JERUSALEM — There's a riddle current in Jerusalem that reflects the great expectations of the massive wave of Soviet immigration into Israel.
Question: What do you call a Soviet immigrant who is not an engineer or a physician?
Answer: A computer programmer.
By all accounts, the Soviet newcomers are the best educated--especially in science--ever to come in a bunch to Israel. The unprecedented infusion of talent has raised hopes that a golden age of technology is about to commence in a country that since its birth put a high priority on knowledge as the key to national development.
But there is another, more serious riddle also making the rounds--one with no answer yet: How to tap this new resource? Israel is small, and it is difficult for even its home-grown technical graduates to find work. Many professionals go abroad every year where grants and salaries are bigger and more plentiful.
One Israeli company thinks it has the answer to this dilemma of riches and is pressing the government to help--through incentives. It is Satec, a small research and development firm located in Jerusalem and manned in part by Soviet Jews who came in migrations past.
Founded three years ago with a $2-million investment from an Australian millionaire, Satec is a hybrid: Soviet researchers working under the direction of Western managers to produce new ideas and products for export. Of the company's 70 employees, half are Soviet immigrants.
Satec currently produces compact digital electric power meters, heating elements for home and industry and new nontoxic methods of extracting precious metals from waste. Managers say the company is soon to break even on sales this year of about $3 million.
"We believe we're a model. If there are no steps to absorb this immigration properly, the country will have a crisis. If we take special measures, it will benefit the whole economy," said Daniel Branover, president of Satec and son of the founder, Herman, who has been active for many years in supplying Jewish books to Jews in the Soviet Union.
Satec was established specifically to soak up high-tech newcomers at a time when the vast majority of Soviet migrants were choosing the United States over Israel as their new home. But three factors altered that pattern. The Soviet Union, under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, greatly liberalized emigration, fears of anti-Semitic outbreaks began to spread in the country and, finally, the United States limited the numbers of Soviet Jews who could go to America.
This year, more than 100,000 Soviets are expected to settle in Israel, eight times the number that came in all of 1989. The immigrants are coming whether Israel is their first choice or not. There is no grand scheme in place to employ them. Gone are the days when the government, through affiliated unions and state-owned farms and industries, could place workers at will. The old companies are in decline and being sold off.
In a sense, Israel is caught between two ideological worlds: the fading socialist origins of the nation and the new wave of free-market thinking.
As a result, Satec's mission has also changed. Company managers say firms like Satec should be encouraged to employ the newcomers in imaginative ways. Israel, for instance, could become a leader in exporting research and development under contract: a company abroad could give the Israelis a problem to solve and then take the solution and turn it into a product back home.
"Israel cannot compete with the countries of Asia in manufacturing, but we can become a center for technology and ideas," Branover predicted.
Branover believes that investment in Satec clones should be encouraged through government matching funds. If someone puts up money for a research and development company, then the government should, too, without going into laborious feasibility studies. "If an investor wants to invest $10 million, that should be enough insurance," Branover said. "Sure, there may be a few flops, but this is an emergency situation. We have to take risks. The government should stand back and let us work."
Branover also thinks that the government, mired as it has been in political wrangling, is hopelessly tangled in red tape and Cabinet rivalries. He suggests an immigration czar who could approve new housing--and industrial investment--without having to horse-trade with numerous ministries and municipal bureaucracies.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir visited Satec in early May and was presented such a proposal. He said he would think about it.
Soviet employees at Satec say that finding suitable work for their compatriots is a key to the success of this immigration. In the past, they pointed out, Soviet newcomers were committed to Israel through nationalistic yearnings and thus were patient with the vagaries of their new home. Many of the new arrivals, on the other hand, did not necessarily want to leave the Soviet Union--at least not until they smelled trouble.
"This immigration is quite different," said Vladimir Kislik, a metallurgist who was persecuted for 16 years in the Soviet Union for his desire to leave for Israel. "The new ones come not for love of Israel but for fear of the U.S.S.R. If there is a problem here, will they wait or pack their bags and go somewhere else?"
Added researcher Yaacov Katz: "The Soviets will not be happy to be sent to raise chickens in the desert. They will want to use their skills."
The New Israelis
Of 8,364 Soviet immigrants that arrived in March, 1990: 60% professionals
Of the more than 5,000 professionals: 20% Technicians 19% Engineers 8.5% Academics 5.5% Doctors 5.2% Artists 3.7% Nurses rest: Traders and others
Professionals include physicians, engineers, professors, nurses, technicians, clerks, "traders," artists and other miscellaneous categories. Source: Israeli Ministry of Absorption