JOHN BIERMAN July 9 1990



JOHN BIERMAN July 9 1990




The wide-bodied El Al jet taxied to a halt at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport and discharged its diverse human cargo from the Soviet Union. Down the steps trooped dark-eyed, swarthy merchants from Samarkand and sophisticated, fair-skinned urbanites from Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev—five of them carrying pedigree dogs that they had refused to leave behind. There were many families with small children, and several childless young couples, holding hands as they stepped tentatively into a strange new world. And there were old people, stiff-limbed, bemedalled veterans of the Second World War, as well as wrinkled babushkas (grandmothers) from the windswept plains of Ukraine. They did not expect to start their lives again, the old people said, but to end them in peace. “We have come home,” said 83-yearold Shyel Aronovich Yegudkin from Byelorussia. The 220 recent arrivals were part of the massive movement of Soviet Jews to Israel, which is changing the face of the Middle East.

The Israelis, recalling the biblical exodus from Egypt in the 13th century BC, are calling it Exodus ’90. To them, greeting the nightly jets with tears, kisses and flowers, Exodus ’90 presents an enormous opportunity, a daunting challenge and a dramatic reaffirmation of the reason for their country’s very existence: to serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews from around the world. But, to the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to the Arab world at large, the movement seems more a nightmare than a dream. Even moderate Arabs complain that the massive influx of Soviets is tipping the Middle East power balance even further in the Jewish state’s favor, and that it represents a major new setback to the Palestinians’ struggle for a state of their own in the occupied territories. As Jordan’s King Hussein told Maclean ’s, “We have to be alarmed” (page 29).

From any perspective, the numbers are staggering. In June alone, about 15,000 Soviets arrived in Israel, fleeing the turmoil of economic and political collapse and an upsurge of anti-Semitism (page 28). In August, as many

as 20,000 more are expected, and by year’s end the total for 1990 could reach 200,000, bringing a multitude of professional skills to a tiny nation that will be hard pressed to put them to immediate use (pages 26 and 27). In all, more than one million Soviets have signified their intention to emigrate to Israel.

Hostility: Israeli officials deny that there is any connection between the latest ally a, or return to Israel, and the intifadeh, the 21/2-year-old uprising of the Palestinians in the occupied territories (page 30). But, with Israel under the most hard-line government in its 42-year history and the Middle East peace process at a standstill, many Arabs have drawn their own pessimistic conclusions. And last January, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir himself suggested a linkage when he said that a big aliya required “a big Israel.” That incautious remark inflamed latent Arab hostility to any major increase in Jewish immigration. The Israeli government has subsequently issued assurances that it will not send new immigrants to live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip— although it will not prevent them from living there if they want to.

Last week, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, the controversial ex-general who is heading the program to absorb the new immigrants, reinforced the official position. He said that the government would build housing for the immigrants only inside the Green Line, the border

that existed before 1967, when the Israelis captured the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Day War. Explaining the reasons for that decision by a hard-line government that is otherwise committed to a growing Jewish presence in the territories, Sharon said that he did not want to jeopardize “this historic opportunity to bring these Jews home.”

Clearly, Sharon had in mind Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent threat to stem the flow of emigration if Soviet Jews were sent to the West Bank and Gaza. Many analysts said that Sharon’s move was also an attempt to defuse U.S. opposition to Israeli settlement in the occupied territories in general. And in listing the areas where immigrant housing would be built—Galilee, the Negev Desert, the Wadi Ara and the region around Tel Aviv—Sharon made no mention of East Jerusalem.

That area had been part of the West Bank until the Israelis annexed it in 1967, and its loss remains a particular grievance with Arabs.

Housing: Only about 250 of the 50,000 Soviet Jews to arrive so far this year have settled in the West Bank and Gaza. But some diplomats say that 10 per cent of them have found homes in East Jerusalem. And the government’s position is not entirely clear. Asked by Maclean ’s last week to clarify whether Sharon’s statement meant no new housing in East Jerusalem, Shamir replied with apparent irritation: “Of course in Jerusalem [housing] will be built,” he said. “I don’t know what it means, East Jerusalem or West Jerusalem. Houses will be built.”

Sharon, the ultranationalist architect of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, faces a huge and complex task in managing the new immigration. The Soviet influx, taking place over an estimated three-year period, will increase Israel’s existing population by almost 25 per cent, to 5.5 million from 4.5 million. The immigrants

need housing and employment, and the government will have to pay for education and health care. The cost will be enormous. The Jewish Agency, a semi-official body that oversees the resettlement of Jews from abroad, and the volunteer organizations that work with it worldwide have begun a massive fund-raising drive. Jewish leaders outside of Israel say that they hope to raise at least $700 million of the agency’s $4.2-billion overall resettlement budget. The Jewish communities in Canada and the United States will provide most of the outside funding (page 31).

For the Soviet Jews themselves, the process of aliya has to begin with a written invitation, arranged by the Jewish Agency, from a relative already in Israel. Individuals or heads of families can then ask for exit permits from Soviet authorities, who now impose virtually no restraints on Jewish emigration. They also apply for entry visas from the Israeli consular office in Moscow. Applications are currently running at the rate of 1,000 families a day.

In fact, the criteria set by both Israel and the Soviet Union seem remarkably liberal. Soviet

citizens need not necessarily have the word “Jew” stamped in their internal passports to satisfy either country’s requirements. Under Israel’s Law of Return, one Jewish grandparent is enough to make a person eligible for automatic citizenship. And to avoid breaking up the families of mixed marriages, spouses and children are allowed into Israel even without that degree of Jewish lineage. Said Jewish Agency spokesman Gad Ben Ari: “A high percentage of those arriving, more than 20 per cent, are not religiously or ethnically Jews at all.”

Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in

prison in the Soviet Union for his campaign supporting the right of Jews to emigrate, said that the Israeli government has indeed interpreted the Law of Return liberally for the new wave of immigrants. But Sharansky, who went to Israel in 1986 and now lives in Jerusalem, told Maclean ’s that government lethargy and bureaucratic inefficiency had left Israel unprepared for the flood of new arrivals. Still, he was encouraged by Shamir’s recent declaration that dealing with the immigrants is now Israel’s top priority. “I’m optimistic that the country can rise to the challenge,” said Sharansky. “The morale of the people is high and the line of volunteer helpers is even longer than the line of new arrivals.”

Professionals: Certainly, the fresh arrivals bring a rich infusion of new blood to the Jewish state. Among the 220 passengers who stepped off an El AI DC-10 from Budapest one night recently, a significant proportion were professionals: physicians, engineers, technicians, musicians, artists and educators. Leona Venyetskaya, an artist from Leningrad who was celebrating her 39th birthday, as well as her arrival in Israel, told Maclean’s, “Now, at last, I feel Jewish.” Pavel Briskin, an 18-year-old student of cybernetics who is also from Leningrad, appeared dismissive when asked if he would have preferred to go to the United States, as most Soviet Jewish emigrants did in the 1970s and the 1980s. “Why America?” he asked. “I always wanted to come to Israel.” Older immigrants expressed similar views. Aaron Kausman, 87, who came from Lvov in western Ukraine to join his children and grandchildren already in Israel, declared, “I want to die here.” All of those interviewed said that they had pulled up stakes, leaving almost everything they owned behind, because of rising anti-Semitism, economic frustration and a desire for personal freedom, which they did not believe Gorbachev’s glasnost could provide. And all expressed a willingness to take relatively menial work until more appropriate employment becomes available.

Israelis who are helping to smooth the newcomers’ transition spoke admiringly of their adaptability. “Today’s immigrants are very different from those who came in the 1970s,” said Ruth Bar On, executive director of the Israeli Public Council for Soviet Jewry, a volun-


teer agency. She added: “They are much more flexible, much more ready to show initiative and much less Jewish. Most of these people have been entirely cut off from their Jewish roots and know nothing of our customs or culture.” In fact, some of the men have been inquiring anxiously if they would have to be circumcised to become Israelis. There is no such requirement, but officials report that hundreds of new arrivals are voluntarily undergoing the operation, under general anesthetic, as an affirmation of their newfound Jewish identity.

Economize: The independent spirit of the new arrivals is evident. Instead of going to government absorption centres, about 90 per cent of them are moving directly into housing that friends, relatives or volunteer agencies have found for them. Each family unit receives

a so-called absorption basket of 22,000 shekels, or about $12,300, which they can use for rent or anything they wish. Officials give them about one-third of that sum at the airport, and the rest comes in monthly cheques during the first year. Many families economize during their first few months by doubling and even tripling up in houses and apartments. Coming from the Soviet Union, they are used to overcrowding and are clearly prepared to put up with it for a little longer, until they have enough money to move to something better.

That willingness to share accommodations, and the surprisingly large pool of rental housing available, have so far combined to prevent a crisis. But as the number of new arrivals continues to swell, the need for Israel to start building at a greatly accelerated pace is growing more urgent. Currently, the so-called aliya

cabinet, headed by Sharon, is arguing the pros and cons of importing prefabricated houses and establishing colonies of mobile homes. Last week, some housing experts warned of a total disaster unless the talking stopped and ^ large-scale building started. \ Some observers expressed Q confidence that Sharon would f get the program moving. 2 “Even people who hate him ; say that he’s the man for the z job,” said Bar On. “There’s a Q feeling of dynamism, a confi0 dence that he won’t allow “ things to stagnate.”

There is also the problem of providing work. Many economists point out that the construction program itself, and the need to create instant social services, will generate jobs and stimulate the economy. According to a recent Bank of Israel study, for every 100,000 arrivals, 28,000 jobs will result, one-third of them for engineers and one-tenth for doctors, dentists and paramedics. But, clearly, large-scale foreign investment will be required to create new industries to absorb the skills of the newcomers.

Unemployed: For some types of Soviet professionals, experts say, Israel may never provide appropriate work. The current wave of immigration includes thousands of musicians. But Israel already supports three full-time symphony orchestras, and it seems doubtful that it can afford many more. In a suburban Tel Aviv community centre last week, Georgi Gotzididze, former conductor of the Odessa Symphony, led 65 immigrant musicians in a rehearsal of Beethoven’s First Symphony. Gotzididze is unemployed and living on government handouts, as are most of his players. Somehow, they say, they hope that funding will be found for a new, allSoviet symphony orchestra.

Perhaps understandably, the Palestinians of the occupied territories have little sympathy

for the plight of unemployed Soviet Jews, whatever their cultural level. “The immigration of Soviet Jews is a scandal,” said Heidar Abdul Shaft, a former member of the PLO executive committee who now heads the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, the Islamic world’s equivalent of the International Red Cross, in Gaza. “It makes a mockery of human rights. It is the Palestinian refugees who should have the priority of being settled in the land.” Added Shaft: “We have no grudge against Jews as Jews. If they were given their choice, they would go to America or Canada. They are being used as pawns to obstruct a just and fair peace.”

Fragile: But a just and fair settlement looks as far off as ever. Analysts say that the fragile peace process of the past year has nearly expired under Shamir’s new hard line. After forming his rightwing government on June 11, after three months of heading a caretaker government, he rejected U.S. efforts to arrange Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo. He also declared his refusal to discuss a hand-over of territory and anything but strictly limited autonomy for the Palestinians. Last week, in a six-page letter to President George Bush, Shamir again refused to accept American proposals designed to spur Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, although Secretary of State James Baker said that the letter was not “definitive” and would require further study.

Meanwhile, the intifadeh grinds on, although, apart from periodic flareups, it is being kept within what Israelis clearly regard as acceptable limits. Some diplomats in Tel Aviv say that they do not accept the Israeli contention that the issues of aliya and intifadeh are entirely separate. “Aliya spells hope for Israel, but despair for the Palestinians,”

said one Western ambassador. “They are now painfully aware that history is no longer on their side.” He was referring to the obsolete demographic argument that, before the Soviet influx, held that by early next century, the higher Arab birthrate would push the Palestinian population of Israel and the occupied territories, now standing at 2.5 million, beyond the Jewish population, which is now 3.7 million.

Another diplomat agreed that, as a result of the unexpected surge of Soviet immigration, the Palestinians have “once again missed the

bus.” The intifadeh, which began in December, 1987, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s subsequent renunciation of terrorism and recognition of Israel’s right to exist, had put the initiative temporarily into Palestinian hands. But now, many diplomats maintain, that fragile advantage has been lost. The United States

abandoned its dialogue with the PLO two weeks ago over Arafat’s failure to condemn an extremist PLO faction’s unsuccessful coastal raid against Israel on May 30. The hard-line Israeli government is threatening new methods to crush the intifadeh. And many observers say that the mass Soviet immigration may encourage the government to harden its attitudes even further.

Still, even some middle-of-the-road Israelis insist that the Palestinians have nothing to fear from the latest aliya. “The Arabs should welcome the immigration,” said Simha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency and a Labour Party supporter. “An Israel with a sense of security is a different Israel. It will be more magnanimous at the negotiating table.” But the prospects for even holding such talks appear faint at best. And although Bush and Baker have expressed open irritation at Shamir’s inflexibility, there is no suggestion that they would pressure Israel into concessions by threatening to cut the $3.5 billion a year in American aid.

Emotional: Meanwhile, X the jumbo jets continue to cj arrive nightly from Eastern 2 Europe with their immigrant 2 cargoes. “This is my home1 land,” said 52-year-old David z Kogan, a Leningrad traffic Q manager, immediately after g arrival. “My heart pulled me s here.” With such emotional declarations, the newcomers are staking their own claims on a deeply disputed land. In the process, Exodus ’90 has become a watershed event, steadily changing the mathematics of the Middle East power equation as dramatically as any of Israel’s military conquests.