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The Great White Hope

Many of the immigrants who arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union in 1990 came off the plane carrying dogs in their arms. This seemed odd, since Jews are not noted for their friendliness to dogs. An enterprising journalist soon reported that the immigrants were trying to take with them out of Russia anything they could sell in Israel. There weren’t any carpets left, but they had heard that well-to-do young Israelis in Tel Aviv were buying dogs as pets.

The immigrants arriving toward the end of 1990 were given instructions at the airport for using gas masks, but Saddam Hussein had, in effect, done them a favor by distracting the attention of Arab countries from the huge immigration of Jews to Israel and concentrating their attention on the Gulf. With few Arab protests, about 200,000 immigrants arrived in Israel between January and December 1990, including 183,000 from the Soviet Union. Just before the fighting started the rate of immigration swiftly rose. In December alone 36,000 immigrants arrived in Israel. When the war began this rate was cut in half, and in February 1991 only 3,000 Soviet immigrants arrived.

The Soviet Jews said they were waiting to see what happened. Now they are starting to emigrate once more, and 200,000 more Jews are expected to arrive during 1991. If this trend continues, as many as a million Jews will leave the USSR for Israel during the next few years. Since Israel’s current population is only about four million, adding a million people would radically change Israeli life—it is as if the United States were to absorb the entire population of Italy within five years.

The immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel is closely linked with the possibility of their immigration to the United States. During the Seventies and Eighties about 350,000 Jews left the Soviet Union with Israeli visas, but when they reached Vienna many changed their destination and went to the United States. Indeed, during the late 1980s, about 85 percent of the emigrants went to the United States.

The main organization dealing with the immigration to Israel is the Jewish Agency, which is an unofficial arm of the Israel’s government. That many of the Soviet emigrants during those years wanted to go to the United States brought into play two other Jewish organizations dealing with immigration. The two are HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), both independent of Israel. HIAS dealt with the immigration of those who wanted to go to the United States, especially with the paper work required for getting immigration visas from Washington. The JDC provided Soviet immigrants in Europe with food, clothing, housing, and education while they waited to go to the US, Israel, or other countries. The Jewish Agency, on the other hand, gave help only to those who wanted to continue on to Israel. The JDC made an agreement with the United States government by which the US would pay the expenses of each person who was later accepted as an immigrant to the United States.

The Soviet Jews went by rail or plane to Vienna, since there were no direct flights to Israel at that time. In Vienna a Jewish Agency representative collected their passports and asked each one where he or she wanted to go. The usual answer was “to the States,” and the people who gave this answer were transferred to the care of the JDC, which sent them to Viennese hotels and their files to HIAS. Anyone who wanted to go to another country, for example Germany, went directly to that country’s embassy in Vienna.

Then, with Gorbachev’s rise to power after 1985, the stream of emigrants increased enormously. In order to keep down the costs of waiting in Vienna, an expensive city, the emigrants were transferred to working-class resort cities in Southern Italy, particularly Ladispoli. This created a bottleneck, and a request was made to increase the staff of the American immigration office (NIS). This request was granted, and the staff was increased to a maximum of two hundred employees.

Three serious controversies soon developed. The first was a disagreement between the Israeli government, speaking through the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish organizations outside Israel. The Jewish Agency claimed that the emigrants “belonged to Israel” since they had left the Soviet Union with Israeli visas. In the United States, some American Jews supported the Zionist principle of “the centrality of Israel in Jewish life,” while others upheld the liberal principle of giving each emigrant freedom of choice.

The second controversy was between Israel and the United States, again with the Israelis claiming that the emigrants “belonged” to them. The third was on the question of increasing the American immigration quota. During the Seventies and the early Eighties Jewish immigrants from the USSR to the United States were accepted as part of the quota allotted to Soviet refugees. But with Gorbachev the quota was no longer sufficient, and the question was whether to increase it. At the same time, organizations of Asian immigrants (mainly from Vietnam and Cambodia) were also demanding an increase in their quotas.

The Israeli government did not want the quota to be increased, but it hesitated to say so publicly, since there was considerable support among American Jews for the principle of giving emigrants the freedom to choose whether to go to Israel or elsewhere. Strong pressure by Jewish organizations on the Reagan administration led to a considerable expansion of the category of immigrant “parolees,” i.e., immigrants who cannot become citizens or receive government support, but who have the right to work if their guarantors accept responsibility for them. Expanding this category placed a heavy financial burden on American Jews, and some American Jewish organizations tended for this reason to direct the immigrants to Israel.

American law requires that immigrants who enter the US as refugees prove 1) that they are persecuted for their politics or religion in their country of origin; and 2) that no other country is willing to accept them. HIAS gave the Soviet emigrants help in showing that the first condition was fulfilled. Since Israel was eager to accept them the refugees could not satisfy the second condition; but the Reagan administration chose to ignore this fact.

After negotiations in 1989 Shultz and Shevardnadze reached an agreement in October, allowing direct immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States. The paper work for immigration to the United States could now be taken care of in Moscow; those who did not directly apply for immigration to the United States had to go to Israel. Immigrants could fly to Israel directly. No doubt a large number of those who apply to Israel rather than to the United States do so because the American quota for Soviet immigrants is limited and Jewish applicants for immigration to the United States now have many competitors. They are also aware that however much they would prefer to live in New York or California, Israel does not want to raise the US quotas for Soviet Jews, and American Jewish organizations are not on the whole demanding that they be raised. Once the immigrants arrive in Israel their preferences are not so clear. A poll of a representative sample of Soviet immigrants to Israel in April 1991 by the Dahaf Institute asked, “In which country do you think you would get along better?” Forty-six percent said Israel, 11 percent said the US, and 40 percent said there was no difference between the two.

Before and after Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles last January, the main topic of conversation here has been the Russian immigrants. In order to absorb a million immigrants Israel needs, according to the most conservative estimates, an additional $20 billion (at 1990 prices) during the next five years not only to provide for basic necessities such as food, housing, and medical care but also, mainly, for investment that will create jobs. Commercial banks in the US and Europe would have to put up a large part of that money and they will not do so unless the loans are guaranteed by the US government. Two questions are being asked: one in public—will the US supply the money and guarantees required? The other in private—will the US exact any political price for these guarantees. If Israel can’t borrow $25 billion during five years, it will be faced with an extremely severe economic and social crisis.

The immigration to Israel could therefore change the meaning of the phrase “pressure on Israel.” Israel, as the country receiving the most US aid, has been given $3 billion a year in economic and military aid from the United States since 1973, and “pressure on Israel” used to mean the threat of reducing this sum. In fact, this is no threat at all, since the political influence of the Israeli lobby and its American Jewish supporters in Congress and elsewhere has been powerful enough to insure that the $3 billion was paid annually. Now Israel’s need for an additional $25 billion makes it, at least potentially, more vulnerable to American pressure than ever before, especially during lean times in the US.

This could be the political significance of the Soviet immigration for Bush’s “New Order” in the Middle East, if there is to be one. Whatever happens, however, the effects on Israel will be dramatic. Israel, still in some respects a third world country, will be absorbing much of the educated elite of a superpower. While only 0.6 percent of employed Israelis have degrees in the natural sciences, people with such degrees make up 7.1 percent of the immigrants. That is, there are proportionately twelve times as many people with degrees in the natural sciences among the immigrants as among the Israelis. There are also thirteen times as many engineers and architects, four times as many technicians, and nearly six times as many doctors. The proportion of skilled and unskilled manual workers is much smaller than it is among the Israelis.

Some of these statistics may be misleading. A good many people who got on the plane to Israel as, say, Mr. Rabinowitz, may get off as Dr. Rabinowitz, and some immigrants probably managed to add several years of university studies in a few hours on the plane. Aside from forgeries, it is very difficult to evaluate Soviet university degrees by Western standards. For several years Israel has been giving qualifying examinations to doctors from abroad (while exempting doctors from the United States and Canada, where the standards are considered high). Among the Russian doctors who took these examinations last year, 70 percent failed. Only 15 percent of those who passed managed to do so without taking a special course. The Russians complain that the examiners are unfairly giving them failing grades to protect the interests of the local doctors’ guilds. The Israeli examiners claim that the exams are easy and point out that 65 percent of the doctors coming from Argentina passed the test without a preparatory course, as well as 75 percent of the doctors from Western Europe.

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