Sunday's cabinet meeting marked 20 years since the beginning of the massive wave of immigration from the former Soviet republics. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, 993 thousand people immigrated to Israel, 90% of them from Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus.
Only 5-6% of all immigrants returned to their home country or continued to other destinations. Another 800,000 remained in the former Soviet Union.
Today, these immigrants represent a fifth of the Jews in Israel and 13% of the country's total population. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said that there has been an increase of 17% in immigration from the former Soviet Union in the past year.
According to predictions, 7,000 immigrants will arrive by the end of the year, as opposed to the only 5,800 who arrived last year. This increase is partially due to the economic crisis, which is causing more doctors, engineers, teachers and people of other trades to immigrate.
Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser commented on the relationship between new and old immigrants, saying that "it's as though the US will absorb 50 million people. It's not evolution, it's revolution. Seventy percent of them are below the age of 50 - a young immigration. Seventy percent of them have high school and academic diplomas - a high level of human capital. (Immigrating this year are) 100,000 engineers, 23,000 doctors, 2,000 lawyers, 50,000 teachers and 21,000 artists."
Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz reported that a quarter of scientists and lecturers in universities are immigrants from these countries.
Reports indicate that 46% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union were absorbed in the northern and southern towns of Israel. Haifa and Ashdod absorbed the largest number of immigrants in recent years (61,000) compared with 51,000 in Beersheba, 45,000 in Bat Yam, 40,000 in Rishon Lezion and Netanya, and 44,000 in Tel Aviv.
'Immigration like oxygen to Israel'
Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said, "The founders of the Jewish Yishuv who began the construction of the Jewish state back in the 19th Century were also immigrants from Russia, including Ben Gurion, Berl Katznelson and others. The Soviet immigration was like oxygen to Israel and to the rescue of the state."
At the end of the discussion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called that a few key immigration issues be solved, among them absorbing immigrant scientists in the year 2010, reinforcing Hebrew language studies, facilitating a more convenient way to receive immigrants at the airport, encouraging the absorption of immigrants with desired occupations, facilitating career changes for immigrants and providing job training.
The prime minister also commented on the need to find a solution to problems of conversion and housing, as well as financial assistance for new immigrants and returning citizens.
"I have a inherent weakness for the Russian immigration" said Netanyahu. "Sharansky was Minister of Industry and Trade in (my) first government, Yuli Edelstein is a current minister and even Eugene Kandel heads the National Economic Council".
"Looking from the perspective of the last half century, the opening of the Soviet gates was one of the most important historical processes. There is a human and Jewish significance for the actions taken by the Jewish leaders in the struggle to open these gates."