The issue of Jewish Emigration in Soviet politics in the 1970s

The history of Jewish immigration extends back hundreds of years. Centuries-long danger of extermination, sense of insecurity that derives from having to live for 2.000 years as a diaspora community, the religious belief in the concept of the chosen people, the faith-based otherness, social exclusion which caused them to be mentioned as “a nation that stands alone” or “few against many,” and many other reasons heavily influenced the origin and maintenance of the Jewish mindset regarding security, and had triggered self-imposed exiles to avoid persecution or legal matters, or forced to migrate to many different parts of the world. This feeling of aloneness and undesirableness can even be detected in Torah writings, during the time of Isaac, the second son of Abraham, according to the Torah and the Qur'an. For instance, the Book of Genesis says Isaac and his people were sent away from Gerar, a Philistine, which is today located in south-central Israel, because Isaac’s expulsion seem to have instilled a mentality in the minds of the Jewish generations that the Jewish people have always been envied by other nations;  “O Jews! This is your destiny. You aresurrounded by jealous nations. You are noble and different in their eyes. You need to protect yourself from this hatred.”  Indeed, the Torah’s story regarding Isaac’s exile had repeated itself in many different forms over the course of history. For instance, the Jewish population in Europe in the beginning of the 14th century numbered around half a million, while this number dropped to around 150,000 at the beginning of the 15th century due to the expulsion of the Jewish population from the continent.  The British Kingdom, in particular, was the first country to issue administrative decrees to banish the Jewish population in the 11th century. Spain and Portugal were also among the countries where large numbers of Jews were banished starting from the 13th century onwards. In addition to the expulsions, hundreds of thousands of Marranos, people who were forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity, had been persecuted during the Inquisition between the 15th and 19th centuries because of their secret adherence to Judaism. However, anti-Semitism reached its peak with the Holocaust, during which approximately 6 million Jews were killed by Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime between the years 1941 and 1945. All these examples seem sufficient to claim that, in addition to “Jewishness,” Israelis were also filled with a Mearsheimer-type hyper-nationalism due to the centuries-long prejudice and hatred against them as an ethnic/religious group, which most certainly left an indelible influence on the formation of the “security mindset” and thereby the formulation of threat perceptions in the early period of the state of Israel.

Since the beginning of 20th century, one can mention eight major waves of Jewish Aliyahs:   First one took place between 1882–1903 to the Syria province of the Ottoman Empire. The second one came between 1904-1914 from Russia and Eastern Europe due to pogroms and failed 1905 Russian revolution. The third  one (1919-1923) was also from Russia which suffered the most war damage at the World War I. The forth wave was mostly from Poland and Hungary in 1920s. The greatest wave, however, occurred with the rise of fascism in Germany between 1929-44, the time period during which almost six million Jews systematically persecuted and murdered by the Nazi regime. The forth wave came with the establishment of Israeli state at the very hearth of the Middle East in 1948 and the fifth wave came from the Soviet unions in the 1970s while the last one happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and in 1990s. For the sake of this paper, from this point on, we will merely focus on the last to waves and Soviet government’s stance towards the country’s Jewish minority during the Cold war. 
After the World War II, some two million of the total Jewish population lived in the Soviets. Partly because Stalin wanted to have an influence on the Zionist movement and on the establishment process of the state of Israel, partly because some half million Jews had fought in the Red army, and party because Stalin wished to use Soviet Jews to convince the Americans to help fragile Russian economy, the Soviet union came into the picture as a new hope for the European Jewish diaspora during this time period. However, hopes soon turned out to be vain as Soviet government lost the newly-established Israeli state and world Zionism to American influence. As of 1950, many Jewish officers, academics, doctors and public servants were permanently dismissed from their jobs and almost all “Jewish artistic collectives across Soviet Union were banned.”   Their vulnerability hit peak in 1952 when a group of prominent Jewish doctors were accused of attempting to murder the leading government officials. The doctors were accused of spying on behalf of foreign powers and these accusations, largely known as the Doctors’ Plot, paved way for one of the greatest political purge of Jews in Soviet Russia and the suppression of hundreds of Jews and other civilians who had alleged or real affiliation with the International Jewish Zionist organization. Although the stance towards Jews was softened with the sudden death of Stalin in March 1953 and with the curtains coming down on the issue of the Doctors’ Plot, Soviet government’s position turned sour again in early 1954. Until the end of the Six Days war which was fought in 1967 between Israel and the neighboring Arab states and ended with an absolute Jewish victory, almost all efforts made by the Jewish community for visa to exit Soviet Union had remained futile. During this time period, well-educated Jews scientists and technicians, doctors, academics, and many other had been banned from leaving the country. When they applied for exit visas, they were fined, punished and treated badly by the Soviet officials. Between 1948 and 1970, only some 60,000 Jews were allowed to leave the county.  There are several reasons behind this restrictive Soviet policy towards the country’s Jewish population. First of all, the idea abandonment of the union was taken as indication of treason and betrayal. “Why in the world, Soviet officials asked, Soviet citizens want to leave the land of their birth when it provided them with the best standards of living it possibly could, one that was exploitation and no guarantee of material well-being.”  However, in reality, majority of the Soviet Jews  were literally being forced to experience a slow and painful social genocide. Another reason was the belief that the Jews who used to hold high positions within the state bureaucracy could easily leak ‘secrets’ of the Soviet union.  Also, emigration of large numbers of people from Soviet Union to the United States, the two countries that caused the most bitter superpower rivalry the world has seen for centuries, would deal a major blow to the super power image of the former. And last, but not least, after losing Israeli state to the United states influence, the Soviet Government had to side with the Arab world, for which mass Jewish migration to the Middle East would have meant a derogation in the relations.
However, thanks to the increasing international pressure, Israel’s strengthening position in the world, relative disengagement between Soviet Union and the Arab world, and finally the Dymshits–Kuznetsov hijacking incident , the emigration restrictions imposed by the Soviet government began to ease towards the end of 1960s. Between 1968 and 1970, a total of 4,300 Jews were granted exit visa, and this number increased to 14,300 in 1971.  In 1972, 31,681 Jews were given exit visa while in 1973, their number rose to a record level of 34,733. This open door policy towards the country’s Jewish population continued with slight stagnations until Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.   According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS),  an American nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees, between 1974 and 1976, some 35,000 more Jews were given exit visas, while 1979 saw the greatest number of 1970s as at least 50,000 Jews –majority to the US— abandoned the Communist world.
The opening doors and softening Soviet stance towards the idea of emigration triggered a wave of mass exodus during the 1970s, and it eventually hit record high in 1990s, even though it temporarily decreased in the 1980s. Some 291,000 Jews left Soviet Union between 1970 and 1988,  and majority of these people were well-educated and quickly integrated into societies in their new home; Israel.  Majority of the Jews who left the Soviet Union during this time period were largely motivated with Zionist ambitions and therefore preferred to migrate to Israel with visas granted through the Dutch Embassy in Moscow. However, the many of the followings in the late 1970s and 1980s had begun to travel to Europe only to seek United States visa once they arrive in Rome or Vienna. 
The easing in the geopolitical tensions between the  United States and Soviet government, and increasing American influence both on the Arab states and across the world, played a significant role in the unprecedented increase in emigration of the Soviet Jews. According to Robert Freedman, an American political scientist with specialization in Soviet Union and the Cold War’s Communist bloc, Soviet officials granted exit visas for thousands of Jews during the 1970s, because they simply needed to “gain benefits from the West.”  
“The Soviet desires for new strategic arms agreements and American grain and technology along with the Soviet hope of the keeping the United States and China from joining together in an anti-Soviet alliance, have been central to the Soviet calculation to relax the emigration policy during the past decade [1970s]. Consequently, it was not accidential that the number of Soviet Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union dropped precipitously following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when President Carter imposed a partial grain embargo on the USSR.” 

The more the Soviet government engaged in the peaceful coexistence process with the capitalist bloc in early 1970s, the period came to be known as that of détente, the long standing hostility and strict barriers against the Jews and idea of their emigration had gradually eased. When the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 made it clear that the US would not give the status of “most-favored-nation” to any non-market country that 
“(1)denies its citizens the right or opportunity to emigrate; (2)imposes more than a nominal tax on emigration or on the visas or other documents required for emigration, for any purpose or cause whatsoever; or (3)imposes more than a nominal tax, levy, fine, fee, or other charge on any citizen as a consequence of the desire of such citizen to emigrate to the country of his choice,”  

the Soviet government initially refused to put it into effect in 1975. In that sense, this amendment admittedly did only little to the Soviet Jews in the mid-1970s as in 1974, some 21,000 Jews were given exit visas while this number decreased to 13,000 in the following year. However, it would be safe to say that the amendment informally played a significant role in the unprecedented boost of the emigration of Soviet Jews in the 1978 and 1979.  Especially soon after when the Helsinki accords which were signed between the 35 countries including the US and Soviet Union in an attempt to improve relations between the two Cold War blocs, the flow of Jewish immigrants reached back to what it was in the early 1970s. As it covered a wide range of topics from political economic and military issues to peaceful settlement of disputes, the accords also focused on the issue of freedom of emigration and reunification of families. In 1978, a total of 28,864 Soviet Jews were granted exit visas while this number hit record high of 51,320 in 1979.  Yet, with the erupt of the long-debated Soviet–Afghan war which lasted from December 1979 to late 1980s, and the deteriorating relations with the Capitalist bloc, the increasing wave of Jewish emigration from the Communist soils re-crashed to the floor in early 1980s. Jewish emigration saw a drastic decline from 21,471 in 1980, to 9,477 in 1981, to 2,688 in 1982, and finally to 896 in 1984.  During the Afghan war, this low level continued until the 1989, the year some 71,000 Jews were let go by the desperate Soviet government.   

It would be safe to say that throughout the short history of the Soviet Union, Jews had put up a good fight to turn the page to a new life in the free world. This was partly due to the fluctuant waves of anti-Semitism across different regions of the union, partly due to the threat of assimilation and partly the hope for a more promising future in the countries of the free world, namely the US, Israel, Canada etc. Existing findings and official numbers reveals that Israel’s unprecedented victories at the heart of the Middle East and therefore securing its position in the world; the Soviets’ diminishing influence on Arab States; the détente years of 1970s and relative rapprochement between the two blocs; high emigration quotas by the Western countries and the Jewish state; and many other related reasons, have made unprecedentedly positive contribution to the issue of the emigration of the Soviet Jews. Despite Soviet obstinacy and years-long periodic preclusions, no other minority groups were allowed to leave the Communist soils more than the Jews were. In fact, starting from the late 1960s until the disintegration in 1991, almost two-thirds of them turn the page to a new life, bidding farewell to the Soviet Union.  The fact that today there are some 1.4 million Russian-speaking Jews in the state of Israel , and some 750,000 others in the United States of America, is nothing but an obvious result of the emigration waves of 1970s and 1990s.


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