Conflicting Visions: Debates Relating to Soviet Jewish Emigration in the Global Arena

Suzanne D Rutland. East European Jewish Affairs. Volume 47, Issue 2/3. August-December 2017.


In the post-Holocaust era, the persecution and discrimination experienced by Soviet Jewry and their struggle for freedom became major issues in the Jewish world and its global politics. In the West, the campaign “Let My People Go” gained momentum, especially after the 1967 war. Despite the biblical symbolism of the campaign motto, a significant debate emerged in the 1970s as to where Soviet Jews should settle once they were given permission to leave. The essence of this debate was whether it should be repatriation for Soviet Jews, that is being reunited with family in Israel, or immigration, that is migrating to the free world. This debate was the outcome of what has been described as “the self–society intersection,” but also of the tensions between these two concepts. For American Jews “self” was very important and this was reflected in their belief in freedom of choice. They argued that Soviet Jews should be able to choose where they migrated to after they left the Soviet Union, while American assistance, both government and Jewish, was part of society’s obligations. In contrast, the Israeli leadership, supported by other Diaspora leaders, believed that the Soviet Jews should migrate to the State of Israel, which they believed was “the Jewish national homeland.” This Israeli approach, based on a Zionist ideology, stressed the importance of society and strengthening the Jewish people in Israel. The tensions that emerged between these two positions almost led to the disintegration of the movement. Those Soviet Jews who decided to go to the Western diaspora countries, particularly to the United States, Canada, and Australia, were labeled as “drop-outs” (noshrim in Hebrew), and the movement was known in Hebrew as neshira, with the name having negative connotations. While there is a growing literature on the Soviet Jewish movement, both in terms of the Soviet Union itself, and the efforts of the rest of the world, relatively less has been written about the drop-out phenomenon. This article discusses the early Soviet Jewish movement, which advocated repatriation, the Australian government’s reactions, which shed light on these developments, and the drop-out phenomenon. It aims to explore the debate surrounding Soviet emigration, and analyze why eventually most of the Soviet Jewish émigrés migrated to Israel in the 1990s, rather than to the United States.

This article will also demonstrate that the debate over the drop-out phenomenon was global in nature, with Australian Jewry also playing a role, particularly through the leadership of Isi Joseph Leibler, who worked very closely with Israeli organizations. As a Diaspora leader, he consistently promoted the Israeli line. In the 1970s and early 1980s he opposed the American Jewish leadership over the issue of the drop-out phenomenon and freedom of choice. He built his company, Jetset Tours, into the largest travel company in the Asia-Pacific region, enabling him to travel frequently to attend important meetings. In the 1980s, Leibler played a part in the changing United States Jewish politics, through his close friendship with American lawyer and prominent civil rights activist from the South, Ambassador Morris Berthold Abram. Abram had been an early campaigner for the cause of Soviet Jewry in the 1960s and in 1983 assumed the presidency of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ). The NCSJ had been established in 1964 as the American Conference on Soviet Jewry, but in 1971 it was restructured and renamed. Under Abram’s leadership, a strong Zionist ideology emerged, reinforced during the outbreak of the First Palestinian Intifada in 1987. His successor, Zionist leader Shoshana (Charlotte) Cardin, subsequently continued this change in approach. Edgar Bronfman, World Jewish Congress (WJC) president since 1980, was another key player, as was American Zionist leader Max Fisher. Thus, the shift in 1989 was not just due to economic factors, but also due to a changing ideology during the 1980s from the individualistic freedom of choice to the more nationalistic concept of aliyah (migration to Israel). This change among leading Jewish organizations in the United States contributed to the change in the United States’ official government policy regarding Soviet Jewish emigrants in late 1988.

There is a growing literature on the Soviet Jewry movement, with a number of important works published recently. Most have been written by American historians, some of whom have been highly critical of Israeli policies. Stuart Altshuler used terms such as “strident” and “Israeli pressure” to describe the Israeli position on the “drop-outs.” Altshuler claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did not just ask rather he demanded that: “American Jewry align itself totally with Israel’s objectives.” He also argued that while many American Jewish leaders disagreed with Israeli policy on drop-outs, they were reluctant to express such criticism publicly. Robert O. Freedman claimed that he personally had experienced the “bullying tactics” of Dr. Yoram Dinstein, an Israeli expert in international law and former president of Tel Aviv University, who represented the Israeli Liaison Bureau (Lishkat ha-kesher) in New York in the early 1970s.

This article seeks to provide more of a global perspective on the story of the drop-outs, and specifically to discuss Leibler’s role. It draws on the extensive documentation relating to Soviet Jewry from the late 1950s until 1992 in his private archive in Jerusalem (IJLA-Jer). These documents provide a rich source of information, as Leibler retained all his correspondence with key leaders of the movement, including the heads of the Liaison Bureau and other key Israeli players; copies of newspaper articles from across the globe dealing with the issue; as well as the minutes of international meetings with his detailed reports of his personal experiences at the meetings. The material in the archive illustrates the transnational aspect of the Soviet Jewry movement, a perspective which this article seeks to add to, with its focus on Australia’s role, which has been largely neglected in the literature to date.

The National Archives of Australia, Canberra (NAA) also has files on Soviet Jewry, mainly from the Australian embassy in Moscow, also dating from the late 1950s, which provide an additional window onto Jewish life in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Jewry emigration movement. The Australian documents shed further light on the global nature of this struggle.

Wendy Eisen has noted that the global Soviet Jewry advocacy campaign in the West involved “a complicated network of Jewish and non-Jewish men, women, students, politicians, clergymen, academics and scientists,” which was being coordinated “from behind the scenes” by the Liaison Bureau. Yet, to date, the focus on this history has largely been on the Israeli and American players and the role of Australia, the third major country to accept Soviet Jewish migrants in the West, has been neglected. A further study of this network, with the focus on Leibler, demonstrates how Australian Jewry contributed to encouraging the United States Jewish leadership to reverse its policy from a commitment to “freedom of choice,” to a more Zionist-oriented position, reflecting the official Israeli line.

The Australian government was also interested in the issue as seen in the detailed reports emanating from its Moscow embassy from the 1960s onwards. Robert (Bob) Hawke visited Israel in 1970, when he was president of the Australian Trade Union Council, and after a meeting with Golda Meir, he traveled to Moscow at her request to advocate for the cause of Soviet Jews. He also established a close friendship with Leibler. As trade union leader, Hawke lobbied the Soviets in the 1970s, and continued to do so as Australian prime minister from 1983-1991. The Australian government’s involvement in the push for freedom of emigration also contributed to Leibler’s global influence.

National Repatriation or Family Reunification? The Soviet Jewish Movement to Emigrate to Israel

In the late 1960s, the Soviet Jewish movement emerged demanding permission to migrate to Israel. This was facilitated by twin international covenants on human rights formulated by the United Nations in 1966, one dealing with civil and political rights and the other with economic, social, and cultural rights. The covenant dealing with civil and political rights had two clauses that were germane to the topic of migration. Article 12 (2) stated that “Everyone should be free to leave any country, including his own.” Article 12 (3) added a caveat, with conditions where governments could refuse to grant permission for emigration, one of these being “to protect national security.”

On December 3, 1966, Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet Union’s premier, was challenged at a press conference in Paris about the inability of Soviet citizens to leave the Soviet Union to join family members elsewhere. In response, he expressed his support for family reunification. A few days later his statement was published in Izvestia, opening the door to the possibility of Jewish emigration for family reunification in Israel. In March 1968, the Soviet Union signed the United Nations Covenant of Human Rights, which included a statement relating to the liberty of movement, as well as Article 12 (2). This commitment further increased the expectations of those Soviet Jews who wished to emigrate.

After the Six Day War in 1967, between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Soviet Union severed diplomatic ties with Israel and intensified its anti-Zionist and anti-Israel rhetoric. Discrimination also increased and, despite Kosygin’s 1966 statement, the Soviets virtually closed the gates on Jewish emigration. The Netherlands agreed to assume responsibility for processing the exit permits for those who were permitted to leave. In the period from 1967 to 1970 there were mounting protests from Soviet Jews who applied for emigration to Israel but were rejected. These began with acts of individual defiance: in 1967 Yasha Kazakov renounced his citizenship. He stated:

I am a Jew, I was born a Jew, and I want to live out my life as a Jew … I consider the State of Israel my fatherland, the fatherland of my people … and I, like any other Jew, have an indubitable right to live in that state.

Subsequently, groups of Jews from Georgia, Leningrad, and Moscow expressed similar demands for the right of free emigration to “the re-born State of our ancient people” for both “deeply national and spiritual” motives. Thus, the Soviet anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish campaign proved counterproductive because the anti-Israel propaganda inspired many Russian Jews, especially from the younger generation, to identify strongly with Israel, with a growing number wishing to migrate there.

In June 1970, the desperation of Soviet Jews facing refusal was highlighted by the attempts of a group of Leningrad Jews to hijack a plane and leave the Soviet Union. The early refusenik era had a “Zionist aura,” which later changed due to the preference of most Soviet émigrés “for relative affluence and stability in the West over the economic and security challenges faced by newcomers to Israel.”

Australian Diplomatic Reactions

In the early 1960s, the conservative Australian Liberal Party, in power since 1949, was concerned about Soviet Jewry. In November 1962, Australia was the first country to raise the issue concerning the lack of religious freedom to the United Nations, including a demand for what became a slogan for the movement: “to let them live as Jews or let them leave.” This was a result of Jewish advocacy emanating from the Melbourne Jewish community, led by the Melbourne lawyer Maurice Ashkanasy, whose young protégé was Zionist youth leader Isi Leibler. Leibler was a key activist for Soviet Jewry and would later play an important role on the international scene through the WJC.

The Australian embassy in Moscow followed the post-1967 developments closely, sending detailed reports to Canberra. Additionally, the embassy officials established a close relationship with the Dutch Embassy, which acted as the official Israeli representative and organized visas for Israel following the Soviets’ severing of diplomatic relations after the 1967 war. Australian diplomats from other embassies and key officials in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs also commented on the situation of Soviet Jewry. The various reports and government officials’ comments were often insightful. In October 1969, John Bowan, an Australian Moscow embassy official, attended the Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law) celebrations at the main Moscow synagogue. He stressed:

Among the excited crowd some groups danced horas, while others sang songs identified by other observers as Israeli … This tended to confirm the impression that such religious gatherings are seen by young Jews as occasions to demonstrate nationalist solidarity rather than religious fervor.

In 1970, another Australian government memo described the situation as follows:

The 1967 Six-Day War has no doubt complicated the position of Soviet Jews. Following the Arab defeat, Soviet information media launched a bitter anti-Zionist campaign which, if anything, has intensified in recent months. To the unsophisticated Soviet citizen the differences between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are unlikely to be obvious, and this campaign has probably done much to increase the pressure on that part of the Jewish population which feels strongly its cultural identity.

In addition, the Australian government officials believed that, as the major sponsor of the conflict between the Arab states in the Middle East and Israel, the Soviets were reluctant “to contribute to the Zionist cause by permitting upwards of a quarter of a million of its citizens to emigrate to Israel.” Soviet officials implemented many obstacles so that applying to emigrate from the Soviet Union was difficult. An Australian government memo noted: “The very act of application can immediately result in job and housing discrimination.” Applicants also jeopardized their children’s chances of learning and university entrance and risked being branded as traitors. Despite these difficulties, by 1970 it was estimated that at least 80,000 Soviet Jews (and possibly as many as 240,000) had applied to leave for Israel. The decision to leave largely resulted from a sense of alienation from the communist regime because of experiences of discrimination and antisemitism and the sense of insecurity, and emerged as part of a “complex web of motivations and decisions that brought Jewish families to make the complex and difficult decision to leave the Soviet Union.”

In the early 1970s, the number of emigration permits granted to Soviet Jews began to increase. The Australian ambassador at The Hague wrote: “It seems as though the USSR was making a determined effort to get rid of an important element of dissent in its ranks.” He noted that Arab countries had complained because they believed that this emigration added to Israel’s strength, but: “The USSR has blandly claimed in reply that the number of Jews being allowed to leave was, in fact, very small.” Writing from the Australian embassy in New York, David Sadlier summed up the reasons why he believed that the Soviets were allowing more Jews to emigrate as being “primarily due to the hard-headed tactics of Jews within the USSR as well as the concern expressed by foreign communist parties over the USSR’s treatment of its Jewish population.”

This migration was facilitated by financial support from the United States. The resettlement of the Russian Jewish emigrants to Israel was assisted by a grant of $25 million, approved by the American Congress in 1973 “because the movement of Soviet Jews from the Soviet Union is a matter of United States foreign policy.” According to Fred Lazin, between 1973 and 1977 the United States government spent a total of $156 million on programs to resettle Soviet Jews, with $122 million being spent on Soviet Jews migrating to Israel, $24 million for other countries, and $10 million for transportation. This allocation was due to the effective advocacy of the Soviet Jewish movement in the United Sates, but was also influenced by the Cold War tensions and considerations.

Seeking Economic Wellbeing: The Drop-Out Phenomenon

Jews leaving the Soviet Union first arrived in Vienna Südbahnhof, where they were met by representatives from the Jewish Agency. However, once in Vienna, Soviet Jewish refugees could decide to apply for another country with the United States, Canada, and Australia being the preferred destinations. Assisted by American Jewish welfare organizations, like the Hebrew Immigration Society (HIAS) and the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), they were then transferred to Rome, where the United States had its Immigration and Naturalization Service. The refugees were accommodated for a week in a pension, assisted by the JDC, while HIAS was responsible for helping with visa applications for the United States and other countries. They then moved to the Italian seaside towns of Ladispoli and Ostia, subsisting on a small, weekly allowance from the JDC. Visas to the United States took about three months to be processed and visas for Australia took seven months. Migration to Australia was based on family reunification, particularly with family members who had migrated to Australia in the immediate postwar period, with some Soviet Jews being admitted as refugees or under the special assistance program. The United States government classified all émigrés from communist countries as refugees, based on the 1962 United States Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, and provided them with transportation, free medical care on arrival, and other benefits.

Those who decided to go to Western countries were not the national idealists. Most Soviet Jewish intellectuals wanted to leave for freedom and economic opportunities. Many preferred the cosmopolitan lifestyle of New York, Toronto, or Melbourne to Israeli culture. This was because:

America was seen as a large country, a world power that successfully rivaled the USSR and offered great personal opportunities. Israel was seen by these persons as small, Levantine, and provincial, with its limited opportunities in science and the academe.

In addition, many already knew some English, while most had no knowledge of Hebrew, and there were also concerns about the security situation in Israel. For the American Jewish leadership, the preference for migrating to the United States rather than Israel was a question of democracy and free choice. Gaynor Jacobson, vice-president of HIAS, stressed that the Jewish organizations needed to see Soviet immigrants as human beings “with the freedom of choice as to which destination, lifestyle and means to achieve it … we must do whatever is possible to make this freedom of choice available to them.” Other Jewish Diaspora leaders supported this position.

In the eyes of the Israeli political establishment, those who chose to emigrate to Western, English-speaking countries over Israel were “drop-outs.” Discussion of the drop-out phenomenon first began in 1974, as the number of Soviet Jews choosing to migrate to the West began to increase partly because of security concerns following the 1973 war, but also because the United States changed its law, so that Soviet Jewish refugees could opt for the United States. By early March 1974, 10% of Soviet Jews were changing the destination of their journey in Vienna and seeking other destinations. Australian embassy officials in Moscow wrote presciently:

The Israelis, however, would do well to see in the figures … as a warning that, unless they can stabilize their own national security and reduce the threat of continual warfare, they could well lose a significant proportion of the potential immigrants from this country.

In 1975, when the percentage of drop-outs had increased to approximately 40%, it was estimated that 70% of this group applied to go to the United States, 20% to Canada, and 10% to Australia.

The Israelis explained that the reason for the increasing number of drop-outs was that until 1975 most Russian Jewish émigrés came from small towns and villages in Georgia, the Caucasus, and other non-Russian Soviet republics, where the Jews had retained a stronger Jewish identity. However, in 1975, more assimilated Jews from Moscow and Ukraine began to leave. They wanted to migrate to the West rather than Israel, where life was thought to be harder. As the number of migrants from urban centers increased, so did the numbers of drop-outs. In addition, Soviet Jews received negative reports from family and friends who had already migrated to Israel. Gal Beckerman notes that there were “horror stories of university professors cleaning toilets” and the Soviet leadership ensured that such stories received wide publicity.

While the Soviets had not used the drop-out phenomenon as an excuse to reduce Jewish emigration in 1975, Israeli leaders were concerned that they might do so in the future. In July 1976, Israel established a Committee of Eight, made up of four American and four Israeli representatives and initially co-chaired by Nehemiah Levanon and Ralph Goldman, JDC chief executive. It resolved to end financial support to drop-outs. The committee was soon expanded to ten with Max Fisher, a Detroit philanthropist and Zionist leader, chairing the committee. It supported the previous decision but HIAS and the Council of Jewish Federations refused to accept this recommendation. They argued that if they ceased to provide assistance, other groups, which were either not Jewish or ultra-Orthodox, would step into the breach.

In 1978, the Soviet Union permitted larger numbers of Jews to emigrate. The Australian embassy in Moscow believed that there were two main reasons for this decision: a political signal to the United States, during the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II) talks; and the fact that every time they refused someone a visa, they had “one more potential problem.” An even higher proportion of 50–60% of Soviet Jews at the time were deciding not to migrate to Israel. This increased tensions between the American and Israeli Jewish leaders, with the latter accusing the former of “hijacking” Soviet Jews in Vienna. Arab and Palestinian opposition to Soviet Jewish migration to Israel also played a role in Soviet policies. The Australian embassy claimed that in Odessa the Soviets were urging Jews to go the United States, possibly to avoid Arab protests. In May 1979, the Damascus Australian embassy sent a cable describing conversations with Dr. Mahmoud Khalifa, of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Damascus office, and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), a member of the Fatah Central Committee and the PLO Central Council. Both expressed concern about Soviet immigrants to Israel settling in the West Bank, especially in light of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt.

In 1979, the largest number of Soviet Jews were permitted to leave, with 51,320 being granted exit visas, and 1777 arriving in Australia in the financial year 1979/80. In 1979, more than 66% of Soviet Jewish émigrés decided to go to the West.

The bar graphs in Figure 1 demonstrate the increasing proportions of Soviet Jews choosing to live in Western, English-speaking countries, which offered better economic conditions and security, rather than Israel. In regard to Australia, close to 5000 Soviet Jews settled there in the period between 1973 and1981, according to Emmanuel Gruzman’s research of the files in the NAA. Gruzman gives the total number of Russian-speaking Jews migrating to Australia between 1973 and 1997 as 12,000, although some earlier estimates, based mostly on hearsay, put the number at a much higher level of between 20,000 and 30,000.

The 1980s Freeze and Neshira

In the 1980s, the position of Soviet Jewry greatly deteriorated. The refuseniks faced harassment and some were arrested and imprisoned, known as “Prisoners of Zion.” In January 1980, the Soviet government introduced new emigration regulations, demanding that all emigrants needed “first degree kinship” and a certificate from a member of their immediate family in Israel. This tightening of regulations made it almost impossible for Jews to obtain exit visas. Its effects were almost immediate. The new restrictions reduced the flow of emigrants by 60% in 1980. In subsequent years, the numbers declined even more dramatically, so that by 1982, less than 3000 Soviet Jews were permitted to emigrate.

The Australian embassy in Moscow outlined the reasons for this decline. One was the high drop-out rate of roughly 85%. Another factor was connected to the fluctuations in American–Soviet relations. The invasion of Afghanistan had eroded the USA–USSR détente, with tensions heightening after Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. The Australian embassy’s memo also suggested that the discouragement of emigration reflected a growing concern about labor shortages, and the need to improve the Soviet Union’s technological base. Given the high proportion of Jews in the sciences and engineering, it was suspected that this could be a factor.

In their own analysis, Jewish leaders also argued that a key factor was the drop-out phenomenon. In early 1980, a number of conferences were held to debate the issue, including in London with the International 35’s, the Soviet Jewish Conference in Israel, and the NCSJ national conference in Washington. In response to this concern, a HIAS–JDC–Jewish Agency agreement was formulated in October 1980, whereby HIAS and the JDC agreed to support Soviet Jews wishing to live in the Diaspora, only if they had first-degree relatives (parents or children) already living there. However, this agreement fell through.

At the Brussels Presidium of June 1981 the drop-out phenomenon was a major item on the agenda. Australian representative Isi Leibler was an outspoken critic of the phenomenon. He pointed out that it was a betrayal of the Soviet Jewish National Movement; that the drop-outs would assimilate in the West; and that the Soviet Jewish activists bitterly condemned the practice. For the first time, American Jewish leaders admitted that the drop-out phenomenon was a threat to Soviet Jewish emigration. The meeting passed a unanimous resolution calling for any measures necessary to neutralize the drop-out phenomenon “in order to avoid a tragic alternative outcome,” and a committee was formed to liaise with the Jewish Agency, JDC, and HIAS, with Leibler as a member.

The 1981 resolution did not find a satisfactory solution to the drop-out phenomenon and Leibler continued to argue against drop-outs:

So long as the Aliya Movement had its distinctive character it could be justified in Marxist/Leninist terms as a movement of national reunification. Thus, the advent of neshira created the major, if not the sole determining factor in the Soviet decision to halt emigration.

During the 1983 World Conference on Soviet Jewry in Jerusalem, a heated debate took place when Leibler presented his paper during the session discussing the drop-out phenomenon. He described the Israeli exit visa as “toilet paper” and stressed that Soviet Jewry was evolving from a national movement to an emigration movement, creating an impossible scenario for the Soviets. His strong statements created a commotion, with Leibler later writing that he nearly came to fisticuffs with Ed Shapiro, the president of World HIAS. In 1984, a further sub-committee was formed to focus on the problem of the drop-outs, with representatives from Israel, the United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Australia, its membership representing the global arena and concerns about the issue.

Debates on the drop-out phenomenon continued to dominate international Soviet Jewry meetings. The American Jewish leadership argued in support of freedom of choice, stressing that the United States should not restrict the direction of Jewish immigration. They believed that ransoming Jewish captives was an important Jewish value, and that Soviet Jews should be rescued and supported by Jewish philanthropy, regardless of where they settled. In addition, they believed that the American Jewish leadership’s failure to campaign more effectively for entry permits for Jewish refugees in the 1930s should not be repeated.

Those who opposed drop-outs supported Leibler’s arguments, which also reflected the position of the Israeli leadership. They believed that this was both a moral and philosophical issue. Arye Dulzin, chairman of the World Conference on Soviet Jewry, 1978–1988, claimed that:

Our aim was not to fight the Russian regime and the only way we could achieve this was by ensuring that Jews went to their national homeland and did not set the precedent for a general emigration movement which the Russians would never be able to tolerate.

Despite this, in the early 1980s Bert Levinson, NCSJ chairman, supported the concept of freedom of choice and opposed Dulzin’s position. Unlike the JDC leader, Goldman, Levinson supported the Union of Councils of Soviet Jewry, the grassroots movement led by Pamela Cohen, who strongly advocated for freedom of choice. Similarly, Walter Lippmann, a key Australian Jewish leader who served as president of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society, argued in favor of freedom of choice, stating that the reduction of the number of vysovs [invitation letter for family reunion in Israel] was due to the deterioration of East–West relations and not the high number of drop-outs. In his history of Soviet Jewry, Buwalda supported this argument, noting that the official Soviet policy never reduced the number of vysovs on the basis of the recipients’ decision not to go to Israel.

However, Leibler’s views influenced Morris Abram, who took over the NCSJ helm and soon became Leibler’s friend and confidant. Abram served as NCSJ chairman from 1983 to 1988, as well as chairing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations from 1986 to 1989. His support for the Israeli line, rather than the American approach, was important for the final resolution of the problem. He stated in 1989 that: “American Jewry would [not] have been the self-confident body that we are now had it not been for the fact that Israel existed as a unifying force and a strengthening force in our lives.” Thus, he was to bring a new vision and solution to the issue of Soviet Jewry.

Abram was a significant figure in both American political life and in American Jewish organizations. Born in a small town in Georgia, he became active in the civil rights movement and played a central role in a 14-year battle to break the electoral domination of the predominantly white, rural regions of Georgia that disadvantaged the urban areas, which had a higher proportion of blacks. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that this electoral distribution was unconstitutional, thereby adopting the policy of one man, one vote. This was described as “the most notable of Mr. Abram’s victories in the civil rights struggle.” Abram served under five American presidents on both sides of the political spectrum but, after Carter’s presidency, he moved into the Republican camp. While he supported the concept of affirmative action, in the 1980s he challenged the direction of the civil rights movement, becoming a controversial figure.

Abram’s involvement with Soviet Jewry began in 1963, when he was president of the American Jewish Committee and head of the American delegation to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. In April 1964, he chaired a meeting of 600 Jewish leaders representing 25 Jewish organizations, which voted for the formation of the American Conference on Soviet Jewry (which later became the NCSJ), marking a turning point in the Soviet Jewry campaign in the United States. In 1973, he was diagnosed with acute myelocytic leukemia, and was not given long to live. However, he fought his illness and eventually recovered, returning to Jewish communal leadership in the 1980s. In 1983, he was elected president of the NCSJ.

Leibler welcomed Abram’s assumption of the NCSJ leadership. In March 1983, just before his election, after a conversation with NCSJ’s executive director, Jerry Goodman, Leibler noted that Abram was “a smart operator.” After his election as NCSJ chairman, Abram stressed his belief in “the right of Jews to repatriate to Israel” and noted the importance of Soviet Jewish immigration for “the prosperity and vibrancy of the State of Israel.” Working closely with WJC President Edgar Bronfman, Abram’s reputation enabled him to win support for the Israeli position and to play a key role in the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

During his presidency of the NCSJ, Abram consulted with Leibler, with whom he developed a close relationship. In January 1984, Abram wrote to Leibler: “Getting to know you has been one of the pleasures of this new role for me. I just wish you weren’t so far away for I would enjoy seeing you as a steady diet.” The two agreed to share information on Soviet Jewry and they maintained a personal and confidential correspondence and worked closely together. At a 1986 meeting with President Ronald Reagan, before his meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, Leibler was one of seven Jewish leaders and the only non-American citizen present. Their correspondence provides insight into the issues and struggles of the 1980s, even though Leibler consistently stressed that: “it is via the United States and not the backwoods of Australia that the destiny of Soviet Jewry will be resolved.”

The Gorbachev Era

When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he promised greater freedom through glasnost and perestroika. However, the situation of Soviet Jews did not change at first, with 1986 being one of the worst years in terms of the number of Jews permitted to leave. Then, in 1987, the number of Jewish emigrants began to increase, with up to 90% of Soviet Jews choosing to drop out in Vienna and migrate to the West. The Soviets were not concerned about this phenomenon and in November 1987 a new decree was issued stating that Soviet citizens wishing to emigrate based on family reunification did not need a vysov from Israel.

One proposal to end the drop-out phenomenon was to establish direct flights to Israel, or flights via Bucharest or Budapest, rather than Vienna, making it less feasible for Soviet Jews to drop out. In March 1987, Bronfman and Abram flew to Moscow and met with Gorbachev and key members of the Soviet Politburo. They discussed increasing emigration figures, as well as the implementation of direct flights to Israel. Following this meeting, in the belief that an agreement had been reached on these issues, Leibler wrote to both Bronfman and Abram: “If the undertakings by the Soviets conveyed to yourself and Morris Abram are realized you have been immensely successful and will justly have earned an important place in the history of the Jewish people.”

At the Presidium of the World Conference, held in London in July 1987, both Avraham Harman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Abram stressed that the campaign for Soviet Jewry was not “an international rescue movement.” Further, while appreciating that Soviet Jews lose their refugee status immediately on landing in Tel Aviv, Abram defended the March agreement, insisting that “we are not acting here as travel agents, resettling people to improve their economic conditions.” He added that the Soviets made going to Israel conditional for exit and that this had always been the reason for the Soviets granting exit visas. Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils of Soviet Jewry strongly disagreed, maintaining her position on freedom of choice.

By 1988 it was clear that more Soviet Jews were being granted permission to leave, but were not choosing Israel. As the editor of the Australian Jewish News noted, “the majority of Soviet Jews will choose America, Canada and Australia rather than Israel—as has been the case over the last decade.” There were a number of reasons for this. First, those who migrated to Israel in the 1980s found that they faced a “rude awakening,” as they experienced difficulties in finding suitable accommodation and jobs in Israel. The country was suffering from a recession, with cuts in health, education, and defense. In addition, the First Palestinian Intifada, which began in 1987 and lasted until the early 1990s, affected tourism and the construction industry. Above all, the response of the Jewish Agency to the needs of the Soviet immigrants was totally inadequate. Veteran Soviet Jewry activist Emanuel Litvinoff wrote: “From the very beginning the Israeli absorption agencies have been inefficient, obtuse, and insensitive in confronting the problems faced by the newcomers.”

As the Soviet gates began to open, predictions were made that over one million Jews could leave the Soviet Union. However, Leibler feared that only 10% of them would choose to emigrate to Israel. While one million did leave, in the end most went to Israel, rather than to the United States. This was because of the change of policy of the Reagan/Bush administrations in 1988 and 1989.

In August 1988, the United States started to insist that the refugee regulations of 1980 be strictly enforced, and that each Soviet émigré be asked to clarify that they were leaving because of “immediate fear of persecution,” as required by the refugee regulations. At the same time, Robert Schifter, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, warned that due to budget cuts and the needs of other refugee groups from Asia, particularly Vietnam and Nicaragua, the American Jewish community would need to “pick up more of the tab” in regard to Soviet Jewry.

As vice-president, George W. Bush had been very supportive of the Soviet Jewry movement. Shortly after Gorbachev became secretary-general in 1985, Bush warned him that “this issue [human rights] is extremely important to the president and the American people.” At the Washington rally held on December 6, 1987, which attracted around a quarter of a million demonstrators, Bush gave a forceful speech exhorting Gorbachev to “let these people [the refuseniks] go.” However, once he became president in 1989, he maintained Reagan’s policy, introduced in late 1988, of not granting automatic refugee status to Soviet Jews. By March 1989, almost 40% of Soviet applications in Rome for visas to the United States were turned down, and the number of émigrés waiting for visas kept increasing under the Bush administration. Thus, when the United States faced budgetary problems due to the significant increase in the number of applications for emigration being approved by the Gorbachev regime, the Bush administration supported the introduction of a ceiling for Soviet Jews.

As a result, the debate over drop-outs intensified. At the end of 1988, Abram stepped down from his position as leader of the NCSJ, and was replaced by Shoshana (Charlotte) Cardin. In light of her strong involvement in the Zionist movement and her position as chair of the long-range planning committee of the Jewish Agency, her election was seen as a signal of “the growing concern over the looming émigré absorption crisis.” Abram continued to oppose the definition of Soviet Jews as refugees, a position supported by Cardin. In March 1989, Abram commented:

They are not refugees in my opinion. If you come out of a country and have access and automatic citizenship to a free country, you’re not a refugee. They came here because they are “refugees” and get the benefits of being refugees, payments of cash, money and medical services and other things.

Abram’s position and strong statement resonated with the Republican Party and the Bush administration, and the Israeli leadership concurred. At an international meeting held in Jerusalem in November 1988, the head of the Liaison Bureau stated:

We have the tragedy of the loss of Soviet Jewry to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Only in Israel is their Jewish identity guaranteed—apart from the contribution they can make to the development of this country as the homeland of Jews all over the world. Israel needs and welcomes them.

In a long speech at the same meeting, longtime activist for Soviet Jewry Yoram Dinstein referred to his “outrage … at the misuse of Israelis visas.” He described the concept of freedom of choice as “demagogic rhetoric,” which was “totally misleading when applied to emigration.”

The Zionist leadership in the United States also became stronger in its support of the Israeli position. For example, in January 1989, Aaron D. Rubinger published an op-ed arguing that Soviet Jews were not “stateless refugees.” While some American Jews compared the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s to the situation of the Soviet Jews stranded in Rome due to the more stringent application of the refugee law, many stressed that 1989 was not 1939. In April 1989, journalist Charles Hoffman, who reported extensively on the issue in the Jewish press, wrote a satirical article, playing on Passover as the festival of freedom, and the song sung at the Passover seder, “Dayenu” (It would have been enough). He ended with the question: “Why do you act as if 1989 is a replay of 1939, when there were real Jewish refugees wandering the world and there was no Jewish state?”

With the new American refugee policies and financial restrictions coming into force, Soviet Jews were faced with a much longer wait before being able to enter the United States. They could migrate under the “parole admission” system, but that would mean they would not receive the same financial benefits as they would as refugees, or regular immigrants, so most decided not to accept this option. In response to the reductions in the United States budget for Soviet Jewish migration, the Council of Jewish Federations decided to organize an emergency campaign through the United Jewish Appeal, which they named “Passage to Freedom,” to help settle Jews in the United States. This further strained relations with Israel, since two-thirds of the Jewish Agency’s budget came from fundraising by local American federations through the United Jewish Appeal. Simcha Dinitz, who had taken over from Dulzin as head of the Jewish Agency, strongly opposed any cuts in the Jewish Agency budget to assist more drop-outs. He described this as “adding insult to injury.”

In the end, an agreement was reached that the Jewish Agency would receive 50% of the funds raised during the appeal, but the appeal was not successful. An article in the Jewish press explained:

“What we are seeing now is a combination of subtle pressure from Israel, concern about the federal budget and a growing tendency in the Jewish community to ask some hard questions” said one Soviet Jewish activist: “If resettlement will take all this money, where would it be best spent? Here or in Israel? Right now, I think there’s a shift in the direction of Israel”.

Other activists refer to a “born-again Zionism” among Jewish organizations and community leaders. The question is whether the investment will “pay greater dividends in Israel, where it’s an investment in nation-building.”

By August 1989 the appeal had only raised half of the target of $75 million. This was because by then:

Many Jewish leaders had come to think that American Jewry should not compete with Israel on a matter so crucial to the survival of the Jewish homeland. To the Zionists among them, despite talk of their human rights to settle where they pleased, the move of Jews from one diaspora to another made no sense.

In contrast, “Operation Exodus” to raise money to help resettle Soviet Jews in Israel, which set a budget of raising $420 million over three years, was very successful, raising $500 million over two years. This was despite the pessimistic assessment in 1990 that this campaign would only raise a third of the $420 million target.

By mid-1989, Cardin started pushing for what was known as “the two-track approach,” where the United States would issue visas in Moscow and close the visa centers operating in Rome. Thus, Soviet Jews would have to decide whether they would apply for Israeli visas, still being processed by the Netherlands, or an American visa, to be processed by the United States embassy. Under Max Fisher’s leadership, a Nameless Committee was formed and met with Schifter, and Lawrence (Larry) Eagleburger of the State Department, and with Senator Frank Lautenberg. They agreed on an annual American quota of 40,000 Soviet Jews, mainly to allow Soviet Jews languishing in Ladispoli to migrate to the United States, with subsequent priority being given to family reunification. Of these, 32,000 were to be funded by the United States government and 8000 by the American Jewish welfare organizations. From October 1, 1989, all visa applications for the United States were to be made in Moscow, with the Americans closing the center in Rome. The Israeli and Zionist leadership welcomed this new policy. South African leader Mendel Kaplan, noted: “in one decisive step Max Fisher has changed the course of Jewish history.” This new policy was announced at Congressional hearings in September 1989. Thus, the Jewish community leadership was willing to compromise and the United States implemented this policy with some flexibility. The administration delayed implementation of the new policy by one month from October 1, 1989 to November 1, 1989 and Bush allowed some 59,000 Soviet Jews to enter the United Sates, including most of those in the Ladispoli camp.

Some historians have argued that it was the financial pressures that decided the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration, paving the way for “an Israeli victory in securing substantial aliyah and ending the problem of the drop-outs by the end of the year 1989.” Another factor was the reversal in the position of the American Jewish leadership, reflecting the views of other Jewish Diaspora leaders in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the European continent. Key figures, including the leadership of the NCSJ under Abram and Cardin, recognized that Israel needed the Soviet Jewish migration and their settlement in Israel “provided a better opportunity for their remaining Jewish and part of the Jewish people.” While Pamela Cohen and other members of the grassroots Union of Councils continued to oppose the agreement, Jewish leaders of HIAS and the Council of Jewish Federations recognized that they were no longer able to maintain a policy supporting freedom of choice, for economic, political, and ideological reasons. Carmi Schwartz explained: “‘freedom of choice’ was dropped from our vocabulary and ‘destination Israel’ was re-inserted.” As a result, of the over one million Jews from the former Soviet Union who migrated in the 1990s, most went to Israel.


This article has investigated the conflicts over the drop-out phenomenon, with Israel taking a strong stance that Soviet Jews should go to Israel, while the American Jewish leadership promoted the concept of freedom of choice. However, influenced by Abram and later Cardin, the American Jewish leadership reversed its position in the mid-1980s, stressing that, given Israel’s existence, Soviet Jews could not be considered as refugees. Jonathan Dekel-Chen has argued that:

If Israel remained consistent after 1948 in its call to absorb Jews from many lands (even expanding the criteria for potential citizenship in 1970), the United States reversed years of policy in 1989 and ceased to categorize Soviet Jews as political refugees, thereafter including them in general immigration quotas.

This reversal was due to an ideological change in the attitudes of the American Jewish leadership towards a more Zionist, pro-Israel orientation.

This article has sought to place this debate over repatriation or immigration, as well as the American reversal of policy, within a broader transnational framework, demonstrating how international connections can influence American policy—in this case, as a result of the close collaboration between Abram, Leibler, and Bronfman. It also illustrates the importance of cooperation between American and non-American Jews in international Jewish politics. Within this picture, the role of state actors, from governments to departments of immigration, and NGOs, such as the NCSJ, the JDC, and HIAS, as well as international organizations, such as the WJC, where Leibler was a key player, needs to be understood. As such, it reinforces the thesis stressing the role played by NGOs and international organizations within the global arena. As well, the story of the drop-out phenomenon illustrates the diversity of the Jewish experience and the fact that Israel was not seen as the center of Jewish life for many Soviet and American Jews.

As Buwalda has written, Israel provided:

the chance to live in their own country and help to build up their own country … But it did not match the United States in an economic sense. For those who did not feel that religious or Zionist convictions obliged them to go to Israel, the choice of the United States offered better economic prospects and a generous support program.

Once this economic support ended, with the changed American migration policy beginning in late 1988, the Soviet Jews were faced with the alternatives of remaining in the Soviet Union or migrating to Israel. In the period from 1989 to 1997, over a million Soviet Jews chose the latter alternative, a choice which had been strongly advocated by Abram, Cardin, and Leibler.