Unemployment, Poor Housing Slow Immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel : Exodus: About 140,000 have arrived this year; 200,000 to 300,000 had been expected.


By Moscow standards, the rainy Israeli winter should barely bring on a sneeze, but in Irena Krutik’s apartment--a converted chicken coop--the slicing wind and drippy ceilings are enough to send shivers through even a seasoned veteran of Russia’s climate.

“It’s impossible to heat this room,” said Krutik, wringing her hands to work up heat and work away frustration. “Five blankets aren’t enough either.”

Krutik came from the now-defunct Soviet Union 18 months ago and has been bouncing back and forth in temporary housing and part-time jobs ever since. She feels cheated by the accommodations and disillusioned by her stay so far in Israel. “There is no telephone and no hot water,” Krutik complained. “Nothing.”

Stories such as hers--an extreme one in a sea of difficulties facing new immigrants in Israel--have had the effect of slowing arrivals in 1991 from the old Soviet Union by half. As word seeps back to their former homes, more and more potential Jewish migrants are staying put, with no acceleration of movement in sight.


Once entering Israel at the rate of 20,000 or more a month, the immigrants’ pace has slowed to between 8,000 and 10,000 monthly. About 140,000 have arrived this year; between 200,000 and 300,000, depending on which government agency is making the estimate, had been expected.

“We know that Jews are literally sitting on their suitcases,” said Simha Dinitz, who heads the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization in charge of transporting the newcomers to Israel. “The reports of the conditions in Israel, especially employment, are the major obstacle to the mass immigration we expected.”

The slowdown is an acute embarrassment to the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, which seems chronically in the throes of confusion about how to smooth the influx and encourage the reluctant migrants to come.

Much-needed money has been sapped by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon’s projects to populate the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Israelis in order to offset the vast Palestinian population advantage in the disputed territories. Sharon has also invested large sums in building houses in the far north and south of the country, job-short places where Soviet Jews have been reluctant to settle.


The spending, which is done largely without precise public accountability, has led to squabbling among contending government ministries. “The Finance Ministry is not talking to the Construction Ministry, and neither is talking with Sharon, who is speaking to no one,” Dinitz quipped to reporters at a Friday press conference.

The chicken coop in which Krutik lives, now reinforced with concrete and stucco to make it more livable, was supposed to be fully renovated with funding from the Housing Ministry. The owners, members of a cooperative farm outside Jerusalem, complained that they did not receive enough money to finish the job and have left light bulbs dangling from ceilings and doors off their hinges. It doesn’t help Krutik’s morale that chickens in nearby coops at least get piped-in music to soothe ruffled feathers.

“I have paid three months’ rent in advance and can’t get the money back,” sighed Krutik, who is 56.

Not all is bleak on the immigrant landscape. The former Soviet citizens have literally remade the landscape in Israel. Several new orchestras have been formed from the influx of Soviet musicians. Teachers and scientists make up about a third of the new population, raising hopes that Israel will become a major research and development center. Nineteen members of Israel’s 52-strong Olympic team are former Soviet athletes.


Of the 328,000 immigrants who have arrived since late 1989, when Moscow eased its grip on Jewish citizens, about 125,000 have entered the job market. Of those, 45,000 have found work, another 40,000 are still in Hebrew language school and another 40,000 are officially listed as unemployed, according to government statistics. National unemployment stands at about 200,000, more than 10% of the work force.

Even many who have jobs complain that they are forced to work outside their professions. Krutik, for example, was a biology teacher but worked in Israel as a cook for foreign diplomats until they recently left the country.

The employment drought has not only stunted immigration but has spurred a few newcomers into fleeing. About 200 Soviet families flew to South Africa, lured by an apparently illicit offer of visas. The Pretoria government wants to send them back. Another small group traveled to Germany to resettle and are resisting expulsion efforts.

About 100 members of mixed Jewish-Christian families fled to Holland; about half have been returned and the rest are awaiting a decision on deportation. The total number of immigrants-turned-emigrants remains small--about 2,500, a Jewish Agency spokesman said, but he added: “It is bound to get worse if employment is not found for new immigrants.”


The hardships in Israel are not yet critical and might be seen as mere growing pains except for the general business-as-usual climate that prevails in the government. Shamir, in order to keep his rickety right-wing coalition intact, frequently doles out money to special interests, including Sharon’s settlement program in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the recent recipient of a special $12-million grant, as well as to religious parties and their institutions vying for a piece of the shrinking budget.

Some Soviet emigres believe that in order to get along here, they must adapt to the pork-barrel-heavy political system. They have suggested formation of an immigrant political party that, if it picked up a few seats in Parliament, could trade its votes for the kind of funds that now go to splinter rightist and religious groups.

Washington is also viewed as a potential savior. Next month, Israel is going to renew its request that the Bush Administration underwrite new loans totaling $10 billion over five years to finance housing and new jobs. American backing for the loans is considered a key to giving Israel an edge in international financial markets, where it must compete with newly democratized former Soviet satellites as well as the republics of the collapsed Soviet Union itself. With Israel’s economy in trouble--growth has failed to keep up with population--the loan guarantee is being viewed as a must. “Without the loans, it is going to be bad,” Dinitz said.