Immigration From Former Soviet Union to Spike, Declares Jewish Agency's Sharansky

Marking 25 years since start of mass wave from USSR, chairman says figures expected to be notably higher than in previous years.

Pavel Wohlberg

An estimated 15,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union are expected to make their way to Israel this year, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky announced Tuesday.

Speaking at a special session of the Jewish Agency board of governors marking 25 years to the start of the mass Soviet emigration to Israel, Sharansky said that the 2015 figures were expected to be notably higher than those of previous years.

“We can be very proud of what has happened with this aliyah, but there is still lots to be done,” he said, using the Hebrew word meaning immigration to Israel.

The mass immigration wave that began in 1990 brought more than a million Russian-speakers to Israel over a period of roughly 10 years.

Most of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union expected to arrive in Israel this year will be coming from Ukraine. The Jewish Agency also expects a significant jump, though not as pronounced, in immigration from Russia.

This trend, already evident last year, has been attributed to mounting political and economic turmoil in these countries. Also believed to be behind the rising immigration numbers from Russia are international sanctions that are taking a toll on many Jewish-owned businesses in the country.

According to Immigration Absorption Ministry figures published in Haaretz last week, nearly 3,000 immigrants from Ukraine arrived in Israel in the first five months of the year – up more than 80 percent compared with the same period last year. Another 2,400 came from Russia during January-May, representing a 50 percent increase over the corresponding period last year.

Speaking at the special Jewish Agency session, a leading Israeli expert noted that two-thirds of those Russian-speaking immigrants who came to Israel during the big immigration wave suffered a drop in their standard of living. “Only about 51 percent of them own homes today, compared with 77 percent of other Jewish Israelis,” said Professor Larissa Remennick, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Bar-Ilan University.

She noted that among Russian Jewish émigrés scattered in communities around the world, those in the United States have fared best economically. “They have succeeded in closing gaps with the American middle class within three to five years after arriving in the country,” said Remennick, the author of the 2012 book “Russian Jews on Three Continents.” The Russian-speakers who have gravitated to the United States tend to be younger than those in the other major Russian-speaking communities – Israel and Germany.

Still, she noted, it is those in Israel who feel most at home in their new host countries.

Remennick estimated that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the Russian-speaking immigrants who came to Israel during the big immigration wave have left, about a third of them back to the former Soviet Union and the rest to other destinations in the West.

“We will never really know how many have left, though, since there are no true numbers out there,” she said.

Remennick noted that in the United States, as in Israel, Russian-speaking Jews tend to favor parties on the right wing of the political spectrum.

“In America, about two-thirds vote for the Republican party, which happens to be the mirror image of American Jews," she said. "One of the reasons they vote this way is they believe Republican presidents are more friendly to Israel, and Israel is very important to them.”