Behind the Headlines: Exit Permits Are Easy to Come By, but Leaving USSR Still a Challenge
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Behind the Headlines: Exit Permits Are Easy to Come By, but Leaving USSR Still a Challenge

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This year, Israeli consular officials here expect to issue more than 300,000 entry visas to Soviet Jews wishing to make aliyah.

But only about half of them will make it to the Promised Land before the year’s end.

That’s still an enormous number, compared to past years, when the vast majority of Jews leaving the Soviet Union chose destinations other than Israel as their new homes. But it is significantly less than the total potential aliyah.

The reason for the gap essentially boils down to this new reality: While it is easier than ever before to obtain permission to emigrate, it is harder than ever to leave the country.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to get a visa to come to the United States as a refugee any time in the near future, unless one has immediate family already living in America.

Officials at the American Embassy here estimate that they have distributed half-a-million applications to Soviet citizens since Oct. 1, 200,000 of which have been returned to the embassy and forwarded to Washington for processing.

But since the current quota on refugees from the Soviet Union stands at 50,000 per year, most of these applicants face a long wait.

They could come to the United States as “parolees.” But most Soviet Jews reject this option, since it means foregoing U.S. financial assistance and the right to become an American citizen.

(There are bills presently before Congress to enable parolees the opportunity to become citizens, and there is no opposition to the various measures.)


Most Jews eager to leave the Soviet Union understandably have chosen to make aliyah. But while they will not encounter any Israeli quota, they can expect long delays in leaving the country.

The first step in the process is to apply for an official invitation from Israel.

To do that, one must go to the old Israeli Embassy building, where Israeli consular officials, operating under the auspices of the Dutch Embassy, which handles Israeli interests, assist with the paperwork.

A stunning 2,500 to 3,000 Soviet Jews are visiting the Israeli mission each day to apply for invitations or to pick up entry visas once they have received permission to emigrate.

Miraculously, they are being assisted the same day by a consular staff that numbers merely six. But how long the consular staff will be able to handle that workload is in doubt.

“We are on the brink of physical endurance,” says Meron Gordon, deputy head of the Israeli delegation.

The Soviet authorities, he says, have refused to allow Israel to increase either the size of the staff or the size of its cramped facilities.

Dependents of staff members are not allowed in the country, meaning that consular officials regularly return home for family visits.

Currently, it takes four to six weeks from the time of application to receive an invitation from Israel. Then, Soviet Jews must apply at OVIR, the Soviet emigration agency, for permission to leave the country.

That process may take as little as a month or more than six months, depending on the workload of the agency’s local offices in various cities.

At the moment, Gordon says, the Soviet authorities are “giving almost every person who asks a permit to get out.”

In fact, some 99 percent of Jews currently applying to leave the Soviet Union are receiving permission, according to Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

The problem is that a number of bureaucratic technicalities cause substantial delays in the departure of those who have received permission to emigrate.

Among the latest popular hurdles is clearing the customs inspection that is required before potential emigrants can bring their belongings out of the country.


Since emigrants are not permitted to take money out of the Soviet Union, their possessions become important commodities in the first months of their new lives in Israel.

But there is now often a six-month delay in receiving an appointment from a customs inspector, according to Wenick of the National Conference.

However, the “most dramatic problem” for Jews leaving the Soviet Union is finding transportation out of the country, says Vladimir Dashevsky, a Moscow Jewish activist, who says he is “on the threshold” of his own aliyah.

Soviet Jews now seeking tickets for commercial flights out of the country can expect to wait until after the start of 1991.

“It is almost impossible to get an airplane ticket,” says Gordon of the Israeli consular staff.

El Al Israel Airlines has made arrangements for special charter flights from various Eastern European “transit points,” but the Soviet Union will still not permit El Al to land on its soil.

Israeli officials say that nearly 1,000 Soviet Jews a day could be flown to Israel if El Al were allowed to make direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv.

Of course, problems like transportation and customs inspections are mere fantasies for the 200 or so Jewish families who have been refused permission to emigrate, some for many years.

And the “list is now growing, rather than shrinking,” according to Wenick.

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