Influx of Soviet Immigrants Poses Challenge for Israel

SEVEN days after she traveled by air and rail from her Black Sea home, Nina Lieberman sat tired but buoyant in the newly expanded immigrants' lounge and explained why three generations of her family abandoned the Soviet Union for a new life in the ``Promised Land.'' ``I was scared, frightened. I felt I had to get out of there,'' said Mrs. Lieberman, a Jewish engineer from Melytopol. ``I don't expect an easy life. I know there will be problems. But here we are in our own place,'' she said, gesturing beneath a banner proclaiming in Russian, ``Welcome to Your Native Land.''

It is a scene being played out with increasing frequency these days at Israel's international airport, where thousands of Soviet Jews are pouring into the country in a massive immigration that officials predict will rival that of the early years of the Jewish state.

Three elements suddenly merged in 1989 to produce the huge exodus to Israel: an easing of Soviet emigration policies, tighter US immigration quotas, and the belief among Soviet Jews that Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms will unleash violent anti-Semitism.

A total of 24,700 immigrants, mostly Soviets, arrived in 1989, five times more than the year before. No one is sure how many of the Soviet Union's 2 million or more Jews will leave, but estimates start at 50,000 in 1990 and shoot up to 750,000 throughout the decade.

``It's like a storm. You see the clouds, you listen to the wind. It's not yet a terrible rain, but everyone knows it's in the air,'' said Knesset member Michael Kleiner, chairman of parliament's committee on immigration and absorption.

So far, the government has coped with the influx, providing housing, stipends, and Hebrew lessons for the immigrants. But the coming absorption problem tops Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's agenda, an aide says, ahead of the peace process. Some Israelis worry that the nation's already stretched economy and fractious national unity government cannot handle the coming flood.

The Cabinet has already approved a $2.03 billion retraining and resettlement campaign for 100,000 new immigrants. But the money has not yet been found.

The Knesset has authorized the building of 33,000 new housing units, but Finance Minister Shimon Peres has yet to release the funds, apparently because 3,000 of the housing units are destined for the occupied West Bank.

Mr. Kleiner says bickering among offices responsible for integrating the new immigrants could reach crisis proportions. He proposes that Mr. Shamir appoint an Army general to direct absorption and make the tough choices.

Some Israeli citizens grumble about the huge influx as well. With unemployment at 9 percent, advocates for the poor say any new jobs will likely go to the Soviets, many of whom come with advanced technical training. In a stunt that received national coverage, one activist wrote the Soviet leader recently asking that Mr. Gorbachev not let the Jews go.

But such public dissent is rare. While concerned about the strain to the economy, many Israelis are enthusiastic about the booming immigration.

Two years into the bitter Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, they see it as a validation of the state founded 41 years ago as a haven for Jews worldwide. Right-wing ministers hail the immigrants as the answer to the left's predictions that, with a smaller Jewish than Arab birthrate, Jews could be a minority in Israel and the territories by 2010.

Kleiner, among the more optimistic about new arrivals, estimates it will cost $10 billion to integrate 300,000 new immigrants in the next three years. The biggest hindrance, he said, is lack of transportation. The only Soviet-authorized emigration route is through Budapest and Bucharest, and seats on flights are limited. But officials are negotiating for direct flights between Tel Aviv, Leningrad, and Moscow. Once the deal is complete, he says, the flood will begin.

In many ways, the Liebermans are typical of the Soviet Jews arriving these days. Unlike the ``refuseniks'' who gained world attention in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Liebermans first asked to leave in 1989. They said they decided to emigrate 10 years before, but did not apply for permission fearing government reprisal, such as lost jobs and apartments.

They described a vague spiritual connection to the Holy Land, but said they were propelled to leave by the belief that something awful was coming for Jews in the new Soviet society of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restucturing).

But Kleiner has no illusions about the challenge ahead. ``Only a crazy country would be ready for such a task,'' he says. ``A half year ago no one took immigration seriously. It will cause hardships to Israelis. We'll have to lower our standard of living. But this is a burden Israeli society has to finance.''

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