Fewer Russian Jews immigrating to Israel

Slightly more than 5,500 new immigrants moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union during the first 10 weeks of 2001, a drop of 45 percent from the same time last year, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The 2000 numbers for the former Soviet Union — drawn mainly from Russia and Ukraine, which have the lion's share of the area's Jews — already were down from previous years.

At the same time, Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union to the United States and Germany increased by 30 percent since the beginning of 2001, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Karol Ungar, head of the Jewish Agency mission in Moscow, said that two factors caused the decline in departures for Israel: the tense security situation as the al-Aksa intifada nears its six-month anniversary and the improved economic situation in Russia.

Ungar, who said the Jewish Agency does not plan to cut its budget for Russia, believes the decline will slow because the Russian economy will falter again.

Others aren't so sure. Mikhail Chlenov, a Russian Jewish leader, said he is sure emigration will decrease further unless the situation in Russia worsens significantly.

"Emigration is a characteristic of the Jewish public mood: the lower the stress in society, the lower the emigration figures," said Chlenov, president of the Va'ad, a Russian Jewish umbrella group.

Unless there is another downturn, the decreased numbers cast serious doubts on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's desire to attract another million immigrants to Israel in the next 10 years.

Even in Ukraine, where the economic situation is less stable than in Russia, there is likely to be a further drop in emigration, according to Arkady Monastirsky, a local Jewish leader. Jewish emigration is coming today mainly from small towns, where the level of unemployment is very high, Monastirsky said.

In Russia, too, smaller towns have a much higher emigration rate than do Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Between the late 1980s and the late 1990s, almost 1 million people from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel. Of these, an estimated 10 percent either returned or moved elsewhere.