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Debate Erupts over Status of Jews Leaving Former USSR

October 14, 1993
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Should a third of the American refugee quota be devoted to Jews from the former Soviet Union?

That question has been raised anew, and effectively answered “no,” by the president of the American Zionist Movement, Seymour Reich.

His view has revived a long-running battle that pits the Zionist principle of Jewish immigration to Israel against the feeling of American Jews that they have no right to deny to Russians the haven their own grandparents found on American shores.

The issue was raised last month by Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) in a Senate hearing on immigration and refugee affairs.

At the hearing, Secretary of State Warren Christopher noted the need to “bring the Soviet refugee admissions program into conformity with emerging realities in the former Soviet Union,” according to a summary of the hearing prepared by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Reich, in a statement last week, called for a re-evaluation of the refugee quota, declaring that “Russian Jews are taking places that might otherwise go to Bosnian victims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and other deserving refugees in flight from persecution.”

Reich’s argument was hotly criticized as irresponsible and wrong by the Jewish organizations that resettle the roughly 40,000 Jewish immigrants who arrive in America annually.

“According to U.S. refugee policy, a reduction in the number of Jews to the U.S. in no way guarantees an increase in the number of admissions of any other refugee population,” said a statement issued jointly by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Council of Jewish Federations and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Further, activity on behalf of Jews from the former Soviet Union has helped other refugees, according to Gary Rubin, outgoing director of national affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

“Jewish support has been a vital part of a coalition that has succeeded in bringing Asian and African and other refugees to the United States,” Rubin said. “Were the Jewish slice to drop out, there would be a weakening of the overall coalition.”


Additionally, according to Martin Wenick, president of HIAS, the Jewish community last year showed “some flexibility” and agreed to give up some slots to be used by refugees from war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But those refugees never arrived.

Reich’s statement, and the rejoinder to it, dealt at length with the changing situation in the former Soviet Union.

Reich, referring to Boris Yeltsin’s victory over the rejectionist Parliament, argued that “the Jews of Russia can no longer claim to be victims of government persecution who automatically deserve the status of refugees for entry into the United States.”

CJF, HIAS and the National Conference retorted that “recent events in Moscow signal a new phase of political and social volatility and that this is not a time to dismiss the ongoing crisis in the region in the name of ‘Yeltsin’s victory.’ “

In calling for a re-evaluation of resettlement policies, Reich has reopened a debate that has arisen periodically since Jews first began to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s: Should Jews, who have the right to automatic citizenship in Israel, be considered stateless refugees?

If Russian Jews “feel they must leave, they have a land to go to that will immediately accept them and make them citizens on the day they enter” Israel, Reich said in his statement.

But the Soviet Jewry advocacy and resettlement groups retorted that “the safety of Jews in the former Soviet Union deserves an assessment that is independent of beliefs of where they should resettle.

“CJF and HIAS support a policy of resettlement that is based on a conclusion that there is ample reason for Jews, in particular, to leave the former Soviet Union for Israel and for some to enter the U.S. as refugees,” the joint statement read.

Under American law, refugees need to show a well-founded fear of persecution.

For Jews and other religious minorities from the former Soviet Union, however, that standard was softened by the Lautenberg Amendment.

The amendment was introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) after the Immigration and Naturalization Service rejected the asylum claims of almost half the Soviet Jews applying in the summer of 1989.


Currently, according to Wenick, there is more than a two-year backlog in admissions, with 100,000 people in the immigration pipeline.

A similar number of Jews are reportedly in the pipeline for immigration to Israel, with 10 times that many having begun the initial step of receiving a letter of invitation from Israel.

According to former CJF Executive Vice President Carmi Schwartz, “the rationale for American resettlement was going to be family reunification; the rationale for Israel would be safe haven and Jewish continuity.”

Schwartz, who is now a consultant to CJF, headed the organization through 1989, when mass emigration from the then-Soviet Union was beginning. He noted that most of the refugees coming to America are family reunification cases, a factor not mentioned in the official rejoinder to Reich.

Jewish continuity “is another factor that should be looked at very seriously,” Schwartz said, since “the Jewish component of their being is a critical component as to why we care about them.”

“Israeli resettlement assures Jewish continuity, while American resettlement is very uncertain as to continuity,” said Schwartz.

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