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Exodus II : Israel: The immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel presents massive problems and unprecedented opportunities. But most Israelis are apathetic. It's business as usual.

August 19, 1990|David Grossman | David Grossman is the author of "The Yellow Wind" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This article was translated from the Hebrew by M. Weinstein

JERUSALEM — The new immigrants are already here. In their droves: We now see them everywhere, in the street, in the bank, by the seashore, at work; still strangers, apprehensive, speaking broken Hebrew, staggered by the sweltering Israeli summer, strolling together, entire families, two by two, still scared of facing this New World alone. Sixty thousand have arrived since the beginning of the year; 150,000 will have arrived by the end of it. There are those who even speak of a million immigrants coming over the next four years. It's a bit dizzying, like inhaling too much pure oxygen: a million new Jews coming to the Land of Israel. After all, we're less than 4 million. Imagine: It's almost as if 60 million new Americans were to flood the shores of the United States, all at once. . . .

We see them at Ben Gurion Airport, and for an instant they seem like the Jews of the past: Perhaps it's their clothing, perhaps their language; maybe it's their facial features or the moment of their encounter with Israel that stirs us, the "veterans," sending an ancient shiver through us. For Zionism had its start there, in Pinsk and Odessa and Moscow. And it was there, in those provinces, more than 100 years ago, that young Jews--their faces the faces of these young men and women, their language the same language--rose up and came to this hot and hostile land, dreaming an impossible dream: to establish a Jewish state.

Now, their descendants welcome the descendants of those who did not come, then.

This, by the way, is our chance to see ourselves as they do, their questioning eyes a mirror reflecting what we've achieved and built here and where we've failed. We stare back at them: How easily we could have been in their shoes! One small, capricious change in our grandparents' fates would have been enough to have kept us there, like them, so that, like them, we would have come here now to look around us in trepidation and wonder: So, this is the Jewish state? This is the reality of the dream of generations? Now these two communities--sisters still so distant--stride toward one another, powerfully aware of the deep significance of national and personal destiny, of the personal historic pulse now beating through them, of the marvel of this alternate biography. . . .

But the economy, I remind myself anxiously, what about our miserable economy? How will we absorb a professional, high-quality work force into an economy that has for years been sunk in recession and unemployment? How will the Israeli market, which has not grown for 20 years, assimilate hundreds of thousands of new citizens and at the same time provide a solution for all the young Israelis who lack homes and jobs? Thousands of young Israeli couples have already been deprived of their rented apartments by landlords who prefer the immigrants, for whom the government pays high rents. These young men and women have flocked to public parks to protest the government giving the best of everything to the immigrants while denying housing and employment to those who have given their country so much. Theirs is a broad-based protest movement, steeped in bitterness.

How will we get through the first two crucial years until investments in a new infrastructure--if there will be any--begin to bear fruit? How will we create suitable jobs for scores of academics, scientists, engineers and doctors, when there are no jobs for them in Israel today?

In one respect, we are lucky: We have no choice. Unlike other nations, Israel does not set immigration quotas according to her needs. Israel was established as a homeland and a refuge for the Jewish people, and she welcomes all comers. To this end, emergency steps are needed, a jolt to the collective Israeli consciousness. The government has already shown willingness to provide this jolt: Emergency construction laws have been ratified and provisions have been made to cut red tape, shorten the absorption process, and integrate the new immigrants into society as quickly as possible.

But more than this is needed: We must encourage investments, increase government involvement in expanding our infrastructure, establish highway and communications systems that will tighten all regions of the country, minimize government intervention in capital markets, encourage private investment, provide tax breaks, develop super-sophisticated industry.

Will we succeed?

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