Soviet Jews in Israel Seek Voice With New Party
Job, housing woes force immigrants' hand
TEL AVIV — CHALLENGING Israel's political mainstream to hear their voice, immigrants from the former Soviet Union launched their own political party here yesterday, hoping to capitalize on widespread disillusion among their fellow newcomers.
"It is unacceptable that such a large part of the people are not involved in the decisionmaking process that affects them," says Yuli Kosharovsky, the engineer who is leading the National Movement for Democracy and Aliyah. (Aliyah is the Hebrew word for "ingathering," now used for immigration to Israel.)
Appealing to the 270,000 new Russian immigrants who will be using their potential political clout for the first time in June's elections, Mr. Kosharovsky says, "We want to be pragmatic. Our questions are not the normal questions of Israeli politics, war and peace, and the future of Palestine. They are everyday questions like the economy, health care, and education.
"Housing in Israel should be much cheaper ... and the whole structure of the economy should be changed to make room for the 50 percent of immigrants who come here with academic qualifications," he added. "Our system now is trying to make janitors out of doctors, turning engineers into dishwashers. This is not a human or an economic approach."
Those words are bound to appeal to new immigrants such as Mark Hatzkin, who was to be found in a Jerusalem employment exchange last Wednesday poring over a directory of Israeli industrial companies in his continuing search for work.
"No party represents the interests of the new immigrants in an effective way," he said, as he painstakingly drew up a list of firms that might be able to use his skills as an instruments specialist in construction engineering.
Mr. Hatzkin is just one of tens of thousands of victims of the major problem facing new Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union - the shortage of jobs. Nearly 50 percent of the new arrivals are out of work, according to official figures, and less than a quarter of them have found employment in their own professional field.
Hatzkin, for example, said he worked as a security guard for a month, but gave up that job because it left him no time to seek more suitable employment, and now works part-time cleaning offices.
"I'm 43," he explained. "I have to make every effort to find a job in my field now, because of my age. In two years' time it will be even harder."
Marina, an electrical engineer also lining up at the employment agency for an interview, does not see how things could get any harder.
After working as a checkout girl at a supermarket and at a bank she says she has "no hope" of a job as an engineer.
"I am not suffering too much myself," she says, "but I know many of my friends are completely depressed" about their lack of job prospects.
News of this kind of experience has been quick to reach Jews still in the Commonwealth of Independent States, and their reaction is reflected starkly in the falling numbers of new arrivals at Ben Gurion airport.
After peaking in December 1990, when more than 35,000 immigrants arrived from the Soviet Union, the flood subsided to a steady 9,000 a month during the second half of 1991, before dropping to 6,237 last month, and plunging to an estimated 3,000 this month.
No one doubts that "the main cause is unemployment in Israel," as Deborah Lipson, of the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, an immigrants' rights group, puts it. "As long as [Jews in the commonwealth] don't feel that they have to leave tomorrow because their lives are in danger, they are not coming."
For those already here, the immediate future is bleak. Although Commerce and Industry Minister Moshe Nissim told the Knesset (parliament) recently that some 600 factories offering 22,000 jobs will be up and running in 18 months' time, "at the moment, down in the field, we can't see these factories opening," Ms. Lipson says.
Blaming the government for a lack of planning, Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency, which brings the immigrants to Israel, does not think the private businesses being created will solve the problem.
"The major thing we can do about this is to start large-scale projects to create jobs," he argues. "What we need most now is to improve our infrastructure." Investment in roads, communications, and energy projects "would create jobs for tens of thousands of engineers, architects, and computer specialists" who are flooding the employment market.
"Most of the highly skilled immigrants would not mind doing manual work provided they believed that in a year they could work in their profession," Mr. Dinitz says. "But if they lose hope of this ... they are reluctant to come."
Although fewer immigrants are arriving now, aliyah experts believe that the Jews in the commonwealth will eventually come to Israel if the employment situation improves here. The number of applicants for commonwealth exit visas is rising, they point out, but those who receive them simply sit on their suitcases.
Faced with the blunt reality that fewer Jews arrived this January, for fear of job difficulties, than arrived in January 1991 fearing Iraqi Scud missiles, "whoever is elected will have to make employment their top priority, or be responsible for the calamity that will happen," Dinitz says.
"To have the opportunity to attract 1 million Jews here, and to miss it, would be inexcusable."