The nearly one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have come to Israel since 1989 "rescued" the country and should be considered "one of the greatest miracles that happened to the state," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet on Sunday.
He spoke at a special session devoted entirely to marking 20 years since the beginning of the massive Russian-speaking aliya.
Twenty years ago this month, Poland swore in the first non-Communist government in the Eastern bloc, as the Iron Curtain crumbled and state after state fell to the mostly peaceful wave of democratization and reform.
Netanyahu said the million olim from the FSU who have arrived since that period have "changed the face of Israeli society."
"The immigrants have integrated into the life of the country and have become a principal and important element in all aspects of life," he said.
St. Petersburg-born Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu) spoke at length in the meeting about the contributions of the Russian-speaking immigrants, citing the 23,000 doctors, 25,000 nurses, 108,000 engineers, 21,000 artists and 50,000 teachers Israel gained from absorbing so much of Soviet Jewry, together with the relative youth (71 percent were younger than 50) and rich education (70% possessed high school diplomas and academic training) of the olim.
Some 400,000 settled in the country's North and South, leading to the dramatic expansion and improvement of towns and infrastructure in the periphery, said Landver, who presented the figures to the cabinet together with her ministry's director-general, Lithuanian-born Dmitry Apartsev, who was part of that wave when he made aliya in January 1991.
The number of scientific studies published by Israeli universities rose by 91% since 1991, Landver said. She took the opportunity to complain about the difficulties Israel's seniority-based universities have had in absorbing the new scientists who contributed so much to the country's research output.
Science Minister Daniel Herschkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi) said the immigration wave had fundamentally changed the picture at the universities, where one of every four staff members is now a Russian-speaker, with a particularly high concentration in the exact sciences. For instance, he said, 60-70% of the math faculty at Ben-Gurion University is made up of native Russian-speakers.
The immigrants from the FSU have also had a major impact in the army, where one of every five soldiers is an immigrant, and 65% of those were native Russian speakers. Fifty percent of lone soldiers - those in the IDF without family in the country - were from Russia, he said.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky briefed the cabinet on optimistic figures for the continuation of FSU aliya. He said it was expected to rise by 20% in 2009 from the previous year's figure of some 3,000 immigrants, with the increase slightly higher among young Russian students and academics.
The main cause for the rise in aliya was the worldwide economic crisis, he told the cabinet. While almost one million Russian-speaking immigrants came to Israel over the last 20 years, another 600,000-700,000 went to the US and 200,000 to Germany.
Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor (Likud) praised then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir for making sure in 1989 that Washington would not declare Soviet Jews stateless refugees, an unpopular move in some circles at the time, but one that ensured that the majority of the immigrants would go to Israel, rather than to the US.