FOLLOWING a lull of half a decade, Israel is bracing for its fifth major wave of immigration since the creation of the Jewish state. As many as 500,000 Jews could land on Israeli shores over the next five years from the Soviet Union alone if Moscow makes good on recently announced plans to codify a more liberal emigration policy.
The prospect of mass immigration is welcome in a country which in recent years, according to the Jewish Agency, has seen more of its Jewish citizens leaving than arriving. The Jewish Agency is a non-government organization which is the principal conduit for private contributions to Israel from Jews living in the diaspora. During the past five years the net outflow has averaged 15,000 per year, the Agency says.
But hopes have been attended by fears that Israel is unprepared to absorb the expected influx of newcomers.
``The idea of the state of Israel is to receive Jews at all times and under all circumstances,'' says David Bedein, a media consultant who worked as a social worker with new immigrants for 12 years. ``The reality is that it's tough.''
``If the numbers are anywhere near [what is] predicted it will be a real crisis for Israel,'' adds Hebrew University immigration expert Eliezer Jaffe. ``But it's a crisis Israel can surmount.''
Since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, the gathering of exiles and immigrants has been one of the most salient successes of Zionism. Over the past 40 years more than 1.8 million Jews have emigrated to Israel, which in recent years has been losing a crucial demographic race to Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip which Israel occupied in 1967.
But in recent years, experts say, the ability of Israel to absorb large numbers of new arrivals has atrophied. New arrivals complain of long and humiliating delays in being processed and of disorganized housing arrangements. Thousands of recent arrivals have remained stranded for up to five years in privately-run ``absorbtion centers'' because of a shortage of public housing.
Experts say one main problem is the confusion of roles between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. The latter within the past year agreed to relinquish, then reclaimed its role as the main agency responsible for absorbing new immigrants.
More crucial is the sheer financial burden of accommodating new immigrants. The average per capita cost for settling Soviet Jews is $20,000, including free housing for six months, subsidized housing for an additional five years, free Hebrew lessons, and education allowances, according to a Jewish Agency spokesman.
The problem of costs - a solution to which is considered crucial to attracting and holding immigrants - has been compounded by the ill health of the Israeli economy, which has made it more difficult to provide jobs and adequate government housing.
``There's a correlation between the fact that Israelis are leaving and the fact that Israel has difficulty attracting immigrants into the country,'' says the Jewish Agency spokesman, Gad Ben-Ari.
``The problem of absorption in Israel is not a problem of the absorption ministry, it's a problem of the whole country,'' adds Jay Shapiro, an American-born physicist who has devoted five years to the immigrant system.
``How did you get people to settle in the US? Not because of an absorption ministry but because there was economic opportunity.''
A master-plan approved by Israel's Cabinet last month budgets $40 million for new and rehabilitated housing for new immigrants. It also calls on the Jewish Agency to raise $80 million from Jews abroad to help underwrite the costs of the expected wave of immigrants.
The first major wave of immigration to Israel occurred in the early 1950s when an influx of Jews from Arab countries plus the remaining survivors of the Holocaust doubled Israel's population to 1.4 million.
Several thousand, mostly European and North American Jews, followed in the years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, though, in a precedent Israeli planners are anxious to avoid repeating, nearly one-third left, dissatisfied with life in Israel.
The third and fourth waves came in the early 1970s and early 80s, respectively, when 180,000 Soviets and half of Ethopia's 30,000 Jews emigrated to escape government persecution.
The latest wave is expected to materialize if and when the Soviet Union, responding to the liberalizing impulse of glasnost (openness), follows through on promises to make it easier for Jews and other minorities to obtain exit visas.
Fifty thousand Jews are expected to leave the Soviet Union for Israel this year alone, half of next year's possible total. Although in recent years the vast majority of Soviet Jews have ``dropped out'' before arriving, opting once outside the Soviet Union to go to the United States and other Western countries instead of Israel, tighter US immigration laws could shift the proportions. Pending legislation in Congress would limit new visas to Jews with relatives already living in the US.
Experts say one key to alleviating the anticipated crunch will be convincing new arrivals to take advantage of ample housing away from the main population and industrial centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The problem is that jobs in the hinterlands are scarce.
Experts also see a greater role for municipalities in meeting the housing and job requirements of new immigrants. The municipalities have been highly critical of the national system of absorption.
In the end, absorbing the expected influx may also depend on the kind of grassroots efforts that, during the peak years of Jewish immigration in the 1950s, prompted thousands of Israelis to open their homes to complete strangers until adequate housing was found.
``If thousands come, people will think of themselves as one big expanded family,'' predicts Jay Shapiro. ``We will find a way because to fail will be so tragic.''