National Catholic Register


Russian Crisis May Mean Immigration Crunch on Israel

BY Jim Cosgrove

September 20-26, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/20/98 at 2:00 PM


JERUSALEM—Thousands of Jews may flock to Israel to escape the economic and political turmoil in Russia, a fact that some Holy Land Christians find disturbing.

Local Catholic clergy, the vast majority of whom are Palestinians or who hail from other Arab countries, have long viewed the influx of Jewish immigrants as a threat to Arab interests and sovereignty. They maintain that large-scale immigration has already changed the demographics in the region, giving Israel — a nation of almost five million Jews and one million Arabs — a decisive edge over the 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Since the end of 1989, when the former Soviet Union first began to permit Jews to emigrate, almost 900,000 Russians have moved to the Jewish state, along with 100,000 from dozens of other countries. Another million Jews still reside in places like Moscow, St. Petersburg, even Siberia.

According to the Israeli government, the Russian crisis is likely to spur a 10% to 20% increase in the number of Russian Jews who will immigrate to Israel. The revised figures could bring the number of Russian immigrants to 70,000 or 80,000 in 1999, instead of the 50,000 to 60,000 that had been anticipated.

Archbishop Lutfi Laham, Patriarchal Vicar of the Greek Catholic Patriarchate, told the Register that an increase in the number of Jewish immigrants “can bring disturbances in the balance” between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. “We have love for everybody and want to help people in trouble, but we also have love for the local people. Each flood of immigrants will bring some instability and could influence the peace process negatively.”

Vatican representatives, who fulfill a diplomatic role in Israel and the Palestinian territories, refrained from speaking out on the issue. “It's a political problem and we don't want to enter into political problems,” said an official.

Israel, which fears that the turmoil in Russia will increase the level of antiSemitism in the former Soviet Union, is taking preparatory steps to welcome any newcomers. Toward that end, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked his ministers to draw up detailed plans for the absorption of at least 20,000 more immigrants.

Netanyahu has also asked American Jewish communities to help finance the extra costs, which are expected to run in the tens of millions of dollars.

“As far as we're concerned, no one will be prevented from coming, regardless of the money involved,” said Bobby Brown, an advisor to the prime minister. “But the burden on Israel will be great. There is a shared responsibility with world Jewry,” he said.

Despite the concern expressed by Christians in the Palestinian camp, many other Christians are hoping that hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews will soon make their way to Israel.

“The Bible is clear that there's a redemptive process brought on by the ingathering of the Jewish people to their Israel,” maintains Dave Parsons, a press officer at the Jerusalem-based International Christian Embassy. The evangelical organization, which assists needy Jews and Arabs, has sponsored more than 50 air flights carrying Russian Jews to Israel.

“Most Palestinians viewed the large wave of Jewish immigrants since the early 1990s as an act of war, but we don't see it that way at all,” Parsons said. “In our view, Jews returning to their land is an event that God promised a long time ago. We view it as not only a good thing for the Jews, but a good thing for the world.”

(Michele Chabin)