There is a real concern that the Jewish community in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), which today is estimated to number some 500,000, could disappear in a generation if steps are not taken to curb rampant assimilation there, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday. Olmert's comments preceded a briefing on the state of the Jews in the FSU, and the 600,000 from there who left between 1989 and 2007, but did not immigrate to Israel. More than one million immigrants did come to Israel during the same period. According to figures presented at the meeting by the Jewish Agency and the Absorption Ministry, there are between 900,000 to a million people in the FSU eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, of whom 470,000 are not Jewish according to Halacha. The Law of Return grants citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. The ministers were presented with numbers showing that immigration from the FSU has fallen from 34,000 in 2001 to 6,700 in 2007, an 80 percent decrease. In addition, some 83,000 immigrants who arrived from 1989 to 2005 have left the country, and some 50,000 to 100,000 former Israelis are believed to now live in the FSU. An Absorption Ministry official said the 8.3% emigration rate among Jews from the FSU is slightly less than the 9.1% emigration rate of the country's total immigrant population. Also according to the figures provided to the cabinet Sunday, only 10% of Jews in the FSU are involved in any type of Jewish activity, and the assimilation rate is estimated at around 80%. The cabinet decided to establish an inter-ministerial committee, headed by cabinet secretary Ovad Yehezkel, to strengthen the ties of Jews in the FSU both to Israel and the Jewish people. Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri presented a plan to increase aliya that included the following points:
A 50% increase in the absorption basket, which would cost the state an additional NIS 1 million per year. According to the Absorption Ministry, the main problem facing immigrants today is the inability to learn Hebrew in ulpan because of financial difficulties. The new proposal would, according to the ministry, allow the immigrants to focus on the language, a key to successful absorption.
Opening special absorption tracks for youth, which would include greater study opportunities, the establishment of youth centers, and the construction of special housing for young immigrants.
Creating greater employment opportunities for new immigrants through job training and re-training programs.
The immediate implementation of tax reforms that would provide immigrants and returning Israelis a 10-year tax exemption on income from abroad.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who also served a stint in the past as Immigration and Absorption Minister, said during the meeting that the numbers presented represented a "strategic problem" that demanded a systematic solution from all the different governmental and quasi-governmental bodies that deal with the issue.
Livni called for a more lenient position regarding the conversion process, especially in light of what she said was the fact that currently only one out of every 10 immigrants coming from the FSU today is halachically Jewish.