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Israeli Policy Change on Visas May Not Impede Freedom of Choice

June 21, 1988
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Changes in Soviet emigration policy have diminished the impact of the Israeli Cabinet’s decision Sunday to extend visas only to those Soviet Jews intent on making aliyah, according to Jewish organizations and resettlement agencies in the United States.

Leaders of organizations that deal with the problem say they remain committed to the concept that Soviet Jews should be free to choose where to live and not be coerced to settle in Israel. But they add that new Soviet willingness to honor invitations from relatives in the United States leaves open an alternative exit route for emigres.

The Cabinet decision was aimed at reducing the number of Soviet Jewish “dropouts,” those who leave the Soviet Union with Israeli visas, then opt to go to the United States and other Western countries, instead of Israel.

The implication of the decision was that Soviet Jews with Israeli visas would have to fly directly to Tel Aviv via Bucharest, Romania.

The current transit point is Vienna, where last month 90 percent of the emigres chose the United States or Western Europe over Israel.

Recent actions by the Soviets, including a remark by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, indicate that Soviets are now ready to recognize the right of Jews to immigrate to countries other than Israel.

According to Morris Abram, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, 300 Soviet Jews since January have received permission to leave the USSR based on invitations originating in the United States. That number is triple the amount permitted all of last year, and 10 times the number for 1986.

Abram said the Cabinet decision is a “welcome step and a positive response to recent changes in Soviet emigration policy.”


Saying “we trust” that Soviet authorities will increase the number of exit visas for Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel, the United States, Canada and other countries, Abram said the new Israeli procedure reaffirms the principle of freedom of choice.

“Jewish emigrants who intend to settle in Israel will be able to proceed directly to Israel via Bucharest,” Abram said. “Those who wish to immigrate to the United States and Canada should be able to do so.”

The relative relaxation of the Soviet visa policy encouraged HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, to announce late last week its plans to mobilize the American Jewish community to “test the waters” of Soviet policy.

HIAS currently registers and assists those Soviet Jews in Vienna who wish to resettle in the United States.

The mobilization effort, calling on Jewish family services and federations to aid in preparing the letters of invitation, anticipated the Cabinet decision, Philip Saperia, HIAS assistant executive vice president, said in an interview Monday.

“The Israelis have complained about the system insofar as it is a misuse of the Israeli visa.

“The ‘dual-track’ system helps to maintain the integrity of the Israeli visa while maintaining the principle of free choice for Soviet Jews,” he said.

Asked if Jewish organization would be less sanguine toward the decision if Soviets were to reverse their current visa policy, Saperia replied, “One could argue that, but there is no use speculating.”

Dr. Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, also played down the significance of the Cabinet decision.


In a telephone interview, Naftalin declared that “the fundamental principle of freedom of choice has to be preserved,” but added that with the Soviet willingness to accept American invitations, “Jews will have the same choice in Moscow that they now have in Vienna.”

Still, Naftalin sounded a note of caution. Like Israeli emigration activists quoted Sunday, Naftalin warned that the decision could discourage Soviet Jews from seeking invitations or applying for exit permits.

“If Jews in the Soviet Union believe Israel is the only way out — after 40 years of anti-Israel propaganda and little knowledge of Israel except the terrible things they’ve heard — they may be discouraged from exercising their right to emigrate,” said Naftalin.

The Reagan administration issued separate but similar statements on the Cabinet decision, one from State Department officials in Washington and another from White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater in Toronto, where President Reagan is attending the seven-nation economic conference.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said, “Our position on the question of emigration remains one of firm support for the principles of freedom of movement and freedom of choice.”

The administration has denied Shamir’s request to revoke refugee status for Soviet emigres.

Among American Soviet Jewry activists, the strongest support for the Cabinet decision came from Rabbi Avi Weiss, national chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

“When Soviet Jews come to the United States they leave one exile and move to another exile,” Weiss said. “The U.S. is not Israel, not the homeland of the Jewish people. The country best equipped to absorb Jews is Israel, not the United States.”

Weiss acknowledged his views do not reflect the consensus even within his own organization.

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