Drop in immigration Israel's 'greatest shame,' opposition party says Plunging statistics major election issue

April 20, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Jacob Glaich thought his mother was dead. In 1939, when he was 4, she left for a trip to her native Poland and was lost in the tumult of the Nazi invasion.

Fifty-two years later, the Tel Aviv businessman got a call from the Jewish Agency: His mother was alive and living in the Ukraine. She had not made contact, she explained last year after she came to live with him in Israel, because Soviet police watched Jews and threatened her when she tried to write.

"This is what Israel's about," Mr. Glaich said of his 76-year-old mother's new life as an immigrant here. "This is a place for people who have no country. This is a place where Jewish people can live free of fear."

But has Israel done enough to bring them here? The opposition Labor Party says no, and it is making that question a major issue in the national election campaign.

"This is the greatest shame in Jewish history," Shimon Peres, a former Labor prime minister, charged last week. "We could have had a million immigrants." Poor planning by the Likud government fumbled the opportunity, he said.

The allegation is commonly heard these days. Israel has seen the number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union plunge. Immigration is at its lowest levels since late 1989, just before the teetering Soviet Union allowed a surge of Jewish departures.

The Likud bloc defends its record. Friday, thousands of immigrant families sat down to their first Passover Seder in Israel. The government provided the traditional meal to many in large dining halls at mobile home camps or hotels, where they are being housed at government expense.

Nearly 400,000 immigrants have arrived since January 1990, about 90 percent of them from the former Soviet Union. The figure can be viewed two ways: It is about half the number the government had originally predicted would come, but it is a phenomenal 10 percent increase in the country's population.

"It's very complicated for a small country to absorb this many people," says Boaz Shviger, an official of the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body responsible for bringing them here. "This itself is something to be proud of."

Indeed, Israel is perhaps unique in the Western world in arguing over how to bring in more people.

That goal was being stunningly fulfilled at a rate of 9,000 new immigrants each week at its peak in December 1990. But in 1992, the rate has been much lower.

Most agree the drop is chiefly due to high unemployment among immigrants, aggravated by poor housing situations and difficult social adjustments.

The evidence is on the street corners, where Russian immigrants play music, or just beg, for a few shekels.

"In Leningrad, I was a teacher, with a good apartment and a motorcycle," said David Hrishtaim, 44. He was dressed in poor but neat clothes, and he stood on Ben Yehuda street with an open briefcase singing songs for coins.

"I came here because of rising anti-Semitism. I was afraid for my little daughter," he said of his decision to emigrate nine months ago. "I have a great disappointment here. I expected it would be difficult with money. But I cannot get a job here. There are so many teachers, and I must learn Hebrew. My wife washes dishes and flats. My daughter is not happy in school.

"I think it was a mistake to come here," he said with a sad shake of his head.

An estimated one-third to one-half of the recent Soviet immigrants are unemployed. Many of the rest are underemployed -- in part-time or menial jobs. The influx is top-heavy with professionals like doctors and teachers, who can tTC only find work as porters.

The government gives immigrants a living allowance for a year. But landlords sent their rents skyrocketing, and the Russian-language papers here are full of stories of families who pay all their allowance for shoddy housing and then can barely eat.

The Labor Party argues that the government has tried a scattershot of programs that have failed to provide jobs and housing.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and Likud doesn't have any clear idea about what they should be doing or shouldn't be doing," said Susan Hattis Rolef, a member of the Labor Party Central Committee.

Labor also argues that economic opportunities cannot be made without massive loans from abroad, which depend on getting loan guarantees from the United States.

Labor Party leaders say Likud has sacrificed the guarantees to keep building religious settlements in the occupied territories in defiance of Washington.

"To have more Jews is more important than to have more roofs in Judea and Samaria," Mr. Peres argued, using the biblical terms for the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir bluntly rejects that conclusion and has vowed never to stop the settlements. In an interview last week with the Jerusalem Post, he said that the drop in immigration is only temporary.

"There will always be waves," he said. "I hope we're approaching a new wave."

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