'I Thought Israel Was More of an Ideal Country'

April 28, 1991|By ROBERT RUBY | ROBERT RUBY,Robert Ruby is The Sun's Mideast correspondent.

NETANYA, ISRAEL. — After leaving the Soviet Union for a new country, finding an apartment in a new city and learning a new language, Felix Shai is beginning to worry that Israel offers Soviet immigrants less than they sought.

Mr. Shai and his wife, Olga, are seeking jobs. In the Ukraine, he worked as a biochemist, she as a hospital bacteriologist, making them only two among thousands of well-educated Soviet immigrants, some of them disheartened, in a country hard pressed to offer affordable housing and productive work.

"I thought Israel was more of an ideal country," said Mr. Shai, speaking for himself, his wife, their daughter and his parents by virtue of his having the best Hebrew. "Now I see it is just an ordinary state."

Tens of thousands of recent Soviet immigrants are paying the price of inaction and confusion on the part of Israel's government, whose officials seemed to go into shock when large numbers of Soviet Jews began arriving in late 1989.

Ministries based their plans for absorption on assumptions that turned out to be wrong and, many months later, are still trying to correct the mistakes. Officials wrote budgets expecting that 40,000 Soviet Jews would move to Israel in 1990; 200,000 actually arrived, overwhelming the housing and job markets.

Another 400,000 were expected by the end of 1991, a figure officials cut to 200,000 after immigrants began telling relatives in the Soviet Union to stay where they are unless conditions here improve.

The gloomiest forecast to date was issued last week by Israel's central bank. It predicted unemployment rates will rise to at least 12 percent and stay there, a figure high enough to convince 15 to 20 percent of the Soviet immigrants to leave Israel.

"We couldn't believe the government could be sleeping so long," said Hanna Ofek, head of Netanya's immigration department. "We knew there were going to be a lot of doctors, engineers; we knew there were going to be a lot of highly trained people -- and nobody did anything to prepare."

The result, according to one private think tank, is "an economic 'Alice in Wonderland,' " in which ministries dicker over the fine print for programs that, if they ever begin, could accommodate only a small fraction of the Soviet Jews already here.

Israel is a small country of generally modest means suddenly having to meet enormous social and economic needs. A nation of 4.9 million citizens, it is expecting Soviet Jews to increase the population by up to 25 percent by 1995. (About 1.8 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but are not Israeli citizens.)

For the United States to experience the same demographic shock, the populations of California, New York and Texas would have to double in the same four- to five-year period and the newcomers would speak little or no English, need jobs and initially be dependent on government grants. Many of the newcomers would arrive with elderly or handicapped relatives needing costly services.

"If you look more than a few years ahead, the new immigration for Netanya, for the country and the Jewish people is the best thing that could happen," Ms. Ofek said. "But if nothing is done for them, it will be difficult. We don't have enough manpower to absorb them. We don't have enough jobs."

Soviet Jews present new, sometimes bizarre problems. Thanks to Soviet immigration, Israel has an enormous surplus of physicians, engineers and Russian literature teachers, few of whom have realistic hopes of finding jobs in their specialties. It also has an acute shortage of Russian-speaking social workers, the people who could help families adjust to having to change professions.

Netanya is one of the immigrants' preferred destinations, thanks to the city's location on the Mediterranean shore and being within commuting distance of two major job markets, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

City officials say they can only guess at how many immigrants live here. The best estimate comes from the number of requests for gas masks before the Persian Gulf war: 22,000 from recent immigrants, or 5,000 more immigrants than were known to the municipality.

About 10 Soviet families arrive in Netanya each day. Before the war and before news about the job market filtered back to the Soviet Union, the daily average was 20.

An entire new society has emerged, large enough to support two daily and seven weekly Russian-language newspapers and to bring with it household pets, marital problems and prostitutes.

"Not everyone is nice; not everyone is bad," said Ayala Oreng, a social worker in the immigration office. "Maybe a lot of them came because they had problems and they thought they could start over here. But of course they have the problems here."

The Shais include 28-year-old Felix, 30-year-old Olga, their 6-year-old daughter and Felix's parents. They arrived last September, choosing Netanya because a cousin had settled here 18 years before.

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