December 26, 2001
By: Naomi Segal
JERUSALEM, Dec. 26 (JTA) - Hugs and tears awaited the first group of Argentine immigrants to arrive in Israel since riots erupted in Buenos Aires over the country's economic collapse.
The 63 new arrivals, young families as well as seniors, were welcomed at Ben-Gurion Airport by officials of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Ministry of Absorption.
They were escorted to the Ministry of Absorption hall for orientation and initial immigration processing before heading to absorption centers in Beersheba, Ra'anana and Haifa.
For some of the new immigrants, there also were emotional reunions with relatives and family members.
"I'm happy to finally be home," Claudia, a Hebrew teacher, told reporters as she embraced her mother and sister.
Many new arrivals pointed out that their decisions to make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel, were not spontaneous decisions spurred by this month's rioting, but had been in the works for several months. At the same time, the ongoing economic difficulties in Argentina were a factor in their decision to emigrate.
"The vast majority who came did not decide on aliyah from one day to the next," said Yehuda Weinraub, a Jewish Agency spokesman. "They had been preparing for some time. Many with whom I spoke made the decision last September or so. The economic situation was a main factor in that."
Many Argentine Jews have been falling into poverty since the mid-1990s, and as much as a quarter of the country's 200,000 Jews are believed to live below the poverty line.
"It's possible that now, after the difficult events in Buenos Aires, more Jews will want to emigrate to Israel," said Ruthie Romero, a computer instructor and graphic artist who arrived with her two children.
Jewish Agency officials in Buenos Aires said that, in recent weeks, they have received 300 percent more telephone inquiries and personal interviews for aliyah and 30 percent more inquiries from parents wondering about sending their children to university in Israel.
Kito Hasson, the Latin American representative of the Jewish Agency, told JTA that the organization's
Argentine offices have extended interviewing hours until 10 p.m., and have opened on Sundays as well. The agency has added five more employees to its staff of 21.
Given the magnitude of the current crisis - which eased somewhat with the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua on Dec. 20 and the subsequent ascension of Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, as caretaker president - the Jewish Agency canceled staff holidays in expectation of a flood of applicants.
"While worldwide aliyah to Israel decreased between 30 and 80 percent in 2001 because of the situation in Israel, in Argentina it has grown 30 percent," Hasson told JTA.
In 2001, 1,400 Argentine Jews made aliyah. That's up from 1,033 in 2000, and is twice the 1998 figure.
"After this new unease, the Jewish Agency expects to have 3,000 Argentine Jews emigrating to Israel in 2002," said Hasson.
Jewish Agency officials in Argentina are currently processing some 7,000 applications - and are still receiving new inquiries.
Jorge Rusler, a car mechanic from Buenos Aires who arrived in Israel with six children, said he hoped to be able to work in his profession.
Another new arrival, Mariella, 14, described her mixed feelings.
"I'm here with my mother and father. It was hard for me to leave Argentina because of the many friends who stayed there," she told the Israeli daily Ma'ariv. "But it was important to leave because of the economic situation there."
On Wednesday, some 40 Argentines were due in Israel as part of the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh program, in which teen-agers come to study in Israel and prepare the way for their families to make aliyah. Also expected was a group of 24 adults on a pilot trip to explore possible immigration.
The olim who arrived Tuesday and those expected to follow will enjoy a special benefits package approved by the Israeli government earlier this week, in consultation with the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Absorption.
Valid for a year, the package includes $20,000 in government assistance to purchase housing - one-third of that a grant, two-thirds a low-interest loan - and a $2,500 Jewish Agency absorption grant, in addition to the existing benefits package all new immigrants receive.
The Jewish Agency Board of Governors decided last June to focus aliyah efforts on Argentina, France and South Africa.
In a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last October, agreement in principle was reached to provide special benefits for immigrants from those communities. No concrete measures were taken until this month, however, when the current crisis erupted.
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