We had all felt it in our family in Russia.

"When we first came to Israel it was very hard and we felt isolated. My mother made her first friend after about three months of being in Israel with an Israeli woman, mother of five, who lived close by," Peter continued.

"She was the first person who made her feel really welcome and to invite her back to her own house. Soon after she had made freinds with this woman, she went uninvited to her home, sat down and just cried uncontrollably. Her friend understood the hardship she was going through as she was once a new immigrant from Morocco."

Vladimir is working as a musician now in Israel. "I'm not making enough money to support the family yet, but I feel confident I will be in a year's time. The pay is poor and I get less than Israeli musicians at the moment because there are just too many Russian musican immigrants, many of them with a lot of talent. So, people know they can pay less because there are so many desperate for work.

"Being a musician in Russian is a social tradition among the Jewish communities. That is why there are so many Jewish musicians here."

Many Russian musicians are busing on street corners in the main cities of Israel, the only outlet for their talent. There is a prevalent sense of lost dignity.

Vladimir's sons, Peter and Gregory, are continuing their studies in music. All their living expenses and fees are paid by the Israeli immigration department. On top of that, Gregory received a scholarship from the American Friends of Israel society. They enjoy their studies, but their future as musicians is uncertain.

Vladimir's wife Olga is in college now hoping to resume her career, but she does not yet have the qualifications to be employed as a social worker in Israel. She was offered the opportunity to study on a one-year intensive course to improve her chances of finding a job. "It is very hard as most of my studies are in Hebrew. I just study all the time, even late into the night," Olga explains.

"We do feel at home here," Vladimir declares. "We have felt at home since we arrived in Israel, but it's a hard struggle for us to settle."

Unemployment and housing are not the only difficulties of adjustment which Russian immigrants have to face. Alcohol abuse is a growing worry. "Many experts in Israel in the field of alcohol rehabilitation are bracing themselves for an upsurge as Russian immigrants come to terms with their problem," the Jerusalem Post wrote recently.

Joseph Avnir, the director of a unit for the treatment of victims of alcoholism, claims that "ther eare many immigrants who are excessive drinkers but they don't come in for treatment. They are afraid to do so. In the Soviet Union, being an alcoholic was very shameful, their care and treatment is terrible. Many feel they will be able to turn over a new leaf in Israel, but there is much denial of the problem here. There are some 80,000 known excessive drinkers in the country, but in Jerusalem there are only 7,000 in care."

For some Russian immigrants, however, the Israeli medical system has been a saviour. Hospitals in the Soviet Union are often poorly equipped and lacking in medicines.

Natasha Macaret and her seven-year-old daughter, Catia Kosko, came to Israel in May 1991. Catia has had leukaemia since 1989. She was given chemotherapy in Moscow and Leningrad, but after several months relapsed both times. Then the leukaemia entered into the bone marrow in her spine. Hospitals in the Soviet U nion were unable to treat the problem.

Natasha wrote to all the Israeli hospitals when she learnt more advanced treatment was available there. Share Sedic hospital in Jerusalem replied, arranging for Natasha and Catia to become new immigrants so that Catia could be treated immediately. Natasha moved into a studio flat and Catia went straight to hospital; all expenses were paid by the Israeli immigration office.

Natasha said that it had been hard "to leave and come to Israel where we knew no one. We had all the support of our friends and family in Russia but for Catia's sake we became new immigrants. I am so thankful to everybody here, they have given us so much help. Some of the volunteers helping new Russian immigrants have and are still giving us unbelievable support."

Israel is still receiving thousands of immigrants each month and accommodation is still being built for them all over the country. Unemployment and inflation are rising, and resentment among Palestinians is becoming increasingly vocal as more settlements are founded in the Occupied Territories. Meanwhile, the struggle goes on for the new Russian immigrants trying to fit into their new homes. Implementing the right to return is proving a hard experience for native Israelis and immigrants alike.

Price tag for ideology

THE "RIGHT of return" for Jews from the old Soviet Union may be ideologically sacrosanct, but has wrought havoc with the Israeli economy. As a result, potential immigrants are staying away in droves and leaving Israel with a lot of empty (and costly) apartments on its hands.

Final government statistics for 1991 show that goes domestic product rose by 5.8% but per capita growth was negligible because of a similar rise in Russian immigration. Unemployment has hit a 20-year high at 10.9% of the workforce, with the rate for newcomers touching 40%. At the same time, exports have performed badly. Meant to be the engine of successful immigrant absorption, they fell by 2.3% last year.

In its annual report the Israeli central bank has strongly criticised the government's economic policies for failure to generate sustainable growth or jobs for the flood of immigrants. The bank's govenor, Jacob Frenkel, says that priorities must change. Deep cuts in spending on housing, defense and social security will have to be made, otherwise "we simply won't mobilise the amoun of money the economy needs today". In the meantime, he expects GDP this year to stagnate and investments to fall from a soaring 25.8% in 1991 to 10% in 1992, "which is lower than the economy needs."

Election campaigning for the Knesset, to be followed by prolonged bargaining to form a new govenment, is hardly conductive to rational economic decision-making however. The Shamir government's housing plans are a controversial example. During the build-up to the elections, the government has rushed appropriations worth $430m through the Knesset finance committee. At least 10,000 of the 17,000 planned housing units will be located in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, according to opposition members of the committee.

The programme of "creating facts" in the Occupied Territories is blantantly political. Last march after months of warnings, the Bush administration turned down an Israeli request for $10bn in desperately-needed housing loan guarantees precisely because Shamir and his hardline housing minister, Ariel Sharon, refused to freeze settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Frenkel, meanwhile, has attaced the huge state incentives for home building because they distort private investment.

The housing mess has already been criticised by Israel's state comptroller. In a report made public at the end of May, he attacked the ministry for graft, corruption and massive waste. Out of 23,000 housing units completed by December 1991, 8,000 remain empty while immigrants in Israel proper are crammed together in conditions similar to those they left behind in Russia. The new buildings are not situated near jobs or where the immigrants want to live. But even empty apartments can be used used to stake out a territorial claim.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; the resettlement of the former Soviet Union's Jewish communities in Israel
Author:Fenton, Melanie
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Who's in charge here.
Next Article:Autonomy, federation, independence.

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