AN ARTICLE YESTERDAY ON IMMIGRATION FROM FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS TO ISRAEL INCORRECTLY DESCRIBED THE NATURE OF THIS YEAR'S INCREASE IN IMMIGRANTS. IMMIGRATION FROM RUSSIA IS SURGING, BUT THE OTHER FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS STILL PROVIDE SLIGHTLY MORE THAN HALF THE OVERALL TOTAL OF IMMIGRANTS. (PUBLISHED 06/29/99
For years, Eduard Vayndroyk scraped by on his wits. Cheerful and charming, he supplemented the meager monthly salary he earned as a physician in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk by selling shoes from a small shop with his wife, Olga.
But Russia's economic crisis and the collapse of the ruble last August quadrupled the dollar-denominated rent for his shop and sapped his spirits. Last week, he and Olga packed their bags, kissed their friends goodbye and joined a new flood of Russian Jews emigrating to Israel.
"It just wasn't worth it anymore," said Vayndroyk, 29, who arrived at Israel's Ben-Gurion airport the other day on one of several daily charter flights for Jewish immigrants. "In Israel, I expect I'll be able to live a normal life and practice medicine."
Already this year, some 12,000 Russians have arrived in Israel, more than double the number who had come by the same time last year. Driven by the crash of the ruble, dim job prospects in major cities and a nasty resurgence of traditional Russian antisemitism, nearly 100 immigrants from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok arrive on flights every business day.
"Welcome to Israel!" says a sign in Russian at Ben-Gurion's immigrant arrival hall, where nearly all of the 36 officials manning computers, coffee machines and clipboards are themselves more or less recent immigrants from Russia or one of the other onetime Soviet republics.
The spike in Russian immigration to Israel this year is the first since the colossal influx of Soviet Jews in the early 1990s. That wave of immigrants, many of them highly educated and almost none of them religious, altered the demographic face of Israel, reconfigured the political map and fueled the country's high-tech boom. About 1 million Israelis -- roughly one in five Jews in the country -- now speak Russian, and the vast majority of them have arrived since 1990.
As the decade wore on and Russia's economy seemed to right itself, the numbers of Jews leaving tapered off. Still, the 46,000 immigrants who arrived in Israel from former Soviet republics last year, including about 14,000 from Russia, accounted for 90 percent of all newcomers to the Jewish state. This year, the number of immigrants from the old Soviet orbit is projected to soar to 60,000 -- virtually all of them from Russia, largest of the 15 Soviet republics and home to half the remaining 1 million Jews who lived under Soviet rule.
"The increase is from every region of the Russian federation," said Emma Trahtenberg, an analyst in the former Soviet department of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which shepherds most of the immigrants through the process.
Religious Israelis and older immigrants from North Africa in particular see the Russians as a threat to the long-term cohesion of Israel's already Balkanized society. Others believe they will further the cause of Israel as a country free of the Messianic and exceptionalist ideology characteristic of previous waves of immigrants.
The Russians themselves tend to be seeking nothing more complex than a better life for their children. But this year, nearly one-third of the immigrants surveyed mentioned an additional reason -- rising antisemitism in Russia.
Analysts say that is no surprise, given the venomous public outbursts of Russian antisemites since last fall's economic collapse. One Communist Party lawmaker, Albert Makashov, attacked Jewish financiers and blamed them for the country's economic woes. The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, refused to condemn Makashov, a former general. The Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, also issued a strident attack on Zionism that echoed Soviet-era propaganda.
At the same time, there has been an increase in attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and shrill broadsides against "yids" in nationalist newspapers. In Moscow, say some recent immigrants to Israel, it is not uncommon to see skinheads and other antisemites with Nazi swastikas tattooed on their arms. "What changed greatly for immigrants was the antisemitism," said Trahtenberg, the Jewish Agency official. "The economic crisis meant that for the first time antisemitism was used as a political weapon in Russia."
In addition to the rise in antisemitism and its poisonous effect on Russian politics, many immigrants cite the narrowing of their own opportunities to make a decent living and lead what they invariably call a "normal" life. "I felt that everything had died in Moscow," said a 24-year-old woman who arrived in Israel last week and gave only her nickname, Pulheria. "My friends didn't want to do anything. I felt no sense of possibility. Most of them wake up at 4 in the afternoon, spend the evenings drinking tea and thinking of what to do. Mostly they spend their days at home."
A computer designer, Pulheria said she did have some job prospects in Moscow. But after spending several months in Israel touring and studying Hebrew, she detected an energy and sense of purpose that was distinctly lacking in Moscow. "It wasn't strictly about economics or politics," she said of her decision to leave Russia. "But there was just a loss of spirit."
Like nearly all Russian immigrants, past and present, Pulheria is not religious. Some, like Vayndroyk's wife, are not even Jewish. Many have barely seen the inside of a synagogue and know little about Jewish holidays and customs. More than a few cannot imagine a diet that excludes pork.
And unlike Russian immigrants of the early '90s, many of whom were ardent Zionists, the latest arrivals tend not to care much about building a Jewish state. Just two in five people in the current wave say they were motivated to come to Israel by a wish to be among the Jewish people.
"Most people who come want just to lead a normal life," said Pulheria, "to have a house, a television, a job."
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union have made up by far the largest proportion of immigrants to Israel since 1989:
Immigration to Israel by region of origin 1989-1997
Former Soviet Union: 85.25%
Other European: 4.55%
North America: 2.4%
Latin America: 1.8%
Other groups: 0.1%
SOURCE: Israeli Census Bureau
CAPTION: Russian immigrant Alexander Ginberg, top, rests along the outskirts of the Jewish settlement of Itamar. Above, a group of recent arrivals to Israel receive official orientation.