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…

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