As Soviet Jews Seek Other Destinations, Israel Blocks the Exits

By Collins, Frank | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1991 | Go to article overview
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As Soviet Jews Seek Other Destinations, Israel Blocks the Exits


Collins, Frank, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The new Soviet law granting passports to all citizens has resulted in an immediate, sharp drop in the huge numbers of Soviet Jewish immigrants arriving in Israel. The previous deluge of immigrants has changed into a mere trickle, perhaps permanently.

The flood of Jews leaving the Soviet Union began in 1989 when, in response to pressure from abroad, the Soviet government lifted most restrictions on Jewish emigration.

Deteriorating economic and social conditions in the Soviet Union, which were feared to present a special threat to Jews, gave a tremendous impetus to their newly permitted emigration. At the height of the wave of the emigration, more than 20,000 Jews per month streamed out of the country. Even last February, when Scud missiles were falling, 10,000 Jews arrived in Israel.

All of this halted July 1 when the new Soviet law granting the right to hold passports came into effect, because the same law also required that passports be presented when leaving the country. Previously Soviet Jews had used a laissez passers when departing. Arrivals at the Tel Aviv airport immediately dropped by 80 percent -- from between 700 and 800 per day to 150 or so.

The sudden drop was partially attributable to two "technical" factors. The new Soviet passport law excluded those males between the ages of 16 and 26 who had not completed their compulsory military service. Most of the families departing in the latter part of June, therefore, included young men who wanted to avoid military service. This factor sustained the high rate of immigration right up to June 30. After this date, delays in the issuance of passports, which then had to be stamped with Israeli visas, contributed to the drastic drop in departures in early July.

The new passport law is an historical break with three-quarters of a century of totalitarian denial of the free movement of the Soviet people. Now, in common with Americans and most other peoples, and apart from military service restrictions, Soviet citizens are free to leave, to visit other countries, to immigrate to those countries that will grant them residency, and to return to the Soviet Union with full rights of Soviet citizenship. According to Soviet government estimates, 500,000 Soviet citizens will leave the Soviet Union every year. There are no estimates of how many of them will return.

When the Soviet government originally lifted barriers to Jewish emigration, they could leave the Soviet Union only after having obtained visas for Israel. After arriving in Europe for the change of airlines to Tel Aviv, however, roughly 90 percent chose to go elsewhere, mostly to the United States.

Closing the Loopholes

The Israeli government and its American supporters moved promptly to close the loophole and staunch the flow of Jewish "drop outs." First, the United States was persuaded to refuse visas to any Soviet Jew who already had a visa to go to Israel. Then the United States put a ceiling or "cap" of 50,000 on the number of Soviet citizens allowed to immigrate into the US each year. Previously, Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union had been admitted to the US as refugees under a higher admissions ceiling.

Throughout the whole period of the mass immigration, the Israeli government campaigned desperately for direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv to reduce to zero the possibility of Soviet Jews slipping away to Western countries of their choice. At the same time, Israel has applied pressure to European and other countries not to admit Soviet Jews for residency.

When Germany announced that it would admit Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Israeli government raised a storm of protest. An official at the German Embassy in Washington, explaining his country's position, said:

"Soviet Jews who want to go to Germany can apply for an immigration visa. There is no quota. However, according to an agreement between the federal government and the Laender [states], visas are issued on a case-by-case basis on humanitarian grounds.

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