Leonard Fein // Let My People Go… Where?

By | Jun 29, 2017

Originally Published in Volume 2, Issue 4 (1977)

It was too good to last. The stirring saga of Soviet Jewry—identity rediscovered, tyranny opposed, the world’s conscience aroused, new lives begun in Israel and the United States—has become, finally, a kvetch.

Harsh? Consider: when the Russian Jews began to arrive in Israel in substantial number, many Israelis unwelcomed them, grumbled about the unfair advantages they were given. When the Russian Jews began to arrive in the United States in more than token numbers, American Jews were rather less than enthusiastic, disappointed that the Russians hadn’t gone to Israel, confused by the often minimal Jewishness of the new immigrants, concerned by the financial burden they imposed. The satisfying sense of victory we felt as the Jackson-Vanick amendment wended its way to Congressional approval has long since turned sour, as the stream of emigration has been reduced to a dribble. And the Russian Jews themselves, heroes in Moscow and Kiev, exotic back when each new arrival represented a victory of the powerless over the powerful, have become wholly human in Tel Aviv and Boston, their chronic complaints bespeaking a depressing normalcy.

That’s the way it is with myths. You get carried away, only to be brought up short. Myths don’t ever replace reality; at most, at best, they amend it. And now comes the most complicated and vexing anti-myth of all: at the present time, more than half the Russian Jews (yes, the very same who brave imprisonment by studying Hebrew in secret forests, who smuggle fervent petitions to the United Nations) have become “dropouts,” a term recently invented to describe Jews who leave the Soviet Union with an Israeli visa, but who decide, en route, to go to the United States rather than to Israel. (The term is a translation of the Hebrew noshrim.)

On the face of it, this new development (the dropout rate before 1973 was less than one percent; even a year ago, it was about one-third; now it is over half, and climbing) is less a problem than a disappointment. Jewish history, for better or for worse, provides ample precedent for the rejection of Israel, for the choice, instead, of some other and presumably more enticing country. The fact itself may be unpleasant, but it is no more unpleasant in the case of the Russian Jews than it was in the case of Algerian Jews (those who could, went to France, while Israel inherited the least educated, the least urbanized) or, for that matter, than it is in the continuing case of American Jews, who clearly find Israel a nice place to visit—but don’t want to live there.

The Israelis are quite naturally upset by all this, more so by the “defection” of the Russians than by the resolute non-aliyah of other groups. There has developed within Israel a powerful belief in the importance to the country’s future of Western aliyah. Hence, while all Jews are assuredly equal, educated Soviet Jews from major urban centers are clearly more equal than the relatively primitive Jews of Georgia, and it is precisely the former who now tend to reject Israel, strengthening the perception that Israel is no more than a haven for those who have no other choice, a drop-in center for the disadvantaged. The Israelis presumably understand American non-aliyah (have not well over two hundred thousand Israelis themselves been enticed to take up residence in the United States?), but it hurts, deeply, that Russian Jews on the move now turn their backs on Israel in growing number.

Still, that is only a hurt. What converts the hurt into a crisis, a crisis of such magnitude that it is commonplace in the circles of Jewish power these days to hear talk of the issue “tearing the community apart,” is that in order to alleviate the hurt we are asked to make a decision that is 8 /Moment as painful and provocative as any piece of policy in recent memory. Specifically, it is now proposed that through a simple action of the Jewish community (the American Jewish community in particular), the rate of dropping out can be dramatically reduced. No great propaganda war needs to be fought, no mass demonstrations to be mounted. Instead, we are informed, a stroke of the pen will do: let there be no more aid or comfort offered those Russian emigrants who leave Russia with Israeli visas but who announce, upon their arrival in Vienna, their intention of going elsewhere. Close down the HIAS and Joint Distribution Committee facilities in Rome and Vienna, and thereby let the Jews within the Soviet Union know that only those with genuine commitment to Israel can look forward to help from world Jewry; others who choose to leave will be abandoned.

Well, not exactly. Publicly, at least, no one is so mean and so narrow as to suggest that only those Jews who make the “right” decision, who go where they are “supposed” to go, deserve Jewish help. Officially, it is the freedom of Soviet Jews that we celebrate and we subsidize, whatever their destination. Hence no one speaks of abandonment, everyone condemns coercion.

Officially, instead, the appeal is to honesty, and it is based on the simple fact that there is, at present, only one meaningful way for Russian Jews to escape the Soviet boot, and that is by undertaking the considerable personal risk of applying for an Israeli visa (as well as for a Soviet exit permit). Very, very few Jews have successfully managed to beat the system in any other way. Thus, if a Jew wants to leave Russia, his only chance is to assert his intention to go to Israel, no matter where he actually wants to go.

Those who manage to reach Vienna are then called upon to make their actual intentions known. Emigrants bound for Israel are attended by the Jewish Agency; those who choose other destinations are looked after by HIAS and the Joint, which house them while they await American or other visas—a process that can take several months. At the present time, in other words, Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union have entirely free—and subsidized—choice regarding their destination. It is this subsidy that is now the object of attack.

The attack itself is quite direct; the justification for the attack is not. The Jewish Agency, which has long been deeply disturbed by the growing dropout rate, can hardly afford to take the position that world Jewry should refuse aid to Jews bound elsewhere than Israel. That would rightly be seen as coercion. Accordingly, the attack on the HIAS and Joint aid programs has not been linked directly to Israeli concern over the dropout rate. Instead, it is tied to predictions regarding the likely Soviet reaction to the dropout rate. Those who urge a change in Jewish policy now assert that the Soviets will not continue to permit Jews to leave under the rubric of repatriation and family reunification, carrying Israeli visas, when, in fact, so many end up going somewhere else. Instead, the prospect is that the Soviets will take umbrage, and close their doors completely.

Those who raise this terrifying possibility argue as follows: While we do not know what moves the Russians, we believe that they permit emigration only to avoid condemnation by world opinion. On the whole, it has been more attractive for the Soviets to permit a modest outflow of Jews than to be forced to defend themselves against accusations that the USSR is a prison camp. But were the Soviet government able, credibly, to present itself as victim of a colossal fraud—a conspiracy involving Israel, the United States, world Jewry, even the Dutch, whose embassy in Moscow handles the applications for Israeli visas—it might then be able to close its doors with impunity, confident that world public opinion would be too confused to mobilize in counterattack. Accordingly, the issue of fraud must be removed. Hence the proposal that no more help be given to Jews with Israeli visas who do not plan to come to Israel. Without the security of such help, only Jews who mean to go to Israel will apply for Israeli visas, and the problem will be solved.

But what of the others, the Russian Jews who, for whatever reason, want to go to the United States? They, it is proposed, should apply directly for American visas, and world Jewry must mobilize in support of their right to be permitted exit with such visas. No limitation of Jewish choice, just an adjustment in the bookkeeping that will reflect the reality of choice: Russian Jews who want to go to Israel will go to Israel, those who want to go to America will go to America, the issue of fraud will be removed, we will become honest and upright, all will be well.

The only problem with this ingenuous view of the world is that there is no evidence at all that the Soviet Union contemplates the closing of its doors on account of fraud, nor is there any reason at all to believe that the Soviets would suddenly agree to large-scale emigration by Russians bound to countries of the West. Even advocates of the aid cut-off confess that, at most, “there is a possibility that the Russians may be contemplating a tougher policy on Jewish emigration based on the fraud argument.” Further, after years of our having been informed that the reason for emphasizing repatriation is that otherwise the Russians would be faced with demands for exit permits by Latvians and Lithuanians and Estonians and Ukranians and Armenians and Germans and all the others, it is difficult to accept as serious the statement that “there Moment/9 is a chance the Russians will issue exit permits to people with American visas.” Of course there is a chance. There is always a chance. Nothing in life is certain. But among the more certain things in life is the likely Soviet response to large-scale requests for exit permits to the United States.

Accordingly, the proposed new policy of selective aid-denial would most likely not be merely a technical adjustment, a way of avoiding Soviet anger and retribution. The proposed new policy would, instead, reduce the total outflow of Jews from the Soviet Union, cutting the current paltry one thousand or so per month by more than half, offering Soviet Jews, for all practical purposes, two choices: come to Israel, or stay where you are. Therefore, abandonment; therefore, coercion.

One can interpret the new proposal in different ways, but the most plausible interpretation, ugly though it be, is that it has been developed as a face-saving way of weeding out of the Soviet Jewish emigration the “undesirables”—those who reject Israel as their prospective home. It saves face because it places the onus for the weeding on the Soviet government.

Such an interpretation is lent credence by the history of the proposal, as well as by its logic. Until quite recently, the dropout rate was merely a distressing background fact of Jewish life, a problem simmering at some distance from the general Jewish consciousness. It was a problem, if at all, only for a small group of Jewish leaders.

Those leaders engaged in private discussion of the issue. Nehemia Levanon, who is attached to the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel, and is the Israeli with primary responsibility for Soviet Jewry, strongly urged his colleagues to close out aid to noshrim. When his urging was resisted, Max Fisher (Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive) convened an ad hoc committee to consider the matter. The committee was established somewhat more formally last July, at a Jewish Agency Assembly in Jerusalem. (It is, however, still an ad hoc committee, for it is not a committee of any organization, and has, therefore, no authority to act. At most, it can recommend to the organizations whose leaders it includes.)

Formally, the idea of a committee to consider diverse options for dealing with the problem of noshrim is entirely plausible. Such a committee might have chosen to consider why so many Russian Jews were reluctant to come to Israel. It might, for example, have addressed the problem of Russian Jews subjected to years of vicious anti-Israel propaganda, some of which has “taken,” and sought ways to counter that propaganda. It might have considered the evidence of bungling by the Israeli bureaucracy charged with helping the new immigrants get settled, or the very real problems of employment many Russians face in Israel. Or it might have recommended simply that Israeli visas be issued only to those Jews who were genuine in their assertion of intent to make aliyah. Israel knows, roughly, who those Jews are, and were honesty alone the issue, it could by its own action resolve the problem.

In short, there were and are diverse policy options that deserve consideration. The Committee of Eight, as the group charged with examining those options came to be called, included representatives of the Jewish Agency, of the Prime Minister’s Office, of HIAS, the Joint Distribution Committee, the United Israel Appeal, the Council. In most cases, representation of the Committee was through the senior professional and lay president of the organization, signifying the importance attached to the problem.

In short, there were and are diverse policy options that deserve consideration. The Committee of Eight, as the group charged with examining those options came to be called, included representatives of the Jewish Agency, of the Prime Minister’s Office, of HIAS, the Joint Distribution Committee, the United Israel Appeal, the Council. In most cases, representation of the Committee was through the senior professional and lay president of the organization, signifying the importance attached to the problem.

Whatever alternatives the Committee did in fact consider, what it came up with, by mid-October, was a proposal to cut off aid, to shut down HIAS and Joint facilities for holders of Israeli visas not bound for Israel. Some time after word of the proposal leaked out, and, presumably, after vehement—though not yet widespread—negative reaction to it was registered, its proponents began to attach to it the now familiar rationale: unless the proposal is adopted, Russia will close down Jewish emigration.

In retrospect, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Committee was appointed not in order to consider genuine policy options, but in order to promote a particular proposal. Knowing Levanon’s position on the matter, and knowing Fisher’s disposition to accept Israeli views and to imagine that he can “deliver” American Jewish support for those views, it is reasonable to suppose that fear of Russian behavior was tacked on to the proposal as an afterthought, a way of countering the surprising opposition to the proposal that was developing. Now the proposal would not have to be justified in terms of Israel’s needs or desires, needs which a considerable segment of American Jewish leadership saw as conflicting with the needs of Soviet Jews. Now, instead, an external threat could be used to mobilize support. After all, the cruel and unusual step of closing down facilities for Jewish refugees could hardly be defended in any other way. Israel could not refuse to grant visas to Jews so long as only with those visas did they stand a chance of escaping the Soviet Union. Philanthropic institutions could not dismiss supplicants already at their doorstep. But suggest, as the Committee logic did, that every Jew who chooses to come to America increases the danger that no Jews at all will be permitted to go anywhere, and the focus of the problem changes dramatically.

Until recently, the deliberations of the Committee, obviously highly sensitive, were masked 10/Moment from public view in this country (as opposed to Israel, where the issue has been vigorously debated in the press).*Moreover, it is not clear whether the Committee has, in fact, reached a decision, or whether the suggested new policy is only a trial balloon. Several members of the Committee, and several Agency officials close to the Committee, have spoken as if the new policy had in fact been formally adopted, while all official pronouncements continue to reassure the community that the matter is still being studied, that no change is imminent. There is, however, considerable evidence that the Committee was on the verge of adopting the new policy in late October or early November, until the refusal of HIAS to accept the change, and a HIAS threat to take the issue public, led to a postponement of the decision.

The issue became part of the Jewish public agenda in mid-November, at the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds in Philadelphia. In a crowded conference room, a head table panel, which included a rare combination of communal heavyweights, presented the problem, and then articulately, carefully, persuasively, responded to an array of extraordinarily thoughtful questions by the assembled delegates. (Officially, the session was off-the-record, although it is somewhat difficult to understand why a matter that has been aired in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Jewish Week and Time Magazine should be treated as a secret within the community.) Insofar as there was a “position” taken by the delegates, it was that no change be adopted without full opportunity for detailed discussion within the community. Insofar as there was a position taken by the Committee members at the head table (all the American members of the Committee were there; Israeli members had been advised that it might be impolitic for them to appear) it was that, in light of the delicacy of the matter, no such opportunity for open discussion could be provided.

The session was almost always civilized, respectful, sensitive. But there was, throughout, an undercurrent of distrust. Thus one of the principals at the head table later confessed, with great sadness, that even his closest friends had reacted to his eloquent presentation on behalf of a change with great skepticism.


What are we to think, what to believe? Honest men vehemently deny that the Israeli government or the Jewish Agency are pressing for the adoption of “their” policy—that is, for closing the HIAS and Joint facilities. Equally honest men attest that they have been subjected to fierce pressure to endorse such change. Abba Eban asks publicly that Israeli leaders “liberate American Jewish leaders from a pressure that goes against every fraternal and humane impulse.” How can we choose the truth?

If the evidence is inconclusive, choose the logic: Israeli embarrassment and pique aside, there is only one argument in favor of changing Jewish policy, and that argument—what the Russians might do—is based entirely on speculation. No one knows what prompts the Russians to move in one direction or another, no one has ever known, no one claims to know.* And there is only one circumstance which would make a change in Jewish policy acceptable—a change in Soviet policy towards holders of American visas. And that circumstance is so utterly implausible, and, in its own way, so very dangerous (imagine the anti-Semitic reaction in the USSR were Jews, and only Jews, permitted to leave for the United States) as to call into question the credibility of the entire scenario which the Committee has put forward. Indeed, Nahum Goldmann was recently informed by Soviet authorities that there is no possibility whatsoever that the Soviets will permit largescale Jewish emigration to the West—and the Committee surely knows of Goldmann’s meeting.

For these reasons, the proposed change has been the target of considerable opposition, both within the American Jewish community and among Soviet Jews in Israel. Time Magazine quotes Irving Howe as asserting that “We didn’t campaign to ‘let our people go’ only to Israel. The central moral and humanitarian issue has been to get Jews out of the Soviet pesthole, regardless of where they want to settle.” And 87 of the most prominent Russian Jews in Israel, including Sylva Zalmanson, Raiza Palatnik, Alexander Voronel, and Vitaly Rubin, recently signed a letter in which they asserted that “practically speaking, this decision (closing down the aid program) means leaving thousands of Jews behind the Iron Curtain This plan is a revival of the tragic attitude of American Jews towards Eastern European Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust.”

Further, we are confronted with a proposal which is dangerous in and of itself, even if it is never adopted. For what we have done is to provide the Russians with just the excuse they need. We have, in our own discussions of the proposal, confessed to fraud; now the Russians, should they be so disposed, need only wave our own confession before the world.

On this issue, the gap between Jewish leadership and everyday Jews has historically been greater than on almost any other. The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and (I am loathe to say it, but honesty impels) the Jewish Defense League, whatever they achieved, were alive to the issue of Soviet Jewry long before the established organizations of American Jewry. The evidence suggests that Israel was at the same time working furiously behind the scenes to pry open Russia’s doors, but in retrospect it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, so far as the American Jewish community is concerned, it was the street demonstrators and not the backroom diplomats who forced the Soviet hand. Back then, American Jewish leadership was reluctant to move publicly— “don’t rock the boat” was the phrase.

Now comes the same leadership and proposes a change, averring that the change has nothing to do with Israel’s disposition on the matter.

Perhaps this is so, even though the history of the proposal suggests that it is not. Perhaps there is much more here than meets the eye. Perhaps the leaders know things the rest of us do not know. But on this issue, as on none other, the rest of us know some things as well, and this is what we know:

We know that the real problem remains not the choice of a few hapless Russian Jews who manage to beat the Soviet system, but the continuing brutalization of Jewish possibility that was, and remains, Soviet policy. The debate that now rages is a debate over leavings; the harvest has not yet been touched. Three million Jews remain inside Soviet borders, and they cannot leave. They lack all the modest amenities of Jewish life—synagogues and schools, libraries and newspapers, teachers and singers. While we argue over the choices of hundreds, the Soviet Union destroys thousands. That was the issue yesterday, and it is the issue today. If a massive campaign is to be mounted, that, as well as the expansion of the right to emigrate to any place, is what it must be about. But until there is persuasive evidence that the Russians will let Jewry out, no matter where they plan to settle, the one limited success we have won must not be jeopardized. The time has come, at last, not to rock the boat.

We know as well that if half the energy and half the intensity and half the seriousness of purpose now invested in the debate were redirected to reforming the operations of the Jewish Agency, some considerable part of the problem of dropouts might be resolved. For surely what happens in Israel today has at least as much impact on the dropout rate as what might happen in Russia tomorrow. The worst kept secret of organized Jewish life is the calamitous inefficiency of the Jewish Agency and its bungling of the absorption process, and the repair of that intolerable condition requires nothing more than an American Jewish leadership that takes seriously its role as partner with the Israelis.

We know that there are other avenues of pressure and for action: let the Voice of America and the BBC be pressed to broadcast more comprehensive reports about life in Israel, away from the battlefields, to counter the Soviet lies. Let Russian Jews who have successfully adjusted to Israel be brought to greet the Russian Jews upon their arrival in Vienna. Let the American government continue to be pressed to insist on Soviet compliance with the Helsinki agreement. Let the American Jewish community be careful that in its kindness to the Russians, it does not offer them “a better deal” than they might anticipate in Israel. (Which cannot come to mean a cutting back on aid to Russians arriving here, must mean instead an increase in aid to Israel.)

We know that the problem is difficult and sensitive. America, combination of flesh-pot and freedom, exerts a siren attraction, and the Russian Jews who come here are not behaving any differently from the ways in which we ourselves behave, are not choosing differently from the ways we have chosen. We know, therefore, that we are not entitled to insist that the Russians be our surrogate Zionists.

All these things we know, as most assuredly Jewish leadership and the members of the Committee that will decide this matter know them too. But we know one thing more, which the Committee may not know, and needs to know, as well: American Jews, in unison with their Soviet kinfolk, have danced on Simchat Torah for too long, have held the Matzah of Hope too fervently, to accept casually a massive change in Jewish strategy. Russian Jews are Jews, and they are in trouble, and we mean that as many as possible shall be helped to extricate themselves, and that every single one of them who manages to extricate himself, by whatever ruse, shall be helped. If there is some new danger that we should take into account, it needs to be explained in words and in ways that befit our concern and our intelligence. It is American Jewish subsidies that nourish those who escape, whether they go to Israel or join us here. It is American Jewish sensibilities that must be respected by those who now propose that we withdraw our help from some. For were the proposed change to be adopted, and were we to discover that its consequence was to reduce the number of Russian Jews released, there would be hell to pay. There would be hell to pay, and there would be very, very grave problems for American Jewish philanthropy. Our dollars and our hands are for Jews—saints and sinners, olim and noshrim alike. We love Israel fiercely, but will not be party to its imposition on the unwilling. We will not participate in selective decency. Nor will any Committee, no matter how distinguished and honorable its members, be permitted to experiment with Jewish freedom.

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