Israel's immigrants pour out again as land fails to match its promise
From Ian MacKinnon in Jerusalem
WHEN Arkan Kariv landed in Israel 15 years ago it was a dream come true. A fervent Zionist, he was one of the original “refuseniks”, Soviet Jews refused permission to emigrate to Israel in the 1980s.
When the Soviet Union became fragmented in the 1990s Mr Kariv was finally free to move to Jerusalem where he made it big as a television star, hosting shows on the Russian language Channel Nine.
Two weeks ago he left Israel for good. The 41-year-old bachelor is back in Moscow seeking job interviews. He is following thousands of others who are leaving the Jewish homeland, exhausted by an economic slump and endless violence, in favour of their birthplace or fresh pastures with better opportunities.
“Suddenly Israel just became too small,” Mr Kariv said. “In the circles I moved in, more and more people are thinking like me. They’ve lived in Israel for ten years and find they’re not moving forward. They don’t see a better future there or the possibility of realising their goals.”
For a land built on immigration, the exodus of talent is a devastating trend, exacerbated by a dramatic drop in newcomers. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has promoted the goal that the nation of 6.6 million should attract a million more people in the next decade. But immigration slumped to just 23,200 last year, the lowest since 1990.
The influx of Jews after the relaxation of Soviet emigration restrictions and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union boosted Israel’s population. It hit a peak in 1990 and 1991 when 376,000 poured in from the Soviet republics. From 1989 until December 2003, 973,000 Soviet Jews settled in Israel. Now they are leaving.
According to official figures, about 72,000 of the Soviet Jews who came to Israel have left, most destined for Canada, the US or Europe.
Israel’s Immigration Ministry estimates that about 13,200 Soviet Jews left the country in 2002. Precise numbers are hard to gauge. Few Soviet Jews holding Israeli citizenship say that they have left for good. And if they make a return visit within one year they do not appear in the count even if they live overseas.
Unofficial estimates suggest that there are now between 50,000 and 90,000 Israeli Soviet Jews in Moscow alone. An opinion survey conducted by the Tel Aviv Mutagim Institute last year found that 26 per cent of Russian immigrants in Israel were considering leaving, compared with 6 per cent who admitted contemplating such a move before the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.
Frustration has led many of the most enterprising immigrants to return to Russia. Anton Nosik, 38, left Israel after seven years when he realised that the local market for his internet news agency was too small for his big ambitions. A business environment that shut out newcomers stifled his entrepreneurial zeal.
“Every one of us reached a kind of ceiling that prevented us from growing further,” said Mr Nosik, who now runs Russia’s largest internet service provider from Moscow.
“In Israel it’s all about which kindergarten you went to. It’s a kind of cronyism that’s quite natural in such a small country. Israel is an immigrant state, but it’s built on a strange muddle where outsiders are met with obstacles.”
Avraham Berkowitz, a rabbi and executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia and the former Soviet republics, says that many of those returning keep their Jewish traditions and intend to go back to Israel.
But for the Israeli Government the departures are another tick of the demographic time bomb that threatens the Jewish state.
There are about 5.2 million Jews in Israel compared with about 800,000 Arab Israelis and 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. With the Palestinian birthrate nearly three times that of Israelis, immigration has assumed huge significance. So, too, the departures.
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