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Behind the Headlines Soviet ‘drop-outs’ Assessed

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Most of the 17,000 Soviet Jews who have immigrated to the United States rather than Israel nonetheless retain a favorable image of the Jewish State, and many have gone to the U.S. in order to be reunited with relatives already living there.

These are two of the central conclusions in an article in the journal, “Soviet Jewish Affairs,” published here by the Institute of Jewish Affairs. Its findings help to nullify official Soviet propaganda claims that these people–the so-called “drop-outs,” “noshrim” in Hebrew–invalidate the whole Jewish-Zionist emigration movement of recent years.

Although the article is based on interviews with immigrants in Detroit–they numbered 244 last year–this group is said to be representative of the 17,000 Soviet Jews who immigrated to the United States between 1971 and 1976 on visas permitting them to go to Israel.

Among those interviewed were 19 who arrived in the U.S. from Israel rather than immigrating direct to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. According to the author, Zvi Gitelman, associate professor of politics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, these 19 had not developed a more negative image of Israel while there than the other “dropouts.”

THE REACTION TO ISRAEL

They also see Israel as basically capitalist, not Socialist, and developed rather than under-developed. There is also a strong agreement among the immigrants that Israel is basically a peaceful state, indicating that they reject the Soviet portrayal of Israel as unremittingly aggressive.

A more surprising finding is that 70 percent consider Israel as a religious, not secular, state and for the great majority this is an undesirable characteristic. According to Gitelman, “This image may have been buttressed by reports from Soviet Jews in Israel who have encountered religious authorities in charge of marriage and divorce and conversion to Judaism.”

But since so many of their other perceptions of Israel are positive, why did they not immigrate there? The largest proportion–42 percent–cited the fact that they wished to join relatives in the United States.

The more educated also emphasized that there were greater vocational and economic opportunities in America and some were attracted by America’s power and standing in world affairs. The other side of the same coin are fears about war in the Middle East–cited by more than 15 percent as the reason for not going to Israel–and the Israeli climate. Others emphasized that the United States is a democratic country. “We were attracted not by religion but by freedom, that is, by the U.S.,” one explained.

The commonest single main reason for emigrating from the Soviet Union was given as the wish to join relatives abroad. However, among subsidiary reasons, political alienation, anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish discrimination in education were mentioned the most frequently.

TRACING THE ‘DROP-OUT’ GROWTH

Tracing the growth in the number of “dropouts” from Israeli-bound emigrants, the article shows that when the current Soviet emigration began in 1971 less than one percent of those leaving the USSR did not proceed to Israel. The same was true in 1972. But in 1973, 4.5 percent “dropped out” in Vienna and did not reach Israel.

In 1974, the “drop-outs” reached 18.7 percent; with 37 percent in 1975 and 49 percent in 1976. At the same time, there has been an overall decline in immigration to Israel. At least part of the “drop-out” phenomenon is explained by Gitelman in terms of the different kind of Soviet emigrant leaving the USSR after 1973 as compared with those in the preceding period.

The immigration to the U.S. has been largely from the Ukraine and the Belorussian Republic, in which Jewish culture and consciousness, and hence Zionist convictions, are weaker than from the western peripheries of the USSR and Soviet Asia (including Georgia) where Jewish consciousness is relatively high. The interviews which constituted the basis for the article were carried out by the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Michigan with the cooperation of the Jewish Family Service of Detroit.

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