THE prospect of a massive influx of Jews from the Soviet Union has brought joy to most Israelis. In the dingy Jerusalem suburb of Katamonim, it has brought gloom. Like all Israelis, residents of this working-class neighborhood of mainly North African or Sephardic Jews believe that attracting immigrants is crucial to Israel's survival.
But mixed with acceptance of the need for aliya (immigration) is a growing concern that the cost of providing for the new arrivals - part of a wave that could eventually swell Israel's Jewish population by as much as 15 percent - will come at the expense of the country's largely Sephardic underclass. With unemployment already high and levels of social services declining, the effect could be to widen the social and economic gap that has long divided Israel's Sephardic and Ashkenazic (European) communities.
``There are already inequities in public spending; 200,000 people are unemployed; factories are closing. With this happening how can we suddenly absorb a million new immigrants?'' asks Katamonim activist Yamin Swissa.
Leaders of Israel's Sephardic community and hard-pressed ``development towns'' say the effects of Soviet immigration are already being felt. Funding for Project Renewal has languished as donors from abroad shift their attention from rehabilitating poor neighborhoods to absorbing the 100,000 new immigrants expected this year.
Even as construction of low income housing has slowed, the government plans to subsidize up to 40,000 units to provide for the Soviet emigr'ees. Meanwhile welfare and unemployment benefits are dropping, as fees are being assessed to fund Israel's once-free education system.
``For years, the establishment has been saying that there's no money. Now that the immigrants have come, suddenly there's unlimited money,'' says Ben-Dror Yemimi, editor of The Hammer, a Hebrew monthly devoted to social issues. ``Just under the surface there's a growing bitterness and hostility toward the newcomers.''
The potential harm to Israel's less privileged may be blunted by the economic growth that waves of immigration have historically generated.
A report issued by one of Israel's leading commercial banks predicts that up to half a million Soviet immigrants will boost the country's growth rate from its current sluggish 1.1 percent to 6 percent within four years.
Economic growth will ``accelerate dramatically under the impact of new immigrants,'' says the Bank Hapoalim study.
But the report also predicts disruptive short-term effects, including increased unemployment, that will hit the Sephardic community the hardest.
Thirty years ago social discontent among North African Jews welled into rioting in Haifa and spawned Israel's first organized ethnic protest movement, the Black Panthers, which demanded equal opportunities for non-Ashkenazic Jews.
The latest wave of immigration has led to a new social protest movement, the Forum for Social Justice and Peace, ``We're going to declare war to prevent the government from sacrificing another generation of Sephardic youth in order to absorb the current wave of Soviet aliya,'' says founding member Mr. Swissa.
Most Sephardic Jews emigrated to Israel early, before the government was able to provide adequate absortion facilities, and have since lagged in education and job opportunities.
When a vast Sephardic-dominated wave of nearly 700,000 Jews landed in the 1950s, the young state was spending most of its resources fighting wars. The government herded new arrivals into squalid transit camps.
By the mid-1970s, when the first wave of Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel, the country was ready with money, services, and housing to cushion the transition.
``We had tents, they have apartments: That's a formula for envy and anger,'' says American-born Jay Shapiro, who has worked a decade on immigration issues.
The disparity has been highlighted by the fact that Soviet emigrants - 5,000 arrive each month - have been more skillful in exacting benefits from the government, and have as advocates influential former Soviet ``prisoners of conscience'' like Nathan Sharansky and Ida Nudel.
Ultimately the new Soviet arrivals - half a million are expected within five years, government and Jewish Agencies estimate - hold the competitive edge because of higher education levels and professional skills.
``The Russians are coming equipped to compete in the Israeli Western technical society,'' says Hebrew University immigration expert Eliezer Jaffe. ``They can make progress much faster.''
``Every wave of immigration has been resentful of the privileges given to the next wave,'' adds Professor Jaffe. ``It's a law and will probably go on forever.''
Eager to alleviate tensions, Mr. Sharansky recently met with leaders of Sephardic communities to assure them that absorption of Soviet Jews would not jeopardize closing the social gap.
But Sephardic leaders say government intervention will be needed to contain growing resentment. ``This is a minor issue now, but it can quickly blow out of proportion if it's not handled properly,'' says Mr. Shapiro.