Soviet Jews Are Troubled by Job, Housing Gaps
SITTING on the bed in a grubby hotel room that is now her only home, Galina Levin hugs her husband and baby daughter to her and tries bravely to keep a smile on her face."Before we came, we knew it would be difficult here," she says. "But not this difficult." Glad though they are to be out of the Soviet Union, the Levins' outlook, two months after their arrival in Israel, is distressing. Unable to find an affordable apartment, they are paying 750 shekels ($320) a month - more than half their government living allowance - to stay in the hotel. Galina, a third-year medical student now in a country where doctors are sweeping the streets because they cannot find work, is already thinking about a new career. Her husband Vladimir, a physical education teacher, speaks scarcely a word of Hebrew even after two months of intensive classes and knows his hopes of getting a job depend on how fast he can learn the language. The Levins are facing the sorts of problems that almost all new Soviet immigrants have to cope with. But as plane after plane full of newcomers lands at Ben-Gurion airport day after day, those problems are threatening to overwhelm the Israeli government's capacity to solve them. "Everyone knows that things will get worse before they get better," warns Deborah Lipson, spokeswoman for the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, an immigrants' rights group. "We just hope that they will get better." There are many who say that, for a country the size of Israel, the task of properly absorbing 1 million Soviet immigrants over the course of five years is simply impossible. "I don't see any way to absorb such large numbers," says Eduard Kuznetsov, a former Soviet dissident who now edits a Russian-language daily in Tel Aviv. "It's the most difficult problem in the world, and anyone who solves it deserves the Nobel Prize." For Mikhail Kleiner, head of the parliament's Aliyah and Absorption Committee, the solutions exist, but they are politically impossible to apply. "If the government was to do what has to be done to absorb the immigrants properly, it would have to take decisions that would cost the [ruling] Likud [party] political office," says Mr. Kleiner, himself a member of the Likud. (Aliyah is a Hebrew word meaning "ingathering.") "It would have to cut services to Israelis by 25 percent and raise taxes by 25 percent. And it is not going to do that," he concludes. The task of absorption is made no easier by the constant spats among the government officials responsible for immigrants. For a while, earlier this year, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon would not speak to Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz, while feuding ministers boycotted the "aliyah" Inner Cabinet meetings. "The problem is lack of leadership," complains Gad Ben-ari, spokesman for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency that brings Jews to Israel. "The prime minister shows interest in absorption but nothing more than that. Since he is not a member of the aliyah Cabinet it means the issue is not top priority." Yonatan Livni, a lawyer who assists Soviet immigrants with day-to-day legal problems and says he constantly runs up against official inaction, is blunter. "Absorption is happening despite the government, not because of it," he declares. Initially, immigration planners say, the authorities intended to let free-market forces handle absorption, trusting that private entrepreneurs would build the houses and create the jobs that the newcomers needed. The government's role was to be limited to providing an "absorption basket," a living allowance for one year, currently set at about $8,800 for a family of three. This free-market approach contrasted strongly with the dirigiste manner in which the government of the 1950s handled the last wave of aliyah in Israel's early years. Then, newcomers were obliged to live and work where the government decreed. "But this is like a flood and you have to deal with it through a flood authority," Kleiner argues. "Even I, who believe in the market, say you cannot wait for private initiative to deal with flood dangers." This became clear in the field of most urgent need, housing. Contractors unsure of their market simply would not build until the government last year promised to buy every apartment that the contractors could not sell to private clients. That guarantee galvanized the construction industry, and this year a record 97,000 new houses, apartments, caravans, and mobile homes will come on the market, according to the Housing Ministry. Even so, more than 70,000 people will be homeless by March next year, the Finance Ministry estimates. And it will take two years, if all goes well, for housing supply to meet demand. Now the focus of attention has turned to the longer-term crisis of employment, where the Israeli economy has so far proved itself unequal to the task of creating jobs. Nor has the government yet shown much initiative, critics complain. "The investment needed is immense and we don't see things happening," says the Zionist Forum's Ms. Lipson. "We don't see new factories going up and we don't see any government action to build more roads or railways." Increasingly alarmed by their prospects in Israel, recent immigrants are cautioning their friends and relatives still in the Soviet Union about the difficulties. Those warnings have stemmed the tide of immigration in recent months. From a peak of over 35,000 last December, arrivals dropped sharply during the Gulf war, and have picked up again only to half December's figure. "The problems of absorption here have an ongoing influence on the numbers who are coming," says Roza Finkelberg, the Zionist Forum official in charge of activities in the Soviet Union. "Nearly everyone still there has a relative here, and they get letters about how things are in Israel." The number of new immigrants is also expected to drop sharply in the next few months, in the wake of a Soviet law requiring all emigrants after July 1 to hold a passport, rather than a simple laissez passer. Immigration officials here do not expect the Soviet bureaucracy to be efficient in issuing the passports. Some analysts believe that if the difficulties facing new immigrants grow too enormous, people will simply stop coming, preferring to take their chances in the Soviet Union. Ms. Finkelberg, however, does not expect such a self-regulating effect. "They'll carry on leaving anyway, regardless of the problems here," she predicts. "Many say it cannot be worse than in the USSR; others say they see no solution to the problems in Russia while they think the problems here will eventually be solved; and some will come in the hope they can go on somewhere else." But the drop in arrivals does give the government a breathing space in which to devise more coherent plans to deal with the crisis. At the moment, Lipson says, the mood among Soviet immigrants is "worried, but not despairing yet." And optimists insist that despite the apparent immensity of the problems, Israel will manage - in time. "No one's going to starve, no one's going to be homeless," says novelist and political commentator Ze'ev Chafets. "We'll muddle through." But when immigrants are forced to let go of their government-provided financial lifeline at the end of their first year, the landing is hard. Over the next six months, more than 134,000 of last year's arrivals will lose their rights to the "absorption basket," and find themselves having to make do with a paltry $156 monthly rent subsidy and about $330 in unemployment benefits. When that reality begins to bite, predicts new immigrant Roman Timenshik, and if job prospects are no brighter than they are "that is when I would expect a more tragic and dramatic mood."