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Behind the Headlines: Problems for Jews in Former USSR Continue Despite Mass Emigration

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The American Jewish community should not be lulled into thinking that the fall of the Soviet Union and the continuing mass emigration of Jews from its successor states mark an end to the problems faced by Jews in the region.

So says Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. He believes people who think the work of the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement is over “are mistaken.”

If anything, he said, dealing with 15 separate countries, each with their own regulations, makes the situation “more complicated” for Jews still seeking to emigrate.

Levin, a longtime NCSJ staffer who took over as the group’s executive director last fall, discussed the continuing problems facing Jews in the former Soviet republics, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The National Conference serves as the coordinating agency for the organized Jewish community’s efforts on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

In recent months, some in the American Jewish community have questioned the usefulness of maintaining high-profile advocacy efforts for Jews in the ex-Soviet republics in the post-Cold War era.

But Levin strongly contested that view, citing unstable conditions in some of the republics as among the reasons for American Jews to stay involved.

“The National Conference’s mandate is a very clear and focused one,” he said. “We are not in search of a new mission to keep the organization going.”

“To accept the situation inside the former Soviet Union as being the status quo for years to come,” he said, “is to put one’s head in the sand and not recognize how far the countries of the former Soviet Union have to go to reach fully functioning democratic governments.”

The NCSJ, Levin said, remains committed to two goals: helping Soviet Jews emigrate “in as free and unencumbered a manner as possible,” and helping those Jews still in the former Soviet lands “learn about their heritage.”

MORE ANTI-SEMITISM IN TRAJIKISTAN

“Now is not the time to sit back and pat ourselves on the back for our good work,” Levin said. “Now is the time to ensure” that the good that was done “doesn’t go to waste.”

Levin pointed to continuing barriers to emigration facing Jews in the former Soviet Union, both bureaucratic and political. In the Central Asian republics, for example, unrest has led to a rise in emigration, he said.

Dail Stolow, director of overseas operations for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, recently returned from a trip to Tajikistan, a Central Asian republic currently torn apart by civil war.

Stolow said that the vast majority of Tajikistan’s 4,000 Jews are seeking to emigrate. About 1,000 hope to settle in the United States under the government’s family reunification program, and the rest are applying to move to Israel.

The increase in both Islamic fundamentalism and nationalism in Tajikistan have resulted in an “increase in incidents of verbal anti-Semitism and an increase in some physical violence directed at those who are planning to leave,” she said.

Stolow said that HIAS officials have met with U.S. government representatives to discuss their trip to Tajikistan and the problems facing the Jewish community there.

“The fact that HIAS went there impressed people with how concerned and serious we are about the community in Tajikistan,” Stolow said, adding that U.S. officials are trying to expedite the departure of Jews from the remote republic.

Both Stolow and Levin of the National Conference expressed concern over a new Russian emigration law that was scheduled to go into effect in January but has been postponed.

The law would require applicants leaving from Russia to possess a passport from their country of citizenship, Stolow said. Most Jews emigrating from the various republics do so via Moscow’s international airport and therefore would fall under the provisions of the law.

The problem, Stolow explained, is that most of these new countries do not have their own passports yet. In meetings with immigration officials in Tajikistan, HIAS officials suggested that the authorities consider using old Soviet passports stamped with Tajik government emblems as a way around this dilemma.

REFUSAL RATE IS UP

Levin said that the new emigration law, when it goes into effect, can still be used to deny people the right to emigrate on the grounds that they possess state secrets.

Access to state secrets was one of several pretexts the Soviets used to deny Jews the right to emigrate. Other grounds for refusal was an emigre’s so-called “poor relatives” who, left behind in the Soviet Union, could become a burden to the state.

Levin explained that this “poor relative” problem could be taken care of in most cases if the new law were interpreted broadly, but if it were interpreted narrowly, it would still cause difficulties.

He said that recently the refusal rate for Jews seeking to leave went up slightly, and that the refusals were based on either access to “state secrets” or the “poor relative” problem.

“We’ll have to wait and see how” the new law “is actually implemented” before evaluating it, Levin said. But “the bottom line is that it makes the situation more complicated,” because all 15 of the former Soviet countries could implement their own interpretation of the law.

“There are no simple solutions to the issues being faced by the advocacy movement today,” he said.

Levin expressed concern about ethnic tensions and economic unrest in the various republics. He said the National Conference is monitoring nationalistic forces in Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia.

In Russia, he said, old-style Communists and ultranationalists are joining together to blame Jews for the economic problems facing the nation.

“As we see in other parts of Europe,” he said, “nationalism has the potential to be a very destructive force in the former Soviet Union.”

While the current situation “may not require large demonstrations” by U.S. advocacy groups, he said, that “doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to be actively engaged in assisting the Jews of the former Soviet Union.”

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